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.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.