As a lifelong New Yorker, Sasha Blair-Goldensohn had always been a proud subway rider. But when he got seriously injured and started using a wheelchair about a decade ago, he felt resigned to never take the train again. He was grateful that all of the city’s buses are wheelchair-accessible and he found he could fit his manual wheelchair in the trunk of a regular taxi, if the driver was willing to lift him out. It wasn’t until he got stuck in the snow one day, unable to hail a cab, that he decided to venture underground again.

Since then, he’s been determined to exercise his right to use the subway despite the fact that only about a quarter of the stations are wheelchair-accessible and poor elevator maintenance routinely leaves people stranded.

“New York City is not a surface transit town,” says Blair-Goldensohn, a software engineer at Google who co-founded the Rise and Resist Elevator Action Group. “It’s hard to take the bus even from the Upper West Side to Chelsea to go to work, let alone to other boroughs. If you’re going to be part of civic and cultural and economic life in the city, you take the subway.”

Blair-Goldensohn is a named plaintiff in two pending class-action lawsuits that accuse New York City and the MTA of violating the city’s human rights law and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act by not making the subway accessible.

After years of pressure to improve accessibility, advocates in New York City are finally seeing some progress. The MTA has committed to put $5.2 billion towards installing elevators in 70 stations over the next five years and hired its first accessibility chief, Alex Elegudin, who has started looking into the needs of people with disabilities such as hearing and visual impairment as well. In a nod to innovation, Elegudin helped implement the Accessible Station Lab, a pilot at Jay Street-MetroTech that allowed riders to test out and provide feedback on some accessible features other cities have that New York may add in the future.

But the MTA’s approach to accessibility has so far been “very much what I would call box-checking accessibility, as opposed to, is it actually working and are people actually able to use it?” says Blair-Goldensohn.

With the MTA starting to make strides towards making New York City transit more accessible and facing the possibility of being forced to do so (depending on the outcome of the lawsuits) it’s useful to take a look at what accessible transit looks like in other cities (keeping in mind that nowhere is perfect).

Jonathan Annicks maneuvers his wheelchair onto the Chicago Transit Authority's Pink train line in 2016. He was paralyzed by a gunshot wound earlier that year.

Jonathan Annicks maneuvers his wheelchair onto the Chicago Transit Authority's Pink train line in 2016. He was paralyzed by a gunshot wound earlier that year.

Jonathan Annicks maneuvers his wheelchair onto the Chicago Transit Authority's Pink train line in 2016. He was paralyzed by a gunshot wound earlier that year.

Step-free access at every station.

This is perhaps the most basic (albeit potentially costly) feature of an accessible transit system, but to a New Yorker, it might sound like science fiction. Rest assured, it is not: There are some cities where every single subway (or metro, BART, etc.) station has step-free access of some kind. Many more cities come pretty close.

It takes more than elevators and ramps to make a station accessible to those who can’t navigate steps. This concept is clearly embraced in the wealthy city-state of Singapore, where all 119 stations of the Mass Rapid Transit system have at least one barrier-free route onto the train.

That means wider gates—not turnstiles—when paying the fare, no gap between the platform and the train, two well-marked cars per train that can accommodate wheelchairs, and tactile paths leading up to elevators and throughout the station for the visually impaired, in addition to a host of other features to accommodate people with disabilities.

“When it comes to physical accessibility, Singapore is one of the better cities around,” confirms Sumita Kunashakaran, advocacy lead at a Singapore nonprofit called the Disabled People’s Association. She attributes that to decades of advocacy as well as Singapore’s hyper-awareness of its aging population.

“It’s pushed the government to make sure a lot of neighborhoods are fairly accessible,” Kunashakaran said. “They’re also pushing for young parents to have larger families and making things accessible helps parents who need to use prams as well.”

Soon, the MRT will pilot priority train cars that are specifically designated for seniors, families with children, and people with disabilities.

While Singapore’s government has prioritized accessibility, Kunashakaran notes that advocates don’t have the option of invoking a law like the ADA in order to hold them accountable and force change if needed because one doesn’t exist.

Closer to home, advocates often point D.C., the city where the ADA was passed, as the standard-bearer for step-free subway access.

“Of course Washington, D.C. I hold up as one of the premiere destinations in the country because the Metro system is fully accessible at every station and people don’t have to make compromises as a result,” says John Morris, who founded the website and does consulting on accessible development and tourism.

Perhaps the most important rail systems for New York to look to, though, are not the newer ones (the D.C. Metro began operating in 1976 and Singapore’s MRT opened in 1987) that have already achieved 100-percent stair-free access, but rather the legacy systems that have made a commitment to catch up.

Construction on Chicago’s L trains began in the late 1800s, and when the ADA passed in 1990, about 6 percent of the rail stations were in compliance. Today, more than 70 percent of the system’s 145 stations have step-free access and the Chicago Transit Authority created a plan in 2018 to reach 100 percent in 20 years.

“Chicago has been able to marshal political support for 100 percent accessibility by putting out the ASAP [All Stations Accessibility Program] Strategic Plan, which is a very detailed roadmap to become an accessible system,” says Colin Wright, senior advocacy associate at TransitCenter, an organization that does research on transit across the country and has campaigned to improve accessibility in the MTA. “The plan includes things like what the priority stations are, why some stations have been chosen first over others, the funding stream, the specific challenges of station construction with detailed schematics.”

In Boston, it took a class-action lawsuit—much like the ones pending in New York—to get the city to prioritize making its system widely accessible. According to Wright, Boston now stands out for its “preventive-style maintenance program” for elevators, which keeps them in working condition 99.5 percent of the time and ensures that people in wheelchairs can rely on the transit system without fear of getting stranded.

Integrating technology with infrastructure.

Accessible design for someone who is visually impaired can be as low-tech as putting braille signs on railings and walls and installing tactile pathways with raised bumps and bars to assist with navigation. Increasingly, though, people who can’t see (along with much of the rest of the population) use apps on their phones to help them get around.

With this in mind, some cities are now working to link navigational apps to their unique transit infrastructure. Commuters in Barcelona, for instance, are now greeted with giant, colorful QR codes posted at bus and Metro stops, which are part of a system called NaviLens. If a rider downloads the NaviLens app, their phone will start to click when approaching a QR code, which they can then scan in order to get information about their surroundings and audio assistance to navigate where to go next. While QR codes aren’t new, these particular squares are designed to be read from far away at a variety of angles.

“It’s a technology that’s very easy to install, very easy to scale and for the user it is completely free,” says Nuria Fructuoso Ruiz, the marketing manager at NEOSISTEC, the company that developed NaviLens with the Mobile Vision Research Lab at the University of Alicante.

NaviLens has also been adopted in the Spanish cities of Madrid and Murcia and is being tested by other cities around the world, including New York. It was included in the Accessible Station Lab, along with NaviLens Go, which has features that can benefit people who are sighted as well. For this kind of technology to be useful, though, it would have to be ubiquitous and paired with widespread public education, says Wright of the TransitCenter.

“A lot of riders with visual impairments don’t know there’s a QR code on the wall, and that’s if you even have a cell phone and know how to use a QR code,” Wright says. “If New York City is consistent in these programs folks will know they’re there and be able to use them but if these things come and go, the effectiveness is much more limited.”

This technology could become standard in the future, though. A nonprofit called Wayfindr has created an open standard to allow for its audio-navigation technology to be adapted to different environments.The group has so far run a pilot in London’s public transport system as well as in other cities around the world.

A view of Singapore's MRT, which utilizes gates, not turnstiles.

Singapore's MRT, which utilizes gates, not turnstiles.

Singapore's MRT, which utilizes gates, not turnstiles.
Air Elegant / Shutterstock

Usability over “box-checking.”

This is a concept that is inherent in the principles of universal design, the theory that spaces should be built with everyone’s needs in mind at the outset, rather than tacking on fixes as an afterthought. That said, there are many ways in which cities prioritize usability in their public transport, even when their design is far from perfect.

For example, Morris notes in his review of Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway system that where elevators were not available, he sometimes was able to use a stair lift instead. And while some train doors did open several inches away from the platform edge, staff were always available to provide ramps, calling ahead to the stop he was getting off at to have someone meet him with a ramp there as well. “The process is flawless — in my many visits to Hong Kong and countless MTR rides, I have never been abandoned,” he wrote.

In Washington, D.C., wheelchair-users can request a shuttle to get to their destination at no extra cost if they can’t get down to the Metro because an elevator is broken. This level of reliability “means everything,” said Peggy Ingles, a quadripilegic Baltimore resident who frequently travels to the capitol.

“Parking in D.C. and sometimes driving in D.C. is really difficult,” she added. “I could not go there as often as I do without this system being so great.”

Blair-Goldensohn surprisingly said he found London’s Underground to be more wheelchair-friendly than New York’s subway, despite also lacking step-free access to many of its stations. For instance, he said, stations with elevators have lots of signage to find them and announcements about elevator outages are made on the train, letting riders know what the next accessible stop will be.

“It’s what I call owning it,” he says. “Recognizing that it’s not a perfect system and we’re doing the best we can to help people get around.”