As the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s board of directors plans to reduce station staff through attrition to help balance its budget, the system’s line managers are re-allocating resources in attempt to provide better service in the case of elevator outages.
As part of a new internal reorganization, line managers for the MTA’s New York City Transit division are making a series of changes to improve communication with customers who require elevators to travel by providing more timely information about service disruptions.
By the end of July, customers will be prompted with a new sign outside all of the system’s 182 elevators – 160 of which are in accessible stations – with a toll free number to call for accessible transit instructions when an elevator is out of service. Since phone service is inconsistent underground, intercoms outside the elevators will still be available. Those calls will be routed to a central midtown office rather than to station booths as in the past, said Warren Tobin, maintenance general manager for the 4, 5 and 6 subway lines.
The sign will also provide riders with a Web link to the MTA’s list of accessible stations, and to online information about receiving text message alerts for outages. “We know it’s important and we really want to get it out there,” Tobin said about the program, adding that he wants the subway system to be more like Disney World, which is known as a model of accessibility.
Tobin spoke about the coming changes following an annual forum hosted by the New York City Transit Riders Council – an advisory board to the MTA – where several customers made critical comments about elevator accessibility in the subways.
Kitty Lunn (pictured above), artistic director for Infinity Dance Theater, said she was recently trapped in the West 4th Street station due to a broken elevator and intercom and was carried out of the station in her 250-pound motorized wheelchair. She said the experience was so harrowing that she does not intend to travel by subway again. “There’s something about being stuck underground that kind of really freaked me out,” Lunn said.
Clara Bailon, who lives in the Bronx and uses a motorized wheelchair, described the subway system as a “very, very scary place” where she worries about being stuck underground because of broken elevators, getting her wheels stuck in the gap between the platform and the train or being pushed onto the tracks.
Bailon said she was stranded in the underground system last year when she took her brother, who was visiting from Florida, to a Junior’s restaurant in Brooklyn to buy a cheesecake for Thanksgiving. On her way home, Bailon said she exited the D train at 125th Street to look for an uptown bus after the subway changed directions but was unable to exit the station because of a broken elevator. “The first elevator was fine but the one taking us to the street was not working so we couldn’t even cross to the other side,” Bailon said.
Making matters worse, Bailon said neither the conductor, station agent or nearby police officer knew where the next accessible station was, so she traveled all the way to West 4th Street. “I’m not very familiar with Manhattan and I was kind of really scared. What happens if you cannot get out once you’re stuck inside the subway with a person in a wheelchair?” Bailon said.
Howard Roberts, Jr., president of New York City Transit, said station agents regularly monitor elevator operations and receive automatic alerts when an outage occurs. “When an escalator or elevator goes down, an alarm goes off at this center so we immediately know there is a problem,” Roberts said at the forum.
Tobin said intercoms, which are attached to elevator stations, rely on backup power in the case of outages.
Edith Prentiss, a member of the Transit Riders Council who uses a power wheelchair, also made a complaint about working elevators, which she said can be difficult to board because of crowding. Prentiss suggested using posters or audio announcements to instruct parents with children to fold up their strollers, and for all passengers to let seniors and people with disabilities on first.
“Times Square has four levels. If a wheelchair user is attempting to get on an elevator from the 7 train, you can give up and die,” Prentiss said. Roberts responded that he would give the issue some thought and talk to his staff about it.
The MTA gives out accessible station booklets and lists elevator breakdowns on its website. This week, the MTA’s website showed two to seven elevator outages per day. The MTA's online Trip Planner also has an accessible station choice as well as a voice activated version. However, customers have requested real time updates while they are in transit since they cannot receive electronic alerts underground, and only a portion of the system’s stations are partially or fully accessible, potentially leaving customers lost for hours in an underground maze when outages occur.
Andrew Albert, chair of the Transit Riders Council and a non-voting member of the MTA's board of directors, suggested at the forum that conductors could announce elevator breakdowns en route to the stations where they occur, as they do for service diversions.
The forum comes in the midst of the MTA board's planned attrition of an undetermined number of station agents and station cleaners over the next several years unless additional funds are acquired. The MTA rescinded many of its planned service cuts and layoffs when the State legislature approved a $2.3 billion rescue package in May, but has not rescinded its plan to reduce station staffing through attrition. Critics have derided the pending staff reduction as a danger to customer safety.
Tobin said the MTA line managers will launch the elevator initiatives through better use of resources rather than asking for additional funds. “In general terms, it’s a cost savings,” Tobin said. “We’re really not using more people. We’re just honing in and using our people more efficiently.”
The line managers also plan to improve the coordination of internal and external elevator cleaning to prevent platform odors from being washed into the elevators, Tobin said. Although station cleaners are being reduced through attrition, Tobin said the new cleaning measure is a matter of communication and does not require additional staff.