Op-Ed: Union Square’s Subway Stations Must Be Accessible for All New Yorkers

L Train USQ Pic 3.jpg

A version of this Op-Ed was featured in Crain's on February 2, 2018. 

Jennifer E. Falk is Executive Director of the Union Square Partnership, the Business Improvement District that works to ensure Union Square and 14th Street’s continued growth and success; Chris Pangilinan is a Program Director at the TransitCenter, a foundation dedicated to urban mobility; Kate Slevin is Vice President of State Programs and Advocacy at the Regional Plan Association, which improves the New York metropolitan region’s economic health, environmental sustainability and quality of life through research, planning and advocacy. 

Last year, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) announced that the L train would be shut down for 15 months beginning in April 2019 in order to repair damage sustained during Superstorm Sandy. While there is a pressing need to make all of our city’s 472 subway stations accessible to all New Yorkers, next year’s shutdown is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to modernize some of the most heavily used subway stations and bring them into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), the 1990 federal law that prohibits discrimination based on physical disability.

This unprecedented chance to improve accessibility is one the MTA must not ignore.

An estimated 500,000 individuals in New York City have an ambulatory disability and use elevators to reach subway platforms. Moreover, station elevators are an invaluable asset to hundreds of thousands of additional New Yorkers and visitors – the elderly, parents with strollers, and residents carrying heavy packages. In fact, New York City’s subway lags far behind other transit systems in terms of accessibility, despite handling more riders than the next ten cities combined. 

The MTA’s shutdown proposal outlines enhancements to be made at the four stations located in the Union Square Partnership’s district, which covers Union Square and 14th Street between 1st and 6th Avenues. 1st Avenue and 3rd Avenue stations will be closed for the duration of the 15-month shutdown, while portions of Union Square and 6th Avenue stations will also be under construction to implement planned station improvements. However, only one station – 1st Avenue – is slated to become ADA accessible.

Photo by Regional Plan Association

Photo by Regional Plan Association

Now is the time to ensure that all stations in the 14th Street-Union Square community are fully accessible for all New Yorkers. With the L line and several stations closed long-term, work can proceed more quickly and with less disruption to customers. When can anyone recall a time when this many stations were closed at once and for this long? This moment is unprecedented and we implore the MTA to seize it. 

Today nearly 60 million riders pass through the four stations in our community. While these stations are critical transit hubs and transfer points, ADA accessibility is mostly non-existent.  Even Union Square, which has elevators to the N/R/W/Q and L platforms, lacks them on the 4/5/6 side of the station. 

Riders on 4, 5, and 6 lines — among the city’s busiest — who require an elevator must wait until Grand Central or Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall for the nearest ADA accessible station. But the MTA plan would reopen L line with this situation firmly entrenched, and the 3rd Avenue and 6th Avenue stations still wholly inaccessible for disabled persons. This is unacceptable in 2018 and we can do better.

The MTA recently closed several other stations for repairs; however, accessibility improvements did not make the cut. Bay Ridge Avenue Station in Brooklyn reopened in October following a six-month, multimillion dollar closure and remains inaccessible, and two stations in Queens currently closed for renovations - 30th Avenue and 36th Avenue – will suffer the same fate. 

This city-wide status quo cannot continue. Addressing the accessibility gap at 6th Avenue and 3rd Avenue stations during the closure must be a priority given their growing importance in our city’s transit network. After Union Square station, 6th Avenue is the second most frequented station in our neighborhood with over 16 million riders annually, and it will be an important transfer point for riders originating in Brooklyn during the L train shutdown. Ridership at 3rd Avenue is rapidly growing, up 20% between 2011 and 2016. 

NYC Transit's new president, Andy Byford, made accessibility a priority when he ran Toronto’s transit system. It aims to become 100 percent wheelchair-accessible by 2025. Byford and the MTA must similarly make accessibility a priority in New York City and leverage this unique moment of disruption to advance long lasting changes to the oldest and best subway system in the country. The MTA must not squander this chance to show New Yorkers what a modern subway system looks like.