The People’s MTA Champions System-Wide Subway Access for the Disabled |

The People’s MTA Champions System-Wide Subway Access for the Disabled

Platforms rarely line up with the lip of the subway car, forcing scooter drivers to perform complicated maneuvers. Mary Kaessinger (seen here) wants the MTA to use small, portable ramps and provide more staff to assist. | Photo by Christian Miles

BY JUDY L. RICHHEIMER | Tony Murphy, a firebrand with an easy manner, turned his back on MTA board members and directed his words to other members of the public who were also there to testify. Some arrived at the 10 a.m. Feb. 22 installment of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s monthly board meeting with requests to allow free ridership to veterans, for example, or to create a better pension plan for a team of MTA managers — but the majority of the nearly 30 speakers that day came to complain about rotten service on New York City bus and subway lines.

Murphy represents The People’s MTA, a Chelsea-based group of transit activists formed late last summer. Their mission goes considerably beyond the objectives of standard, rider-oriented groups. In addition to demanding lower fares and better service, The People’s MTA actively supports TWU Local 100 (of New York’s Public Transit Union) and decries police in the subway who, in their view, target young black and Latino men for turnstile jumping.

But at this hearing, Murphy concentrated on what he calls the group’s “cutting edge” issue: the right of the disabled to have access to all New York City subway stations. Specifically, he announced the March 5 court date that could determine the outcome of that goal. Pursuant to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, groups representing the disabled are suing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA)/New York City Transit (an agency of the MTA, handling buses and subways within the five boroughs) to install elevators in all 472 subway stations (approximately a quarter of those stations are currently accessible to the disabled). The defendants have moved to dismiss the suit; March 5 is oral argument on that motion.

“The fares that keep going up play a big part of the MTA budget, probably bigger than any other transit system in the US,” noted Murphy. “We say today don’t use your money to fight the just demands for elevators. Don’t spend your money fighting this in court,” he exhorted his audience, interlocutors perhaps between the People’s MTA and the board of the actual MTA. Shortly thereafter, Murphy was told by that board to conclude, having exceeded his two-minute limit. “All of a sudden,” he joked, “the MTA is concerned about being on time.” The room erupted in laughter.

Tony Murphy delivered his testimony directly to the people, at Feb. 22’s MTA board meeting. | Photo by Christian Miles

The People’s MTA (on Twitter, @ThePeoplesMTA) came together by degrees. Murphy has been testifying at MTA board meetings under the auspices of various left-leaning political groups since 2008. (He began employing the back-to-the-board tactic in 2010.) Last spring, he was part of a cohort supporting booth clerk Darryl Goodwin, charged with obstruction of government administration, misdemeanor assault, and resisting arrest after he allegedly failed to cooperate with police in pursuit of a suspect. Activists from several organizations, in particular, Chelsea-based People’s Power Assembly NYC  took up the cudgel for Goodwin, claiming that he was “framed.” (Several months later, Goodwin, dead of an apparent heart attack, was posthumously cleared of all charges.)

“We decided that a good venue to bring this up would be an MTA board meeting [May 2017], to sort of publicize his case,” recalled Murphy, sitting in the Brooklyn Bagel & Coffee Company on Eighth Ave., around the corner from the Solidarity Center NYC (147 W. 24th St., btw. Sixth & Seventh Aves.), which houses both the People’s Power Assembly NYC and The People’s MTA. “We noticed that there were dozens of people in wheelchairs at that meeting. We were struck with the terrible treatment they received at the hands of the MTA. And it was a one-two punch.”

The first punch, as described in testimony at the May 2017 MTA meeting, was being delivered daily by Access-A-Ride, notorious for its long delays and inflexibility. The “two-punch,” according to Murphy, was the board’s decision to suspend public remarks until the end of its own executive session, thus throwing schedules off for 20-plus activists intent on reporting their own Access-A-Ride stories. Presumably (and ironically), they gave up their chance to speak in part because failure to meet a ride at the appointed time can lead to loss of enrollment in the Access-A-Ride program.

Andrew Albert, rider representative on the MTA board, noted that arrangements were made by MTA personnel to reschedule everyone’s rides to conform to the later departure time. But communication had broken down, and most of the disabled hoping to testify simply left in disgust, Murphy reported. The upside to that day, though, was the bond created between labor activists and their counterparts in the disabled community, which led to the formation of The People’s MTA.

Wheelchair and scooter users at the Feb. 22 MTA board meeting, in anticipation of giving their testimony. | Photo by Christian Miles

Chelsea Now spoke with three members of The People’s MTA who focus especially on transit issues affecting the disabled.

Mary Kaessinger, in her early 70s, lives in Brooklyn, and suffers from MS (multiple sclerosis). Though Kaessinger was diagnosed decades ago, she began to first need a vehicle for mobility only in her 60s. Kaessinger rides an electric scooter, in red — a choice, she admitted, made partly out of vanity. “I saw an ad with a pretty young woman riding a scooter,” she recalled with laughter, “and thought, ‘that could be me.’ ”

The scooter proved to have a practical, as well as an aesthetic, advantage over a wheelchair: “The handlebar gives me stability,” which allows her to manage inclines without fear of getting pitched forward. But once in the subway, it’s a different story.

As Kaessinger demonstrated, platforms rarely line up with the lip of the subway car. Sometimes the difference in height is as great as five inches. A wheelchair can be tipped to some degree, thus surmounting the vertical gap; the length of a scooter makes that impossible. So instead, Kaessinger and other scooter drivers must perform a fairly complicated maneuver.

Mary Kaessinger, returning from Feb. 22’s board meeting of the MTA, where she and others pressed for the right of the disabled to access all NYC subway stations. | Photo by Christian Miles

She looks for the conductor, sometimes to no avail, who can hold the door open long enough for her to enter the car. Either way, she generally relies on the kindness of strangers to first lift the front end of the scooter and then the back. On the day we observed this process it took several minutes to enlist effective aid. No one was strong enough to pick up the scooter, even partially, with Kaessinger’s weight fully on board, so she stood for a moment, straddling the base of the scooter. Because the conductor had not seen her on the platform, the door closed and then reopened as she was attempting to board, a frequent occurrence. “I just close my eyes and pray that I don’t get cut in half by a malfunctioning door,” she noted.

A simple remedy exists. “New Jersey Transit has it figured out very well,” Kaessinger said. They employ small, portable ramps and have three or four conductors for every train, each prepared to make the temporary installation.

Reneé Imperato, seen here at the Good Stuff Diner on W. 14th St., travels the subway system using either forearm crutches or a wheelchair. | Photo by Judy L. Richheimer

Kaessinger’s political colleague, Reneé Imperato, is a trans woman activist who alternates between forearm crutches and a wheelchair. “When I go from one nearby activity to another,” Imperato said, “I use my crutches. I only have a certain number on my ‘daily odometer,’ so if I am going to go on the Women’s March, or some rally, say, at Columbus Circle, I gotta have the chair.” She enters subway stations only to refresh her MetroCard. Though she still has the strong-looking, wiry frame of the long-distance cyclist she was once, Imperato is fearful of subway crowds and of overzealous passengers in a hurry, not paying heed to a person on crutches. (Her mobility impairment stems from injuries sustained while serving in the Vietnam War, with Agent Orange a possible culprit.)

Buses allow for more choice: Imperato can let a filled-to-capacity one go by and wait for another, less crowded  bus — that is, if time allows. The M14A and the M14D, her standard lines, tend to come in batches of three, said Imperato. She often lets the first and even the second in the batch go by; if the third is still too crowded, a long cycle of waiting is in store.

“What time of the year is it? It’s winter. If you are in a wheelchair and you start missing six buses, it’s dangerous. You lose body heat from not moving.” And no matter which bus the rider wants to enter, there is the possibility that the wheelchair lift is out of order.

Another challenge for the disabled bus rider is lack of curbside exiting and boarding, which happens when the stop is blocked by parked vehicles. Imperato cited a stunning example of that impediment: police vehicles were parked in the M23 Madison Square bus stop, a key site for the Disability Pride Parade, on the day and time of that event. Because the SBS line eliminated the Fifth Ave. stop on 23rd St. to travel in a westerly direction, disabled parade-goers had to use a bus stop two-and-a-half avenues away.

Blindness and low vision is a disability rarely mentioned in relation to transit — but Terrie Mitchell, a resident of W. 23rd St.’s Selis Manor who has 20/200 vision (Mitchell’s low vision is connected to her albinism), is aware of how the MTA can do better for the sight-impaired.

“Buses are fine, if the driver remembers to announce such-and-such stop. Maybe 70 percent of the time the driver remembers,” Mitchell said. When drivers forget, Mitchell is often forced to walk some distance back to her destination.

Great boons to the visually impaired and the blind are transit maps in large print and braille. But Mitchell pointed out that they are obtained at an MTA center in Downtown Manhattan, not necessarily easy to reach. More important, they are several months behind regular transit maps.

Mitchell wants certain improvements — the special maps updated more frequently and perhaps automated announcements on buses — but the left-leaning activist worries about “infantilizing” the disabled. She also speaks of blind people not heeding their guide dogs, especially on subway platforms, and as a result putting themselves and the dogs in great jeopardy. “Those people have to take personal responsibility, like everyone else,” Mitchell insisted. Nevertheless, she remains strong on the broad strokes of social justice.

MTA improvements sought by Terrie Mitchell, who has 20/200 vision, include frequent updates for braille maps and automated announcements on buses. | Photo by Christian Miles

That concept of social justice as practiced by The People’s MTA can be a point of contention, even to potential allies. The group places great emphasis on the MTA’s debt service — Murphy points out that the MTA spends $82 a second, $7 million a day in paying off interest on bonds — which is undeniably a legitimate concern. But their rhetoric on that point suggests the solution to our MTA problems is to default on debt.

Jeff Gold, Director/VP of IRUM (the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility;, a moderate-to-liberal think tank heavily concerned with mass transit, concedes that there are times when defaulting on debt is advised, but now is not the time for the MTA to even consider bankruptcy. He hastens to add that we need radical thought, if nothing else, as a bulwark against the thinking of the far right.

And The People’s MTA may be having an immediate practical effect, after all. Directly after the public session of that Feb. 22 MTA board meeting, Andy Byford, the head of New York City Transit, spoke earnestly and definitively about addressing accessibility problems.

“He even mentioned braille,” remarked an accessibility activist.

Kaessinger is tentatively optimistic. “I wish him well,” she said. “But I will believe his statements when I see them in action.”

NOTE: The following are additional photos document Mary Kaessinger’s return trip from the Feb. 22 board meeting of the MTA. Additional photos were taken that day before, and during, the meeting. All photos by Christian Miles.



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