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31 January 2019

How a mother’s death highlighted the dangerous inaccessibility of New York subways

Fewer than a quarter of subway stations are served by an elevator, making the city one of the least accessible in the country.

By Sophie McBain

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 was pronounced dead. 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 the lift is not working and I have no choice but to carry a heavy bag, a baby and a pushchair up several flights of stairs.

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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).

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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 in 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 the 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 never 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 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 any 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.