KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
A lot of people would say there's no reason to have a car in New York City. The subway makes it easier to get around. But only a quarter of the city's subway stations are wheelchair accessible, and lots of times, elevators are broken. WNYC's Beenish Ahmed followed one wheelchair user navigating the system.
BEENISH AHMED, BYLINE: Angel Martinez glides through the streets of Harlem on his way to wheelchair-basketball practice. The closest subway station is only a couple blocks away, but Martinez has to wheel a full mile to get to one that's wheelchair accessible. He rolls up to the elevator to find it wrapped in yellow caution tape. Two men in orange vests and hard hats are inside.
ANGEL MARTINEZ: Not right now, ugh. This is not cool.
AHMED: The elevator was in service when Martinez left. He checked online.
MARTINEZ: This is what happens, you know? Like, they say it's good, and by the time you get there - look, in 15 minutes, anything could happen.
AHMED: Martinez is afraid that an elevator will break down while he's on the train and he'll have to ask other riders or call the police to carry him up the stairs. That fear keeps many wheelchair users away. A fall from a roof left Martinez paralyzed six years ago, and he only started to ride the subway again this summer. So far, Martinez hasn't gotten stuck. And luckily, the elevator was a quick fix.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, go ahead, go ahead, go ahead, go ahead, go ahead.
AHMED: New York's subway system has the lowest rate of wheelchair accessibility of any major American transit system, according to the Federal Transit Administration. That's despite years of lawsuits demanding compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act. The Metropolitan Transit Authority, or MTA, seems to have overlooked the law yet again with a new slate of high-end renovations.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLANGING)
AHMED: That's the sound of construction workers putting up fences around two subway stations in Queens. They'll have new signs, artwork and security cameras when they reopen after eight months - all a part of a billion-dollar project to modernize more than 30 stations. Joe Lhota heads the MTA. After recent board meeting, I asked if he'd given any thought to adding elevators during those renovations.
JOE LHOTA: That's a really good question and a note that I made to myself during the meeting to look at all of them.
AHMED: Lhota said there is a different MTA program to make 100 key stations wheelchair accessible by 2020.
LHOTA: We have a whole separate program going on to enhance the number of stations that are available to people who are disabled.
AHMED: But the ADA requires that subway stations be made accessible whenever they have major renovations. The MTA installed an elevator to one station in upper Manhattan after advocates won a settlement under the ADA. Those a hundred key stations that are now being made accessible - they are also the result of a lawsuit. Chris Pangilinan is a plaintiff in yet another suit filed against the MTA in April.
CHRIS PANGILINAN: Which is amazing in 2017, that it takes protests, and public comment and a lawsuit in order to get them to do what's standard practice around the country.
AHMED: Last month, Lhota promised to conduct a study of the whole subway system to figure out where elevators can be installed. Angel Martinez made it to basketball practice on time. So did the rest of his team. But he's the only one of his 10 teammates who took the subway to get there. For NPR News, I'm Beenish Ahmed in New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOAN JEANRENAUD'S "DERVISH")
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