MTA App Contest Winner a Reminder That the Subway Is Pretty Tough on the Disabled

An app designed to help people using wheelchairs navigate the subway reminds us of an old problem.
An app designed to help people using wheelchairs navigate the subway reminds us of an old problem.
Credit: Andrew Glass

In November last year, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced its App Quest 3.0 contest, challenging developers to make use of the agency's copious data stream to create tools that would help make commuting just a bit easier.

Among the categories for submission was "accessibility," a nod to the disabled community, for whom traveling in the subways is a lot more difficult than some might expect. Historically, the MTA has struggled to bring the system to a place where it can be easily and consistently navigated by disabled New Yorkers, especially by those who use wheelchairs. Currently only 85 of the system's 468 stations — about 18 percent — are fully accessible. It's a problem that has existed for years, and the MTA has been working on upgrades, pledging to have 100 fully accessible stations by 2020. But progress has been both slow and expensive.

One of the winning entries selected by MTA in its App 3.0 contest was NYC Accessible, a program aimed directly at the particular challenges faced by commuters who use wheelchairs. Andy Glass, the app's co-creator, said working on the project had given him a new perspective on what a lot of us gripe about on a daily basis.

"Where I am in Greenpoint," Glass says, "we complain about delays, and the G not running, and it's been really interesting to put myself in the position of other people."

Glass worked with Jason Schwab, a therapeutic recreational therapist, to figure out what would help address the needs of disabled riders. Schwab had heard plenty from his clients about navigating the subway. Aside from having few accessible stations to begin with, critical infrastructure sometimes breaks down. He learned quickly that a relatively minor thing — like a busted elevator — can completely alter a wheelchair user's plans. "All of a sudden, out of nowhere, that elevator doesn't exist?" Schwab says. "It can ruin a day."

The issue isn't just heading off to the next station. Because accessible transit points are so few and far between, it can be a considerable hassle — traveling four or five stations out of the way — to redirect a route.

The app Glass and Schwab created uses the MTA's constantly updated data stream to automatically notify users when an important piece of equipment — like an elevator or an escalator — is taken offline for repairs and maintenance. The notifications allow travelers to adjust their route before they get into a bind, like one user who was underground when an elevator crapped out.

In an email, MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said the agency is focusing on upgrading what he called "key" stations, those with either very high ridership or that act as central transfer hubs. The agency has committed $561 million for accessibility upgrades in its next capital plan, and has completed $21 million in upgrades at non-key stations, too.

The upgrades have been helped along by lawsuits as well, notably litigation filed by the nonprofit Disability Rights Advocates. In 2011, the group sued the MTA over upgrades at the Dyckman Street 1 station, which was being renovated but was not slated to have an elevator installed. The Americans With Disabilities Act requires public agencies to incorporate access upgrades when there's new construction or significant overhauls to existing infrastructure, and the lawsuit successfully forced MTA to revise its plans. Rebecca Rodgers, a fellowship attorney with DRA, said it would be "wonderful" if all stations were accessible but realizes that will likely not be happening any time soon.

Part of the problem is the antiquated system is not easy to retrofit. Most of the stations in the current subway system were built prior to the 1940s, and as Ortiz says, it's "simply impossible or cost prohibitive" to make the needed alterations.

The app is still in approval stages for the iTunes Store, and an Android version is in development. But to take a look at what it can do, check out their website. You can see a list of the other winners here.


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