Update: On July 19, the CTA released its All Stations Accessibility Program Strategic Plan to make its system fully accessible in the next 20 years.
My kids love riding transit. Bus or rail, they eagerly will jump on any chance to go
Unfortunately, the closest L station near us does not have an elevator. So, a trip to the L often involves taking the kids out of the stroller at the station (fortunately they love going through the turnstiles AND can climb stairs with no sweat) and hauling it up the stairs to the platform. It’s much easier going down. Other times, I’ve taken the L with only one of my kids, which involves a shoulder ride to the station to avoid bringing the stroller altogether. Yet, other than a sore back after heavy lifting, this isn’t a problem for me.
But what about people in wheelchairs – those who are unable to drive and have to rely on a mobility service or public transit to take them to their destination? All CTA buses are accessible, which is great, but for people who need to take the L, this is where it gets tricky if they live near an inaccessible station.
Even before kids, I wondered that if the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) were signed in 1990, why has it taken over two decades to have all CTA stations updated with compliant features, such as elevators or ramps for people in wheelchairs. Also, how do other large metropolitan rapid transit lines stack up when it comes to ADA compliance?
I looked a little further into the CTA’s L accessibility and then also accessibility for the subway/light rail systems operated by New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA), and Philadelphia’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA). I chose the latter three systems because they, like the L, are among the oldest in the United States and tend to face heightened difficulties for station reconstruction or retrofitting to ADA standards. Other pre-war networks such as New York/New Jersey’s PATH and Cleveland’s RTA (the Rapid) lack the comparable station volume with the other systems.
CTA Accessibility (70%)
Aside from my closest station and my knowledge of other inaccessible stations, I was pleasantly surprised at how many L stops are fully accessible. According to the authority’s website, 102 of its 145 rail stations are accessible, meaning 70% of stations meet standards. (While the CTA says all of its L stations comply with Americans with Disabilities Act regulations, that doesn’t necessarily mean elevators.) Although I did not expect the number to be this high, it makes sense.
Since 1990, the CTA has fully renovated stations on the Green Line, the Brown Line, and the Dan Ryan portion of the Red Line; revamped what is now the Pink Line; and constructed an entirely new line (Orange), all of which allowed for opportunities to include elevators and ramps at these stations, with the exception of a few on the Green Line and several in the Loop. The CTA’s Red and Purple Line modernization program has the goal of making all stations on these lines fully accessible in the next 15-20 years.
What’s odd is given the volume of ridership on the Blue Line, it hasn’t experienced the same level of accessibility improvements. While a number of Blue Line stations have been updated as part of the Your New Blue program, landmark status of adjacent properties and the lack of available physical space has been a hindrance to adding ramps and elevators. This is even more poignant when you look at how both the O’Hare and Congress branches of the line have stretches of four consecutive inaccessible stations. I suppose the 7 (Harrison) and 126 (Jackson) buses for the Congress branch and the 56 (Milwaukee) bus for the O’Hare branch serve as accessible substitutes. But it is a disservice to disabled individuals who need to get somewhere a little more quickly via public transit and the local bus is the only option in these areas. It also limits housing options for these individuals who wish to live within a few blocks of an accessible station.
Still, the CTA’s efforts to improve accessibility show that among the older transit systems in the country, the L’s ADA compliance record is fairly good.
MTA Accessibility (25%)
The New York subway is not fairly good with ADA compliance. In fact, on a percentage basis, it is well behind its old-system peers. Of the massive network’s 472 stations, only 117 are accessible, or about 25%. Of course, 117 is higher than the CTA’s 102, but given the scale of the subway system and its 5.5 million daily riders, surely many individuals are being underserved by the lack of ramps and elevators. Having a majority of inaccessible stations is just one of the MTA’s many problems, which have been well-documented.
But I do give credit to the MTA for all of the details on its website in regard to elevator locations at accessible stations and bus and rail transfers, should someone need to ride a different mode of transit to get to an accessible station.
(During my research for this post, I came across a series of Curbed articles, which nicely detail New York’s subway-accessibility issues. Again, the system is massive, so it has a lot going on.)
MBTA Accessibility (73%)
Accessibility on the MBTA’s network is more in line with the CTA than the MTA. Of the T’s 128 stations, 93 are accessible. Nearly all of the inaccessible stations are on the Green Line, which surprised me considering the number of surface-level stops on the line that would not necessitate the high cost of an elevator. The Green Line is also technically a light rail line as opposed to a heavy rail subway. Still, with 73% of stations meeting accessibility standards, the MBTA has put in a solid effort in making the T a viable option for mobility-impaired individuals.
SEPTA/PATCO Accessibility (51%, not including Trolley)
As with Boston, Philadelphia’s SEPTA system includes a mix of light and heavy rail lines with underground, surface, and elevated stations. For simplicity, I’m focusing on SEPTA’s color-coded lines, but not regional rail or the Trolley (Green). For good measure, I’m including the PATCO Speedline, which is underground in downtown Philadelphia and runs to New Jersey, even though PATCO is a different operator from SEPTA.
Many of the stations on SEPTA’s Market-Frankford Line (Blue) and the Broad Street Line (Orange) are accessible, but the Norristown (Purple) line falls well short of accessibility. As for the Speedline, seven of its 13 stations are accessible.
Even though I’m not including the Trolley because it operates more like a tram than a subway, it should be noted that the Trolley is grossly insufficient to serve the needs of the disabled. This is mainly due to the outdated design of the vehicles. SEPTA plans to update the Trolley network within the next decade, which will alleviate accessibility issues. But until then, it is mostly prohibitive for people in wheelchairs.
So for accessibility in the City of Brotherly Love, 45 of the 88 SEPTA/PATCO rapid transit stations meet ADA standards. The rate of 51% here would, of course, be much, much lower if I were to include the Trolley service. Extra points to SEPTA for the details it provides on its accessible stations.
DC, LA, Bay Area, Atlanta
Taking a broader look at more “modern” rapid transit systems (even though several of them are already 50 years old), you’ll see better rates of accessibility. Washington, DC’s Metro, Los Angeles’ Metro, the Bay Area’s BART, and Atlanta’s MARTA all are 100% accessible. You can also say the same about the scattering of light rail networks across the country.
So what is it about all of these post-war systems being ADA-compliant, even though many of them were conceived or fully built before the ADA was passed? It is likely that most had their own dedicated right-of-ways and also were created by one central transit authority. This contrasts with the 100-year-old systems that were created and built by multiple private businesses with their own transit agendas in the same city, only later have their rail lines taken over by a central municipal agency.
Consequences of Inaccessible Stations
I admire the agencies’ efforts to be more compliant, but it’s frustrating that funding and willpower aren’t there to fully modernize most of these stations to match what the ADA required. After all, it’s the law. Agencies also have to pay close attention to other issues like geography and landmark status of surrounding edifices, but are they using them too much as excuses when trying to retrofit stations that are a century old? If mayors are willing to work with private entrepreneurs who promise to develop unnecessary new modes of transit, why can’t they demand investment in accessibility? “Instead of drilling a 12-mile tunnel below our city, how about you, Mr. Tech Genius, figure out a way to install elevators on these stations.” But alas, serving the needs of the unfortunate isn’t the sexiest endeavor for some politicians.
More realistically, temporary ramps that lay on top of stairs are a partial solution, depending on the structure of the stairwell and a transit station attendant’s physical ability to help someone up what would often be a steep-grade ramp. Indeed, these are cheaper than renovating a whole station. But despite the cost of any investment for accessibility purposes, agencies are missing out on potential ridership (and revenue).
Aside from individuals in wheelchairs, there are others who request elevators, ramps, or even escalators, such as people who walk with crutches or canes, people who have carts full of groceries (a common sight in condensed urban areas), and people who have luggage or strollers. All of these folks may rather opt to hail a taxi or reserve an Uber/Lyft. Some of these would-be transit riders own cars themselves, and, if accessing transit is a nuisance for them, they would certainly take their cars to their destinations. What does that do? Adds more cars to the street, leading to more congestion and frustrating more people. For cities without adequate Bus Rapid Transit systems (and that is pretty much every U.S. city), the congestion also slows down the buses that other individuals ride to get to an accessible station.
It’s a tall order to fix all of these stations, and I’m glad that Chicago’s L is nearly three-fourths of the way to full accessibility. But much more can be done nationwide. Maybe residents need to speak louder to get these changes implemented. Maybe agencies need to think harder about relatively inexpensive solutions. If people cared this much about universal access to transit as they do about getting Amazon to their cities, these renovations may have been completed a long time ago.