The New York subway system is dangerously inaccessible

Chambers Street subway station. Image: Getty.

On 28 January, Malaysia Goodson, a 22-year-old daycare worker from Stamford Connecticut, was carrying her one-year-old daughter in a pushchair down the stairs of a New York City subway station when she fell. She was found unconscious at the bottom of the stairs and rushed to hospital, where she died. Her daughter was not seriously hurt.

Her story has haunted me. Having spent many months carrying my daughter, who is almost two, up and down steep subway stairs this tragedy felt grimly inevitable. On Facebook groups for New York mums the story was shared and commented on dozens of times, with many women expressing a similar sentiment: it could have happened to any of us.

Recent news reports suggest that Goodson may have died as a result of an underlying medical condition, rather than because of her fall, but her story has resonated because it highlights how inaccessible New York’s subway is for people who use a wheelchair or have limited mobility, or for parents with young children.

Less than a quarter of the city’s subway stations have an elevator, and the elevators that have been installed are so old and poorly maintained that they often breakdown. According to one study, the average subway elevator breaks down 53 times a year.

I have lost count of the number of times I have carefully plotted my subway route to use stations with elevators, only to find it is not working and I have no choice but to carry a heavy bag, a baby and a pushchair up several flights of stairs.


I have not lost count of the number of times someone has helped me with the buggy (twice) or the number of times a commuter brushed past me so violently that they almost knocked me down the stairs (once, and she didn’t even look back as I tumbled down a step before managing to brace myself).

That said, the problem isn’t really a matter of public politeness or etiquette. Help would be nice, but all New Yorkers deserve to be able to navigate their city’s public transport without having to rely on the kindness of strangers.

I am aware that I am comparatively fortunate: I can carry my daughter if a sling if I need to, I am able to lug a pushchair up three flights of stairs, I can walk thirty blocks, I can afford a taxi, I live in Manhattan and not in an outer borough where the distances between stations are much bigger. Many New Yorkers experience of navigating their city is very different. Here’s a good visualisation of what the New York city subway map looks like for people who require elevators.

In May 2018, the president of New York City subway, Andy Byford, launched a plan to modernise the subway known as Fast Forward, which included a proposal to make over 50 more subway stations accessible in the next five years so that all subway riders are no further than two stops from an accessible station. It would also make improvements to other services, such as Access-a-Ride, which provides transportation for people with disabilities. (Here’s more detail on how poorly that is functioning.)

Byford’s proposal (which includes other modernisation work) could cost $40bn over ten years, and has not been funded. At present, the NYC subway is in a funding “death spiral”, with its deficits expected to reach $1bn by 2020 and disgruntlement rising over patchy service and regular delays. And yet, accessibility shouldn’t be seen as a luxury, something to be funded if there is money to spare. A vital part of proposal for public transport is that it should be accessible to all members of the public.

The Metropolitan Transport Authority, which runs the subways, may yet find it is forced to divert funds to improving public accessibility. In 2017, a group of disability organisations sued the MTA for discriminating against people with disabilities, arguing that New York City’s public transport is one of the least accessible in the country. The suit is seeking better procedures to deal with elevator maintenance and a long-term plan to improve accessibility. Here’s to hoping that it’s a decision in the courts, and not another tragedy, that finally pushes the MTA into action.

Sophie McBain is a US correspondent for the New Statesman, where this article first appeared.

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.