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 — albeit long-term — 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 agreement, the transportation authority will make an additional 81 subway and Staten Island Railway stations accessible by 2025. It will make another 85 stations accessible by 2035, 90 more by 2045 and then 90 more by 2055.
Transit officials will also be required to address nine subway stations that are 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.
The changes required by the settlement will benefit a wide band of the populace 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.
In a statement, Joe Rappaport, the executive director of the Brooklyn Center for Independence, a plaintiff in the lawsuits, said that the settlement agreement “ensures that no one will be shut out of the fastest, best way to get around town.”
But the most transformative effects will most likely be felt by people with disabilities who have been excluded from broad swaths of New York’s subway system and, by extension, parts of the city it serves.
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.
Disability rights advocates have for years tried to push the transportation authority to improve access, with a particular focus on the lack of elevator service. In 2017, a group of disability 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 — which bars discriminating against people with disabilities in public facilities — when officials renovated subway stations without installing elevators, ramps or other similar accommodations.
When the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, it required any public facilities built after 1993 to be accessible. Though much of the subway system is significantly older, 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 officials had been criticized for the slow pace, which disabled riders said was insufficient given the breadth and scope of the subway system, which operates around the clock and has the highest number of stations of any city in the world.
Relatively newer transit systems, including those in San Francisco and Washington, are completely accessible. In the past, New York transit leaders said that upgrading the aging underground system would be too costly and that many of its stations were too old to effectively overhaul.
But other old subway systems have significantly higher rates of accessibility. More than two-thirds of stations in Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago meet the Americans With Disabilities Act’s compliance standards.
Mr. Lieber said that the transit authority had in recent years come to realize that its pace was not quick enough. Before his tenure, at the end of 2019, transit 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, he said.
The settlement agreement would further that commitment and make it permanent. The transit authority would be required to commit a certain amount of its capital budget toward improving 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 not bring the subway system to full accessibility. Mr. Lieber said that the remaining five 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.