Even though over six billion people—nearly one billion of whom will have disabilities— are expected to live in urban centers by 2050, many of the world’s major urban cities have a long way to go before their infrastructure becomes inclusive for people with disabilities.
As the world’s population ages, in 2050, more than 20 percent will be 60 or older, making urban accessibility an urgent need, according to a report by the Disability Inclusive and Accessible Urban Development Network (DIAUD).
But some major cities, like New York, have a long way to go before their infrastructure becomes inclusive for people with disabilities.
The report Service Denied: Accessibility and the New York City Subway System, published in July, revealed that 24 percent of the subway stations in the city were not accessible to people with disabilities. In addition, 62 of 122 New York City neighborhoods with subway lines did not have stations accessible under the ADA, most of them located in the Bronx, Brooklyn or Queens. Despite the city government’s efforts to ensure public transport accessibility, the subway seems a hard battle.
“New York City is a great city with a lot of history behind it, unfortunately much of its iconic infrastructure was constructed before anyone considered the needs of people with disabilities. Today it can be difficult for a person with a disability to navigate our century-old subway system,” Victor Calise, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities in New York City, told IPS.
Since the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006, which was seen as a human rights and development advancement, accessibility has gained momentum.
Also, the approval of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, and its consecutive implementation and amendment in 2008, ensured city government’s focus on inclusion. Although public transit, access to restaurants or office spaces, employment and education are some of the issues that urban accessibility includes; public infrastructure and housing remain the most important barriers in some major old cities, such as New York.
“The fact remains that to be a truly inclusive city we must continue the work to make our subway system equally accessible for all. Without equal transportation people with disabilities struggle to get to school, doctor’s appointments and their places of employment,” he added.
Asked what the current options, besides the subway, are for people with disabilities, Calise replied: “There are some alternatives in place, including a 100 percent accessible bus system, an increasingly accessible taxi fleet and a subscription-based paratransit service that costs the same as a subway ride.”
He explained that since mayor Bill De Blasio took office, improvements have been made, especially in the subway system.
“First, every subway system that is being built new (most recently the 2nd Avenue subway line) is being built with accessibility in mind. Second, with major renovations being done on subway stations we are also making necessary installations of elevators and other accessibility features while the work is being done.”
A further improvement has come from the taxi industry. “The TLC [New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission] has also expanded its Accessible Dispatch programme— previously only providing pick-ups in Manhattan—to all five boroughs to connect people with disabilities to yellow and green taxis as they need them, and also advocated for greater accessibility in the for-hire vehicle sector.”
The subway accessibility problem does not only exist in New York City. Other major urban centers like Paris and London also struggle to keep their subway stations accessible: 15 out of 303 stations in Paris are wheelchair-accessible, and 71 out of 270 in London are fully accessible, according to an article at The Guardian.
However, Los Angeles (LA) and the District of Columbia (DC) have done a surprisingly good job at making their public transportation system accessible for people with disabilities: all of their subway stations are fully accessible (91 in DC and 93 in LA).
Thus, their current improvements are going a step further. The spokesperson from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office told IPS: “We all have a role to play in breaking down barriers between communities with disabilities and the larger public.”
He shared with IPS what the city government has worked on during the last months: “The mayor issued Executive Directive 10—Vision Zero— to reduce traffic fatalities and make our streets safer for everyone, particularly for children, the elderly, and people with physical disabilities. We also issued Executive Directive 17, Purposeful Ageing LA, which is an innovative, multi-year effort to enhance the lives of older adults with improvements such as additional bus benches and transit shelters for elderly and disabilities individuals to use while traveling throughout the city.”
“These directives have helped Los Angeles become one of the most welcoming and accessible cities in the world,” he added.
In terms of housing accessibility, New York still struggles, due to its layout and antiquity, whereas DC takes the lead.
“An additional pitfall of the historic nature of NYC is its buildings. People with disabilities have difficulty navigating inaccessible building infrastructure; getting into restaurants, office buildings and finding housing units that are accessible for them,” argued Calise.
Asked what the strategy is to make housing accessible, he replied: “To combat this we are focused on ensuring accessibility in everything new that is being built by reinforcing and adding to the NYC building code. In addition, there are a multitude of renovation programs that modify a person’s home to make it more accessible.”
In DC, the mayor has also improved housing accessibility.“Mayor [Muriel] Bowser has devoted over USD100 million to the District’s Housing Production Trust Fund designed to develop accessible and affordable housing units both in new and existing apartment buildings,” Matthew McCollough, director at DC’s Office of Disability Rights, told IPS.
“This has led to the delivery of 3,606 affordable units, and there are 5,000 more affordable units in the pipeline,” he concluded.
The spokesperson from LA’s mayor’s office claimed: “As a city, it’s our job to ensure that all city facilities, programs, services, and activities are accessible to individuals with disabilities. But creating a more welcoming and accessible city goes beyond our infrastructure – we want every resident to feel safe and cared for by their community.”
Accessibility beyond city government
Although local governments are responsible for public infrastructure and, thus, for making it accessible to all citizens, civil society and the private sector also have a role to play that goes from lobbying to actually implementing solutions.
From NYC, Calise argued: “The role of the private sector is to realize the enormous benefits of accessibility in your business.”
“If your facility is accessible you are not only expanding your business to someone who uses a wheelchair but friends and family of people who use wheelchairs, parents with strollers and others. Accessibility is not only the right thing to do but it’s the smart thing to do in order to benefit your business.”
As for civil society, Calise stated: “The role of civil society is to be conscious of people with disabilities and the enormous benefits of inclusive design.”
Thus, they should move from consciousness to action: “With this knowledge, civil society should be conscious of how they can make their own homes, workspaces, websites etc. accessible and usable for all. In addition, when utilizing these services of accessibility be mindful of those who really need them.”
The spokesperson from the LA office agreed and argued in favor of a comprehensive strategy: “It’s our job to help spread awareness around the needs of our disabled communities so that both the public and private sectors can proactively incorporate their needs into everyday decisions around services and infrastructure. As people with disabilities face disproportionally high unemployment rates, it’s also imperative that local civil society and the private sector work to create a more inclusive workplace by proactively recruiting individuals with disabilities.”
He concluded: “This holistic approach to actively identifying and incorporating the unique needs of individuals with disabilities helps ensure that everyone in our city is able to live vibrant, active lives.”