New York has lagged for years behind other major American cities in making its subway system accessible to people with disabilities: Just 126 of its 472 stations, or 27 percent, have elevators or ramps that make them fully accessible.
But on Wednesday, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said it would add elevators and ramps to 95 percent of the subway’s stations by 2055 as part of a settlement agreement in two class-action lawsuits over the issue.
The agreement, which still requires court approval, would establish a clear — and lengthy — timeline to address a problem that has effectively barred people who use wheelchairs and mobility devices from fully accessing the city’s transit system, a backbone of New York’s social and economic life .
Under the settlement, the transportation authority will make an additional 81 subway and Staten Island Railway stations accessible by 2025. It will then make another 85 stations accessible by 2035, 90 more by 2045 and then 90 more by 2055.
The subway stations slated for changes include nine that are currently partially accessible, in which passengers who cannot use stairs have access only to trains traveling in one direction.
“We don’t have equity, we don’t have equality, if people are left out of their ability to use a mass transit system that for so many people — more than half of New Yorkers — is the only way to get around, Janno Lieber, the authority’s chairman, said.
Both Mr. Lieber and disability groups acknowledged that the agreed-upon timeline was slow. Transit officials have said engineering concerns, construction time and costs all necessitate a long-term plan.
And even when the work is completed — more than six decades after the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which barred discrimination against people with disabilities in public facilities — the subway is still not set to be 100 percent accessible.
“We would like sooner,” said Jean Ryan, the president of Disabled in Action, a nonprofit organization that is a plaintiff in the lawsuits. “But they say they can’t do it sooner. And you don’t make somebody promise to do something that they can’t do.”
The changes will benefit a wide range of riders who struggle to use narrow fare gates or climb subway stairs, including parents toting children in strollers, shoppers carrying large items home and airport travelers with luggage.
But the settlement’s most transformative effects will be felt by people with disabilities who have long been excluded from broad swaths of New York’s subway system and, by extension, parts of the city it serves.
Samuel Jimenez, 65, who uses a cane, said he hoped to see significant improvements in the system. The Montrose Avenue station in Brooklyn where he typically boards does not have an elevator, making travel difficult.
“I have to go down steps at my station, which takes me an hour and a day,” Mr. Jimenez, who was traveling to a dialysis appointment, said at the Union Square station on Wednesday. “I would say that it slows me down quite a bit. I miss a lot of trains because of that.”
Many individual subway lines have significant stretches that are off limits to wheelchair users, including areas outside Manhattan where the gap between accessible elevators is more than 10 stops. They include large stretches of the G and J lines, part of the F line and much of the portion of the 6 line that runs through the Bronx.
Ms. Ryan, who rode the subway for 25 years before she began using a motorized wheelchair, said those gaps force many people with disabilities to use modes of transportation that are less convenient and reliable, and sometimes more costly, than the subway.
“It goes 24 hours, and it’s spontaneous,” she said. “You can change your plans. You can do anything with the subway.”
Disability rights activists have for years tried to push transit officials to improve access, with a particular focus on the lack of elevator service. In 2017, a group of organizations and disabled residents filed a lawsuit in state court that said the transit system’s lack of elevators was a violation of the city’s human rights law.
Two years later, another set of plaintiffs filed a federal lawsuit accusing the transit agency of violating the Americans With Disabilities Act when officials renovated subway stations without installing elevators, ramps or similar accommodations.
When the act was passed in 1990, it required any public facilities built after 1993 to be accessible. Though most of the subway system is significantly older than that, the transit agency in 1994 reached an agreement with the federal government to make 100 “key stations” accessible by 2020, a goal it met.
Transit systems newer than New York’s, including those in San Francisco and Washington, are completely accessible. And other aging subway systems have significantly higher rates of accessibility than New York’s. More than two-thirds of stations in Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago meet the Americans With Disabilities Act’s standards.
New York transit officials had been criticized for the slow pace of improvements, which disabled riders said was insufficient given the breadth and scope of the subway system. It operates around the clock and has the highest number of stations of any city in the world.
“They have been fighting us for over five years on these lawsuits,” Ms. Ryan said.
At the end of 2019, as the lawsuits were being debated in court, officials approved a $5.2 billion plan to add elevators to 70 stations by 2024, a speed at which the agency had “never” operated before, Mr. Lieber said.
The settlement agreement would advance that commitment. The transit authority would be required to devote about 15 percent of the subway’s capital budget — which is used for construction, upgrades and maintenance projects — to specific efforts to improve accessibility.
“It’s going to take billions of dollars, it’s going to take a lot of sweat and muscle, but we will get it done,” Mr. Lieber said.
The settlement will represent a significant financial outlay for a transit authority that has faced increased fiscal pressure as a result of the pandemic. The transit system has long struggled to keep capital spending down, paying some of the highest construction costs in the world for projects.
Transit officials already have a long list of expensive projects and system upgrades in their capital plan. A congestion pricing plan that was expected to bring hundreds of millions of dollars for those improvements has been delayed, with Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mr. Lieber blaming officials in Washington for an extensive federal review process.
Even with the financial investment it calls for, the settlement will not bring the subway system to full accessibility. Mr. Lieber said that the remaining 5 percent of stations not covered by the agreement have difficult engineering issues, including concerns over stability or additional weight, that would make adding elevators or ramps unfeasible.
The agreement will also not address the condition of existing elevators, the focus of another lawsuit. Passengers who rely on the elevators say that they are poorly maintained and that even those that are operating properly are overly crowded, unclean and plagued by foul smells.
Milagros Ortiz, 69, who has a heart condition and uses a walker, said on Wednesday morning that the elevators at Union Square were frequently out of service, limiting her travel.
And even when they were functioning, she said, seemingly simple trips could be an ordeal.
To travel from her home in Alphabet City to a Target in Downtown Brooklyn on Wednesday, she took a bus to Union Square, then two elevators down to the subway platform.
Upon arriving at the Atlantic Avenue station, she then needed to take three elevators to get up to street level, with lengthy walks between them.
But still, she said, it was better than the alternative.
“I can’t do the stairs,” she said. “If you see the stairs, it’s like you’ll never get to heaven.”
Olivia Bensimon contributed reporting.