Cities Aren’t Built for Parents

The death of a young mother who fell in a New York City subway station has drawn scrutiny to the inaccessibility of public-transit systems.

Mothers carry strollers and their babies after attending a rally in New York City advocating for mothers' rights. (Eduardo Munoz / Reuters)

Malaysia Goodson was just 22 when she died. She fell down a flight of stairs in a Midtown Manhattan subway station on Monday evening and was found unconscious and unresponsive at the scene, her 1-year-old daughter—who’d been tucked in a stroller and was still alive—beside her.

As of Thursday morning, the cause of Goodson’s death was still unknown, though a spokeswoman for the city’s medical examiner wrote in an email that a preexisting health condition appears to have contributed to her fall. Regardless, the accident has drawn attention to a problem disability-rights advocates from New York to San Francisco have fought for years to little avail: The country’s public-transportation systems provide few accommodations for those who struggle to navigate the city in which they reside, for whatever reason. Maybe someone has a musculoskeletal disease that forces him into a wheelchair, or a mental-health condition that makes getting around safely difficult; maybe a person is blind or deaf or simply feeling off. Maybe someone is a manual laborer tasked with transporting unwieldy packages, or a disoriented traveler lugging around a large suitcase. Maybe the commuter is a parent, like Goodson, who simply needs to travel from Point A to Point B with a baby in a stroller.

“My daughter [started riding the] subway when she was two days old—that’s typical, that’s normal in New York City,” says Danny Pearlstein, the policy and communications director for a New York City rider-advocacy group called Riders Alliance. “And every time, it’s a struggle for us [parents] … The crisis of inaccessibility is an invisible crisis.”

Goodson died in the crowded Seventh Avenue station, a hub that connects Midtown to the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, Pearlstein says. As with roughly three-fourths of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s nearly 500 subway stations, the Seventh Avenue stop lacks an elevator. Meanwhile, many of the elevators that do exist are dysfunctional, or otherwise suffer from conditions—from cramped spaces to inconvenient locations—that discourage people from using them, according to The New York Times. A survey conducted by NYU professors including the transportation scholar Sarah Kaufman found that each of New York City’s existing subway elevators breaks down 53 times a year on average.

In response to Monday’s accident, multiple city officials, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, lamented the circumstances and called for reform. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has partial authority over the MTA and controls much of its funding, also condemned the accident: “We 100 percent believe increased accessibility must be a priority, which is why the Governor has proposed a congestion pricing plan to provide billions of dollars in necessary capital funding to the MTA,” Patrick Muncie, a spokesman for Cuomo, told me in an emailed statement.

The MTA’s limited accessibility is the subject of a pending lawsuit, whose plaintiffs include a group of disability-rights organizations and the Justice Department; the suit contends that the MTA is in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA, the federal civil-rights law passed nearly three decades ago that prohibits discrimination based on a disability. The ADA requires that public facilities provide “reasonable accommodations” for individuals with a physical or mental condition that “substantially limits one or more major life activities.”

Monday’s accident, however, showed that the problem of accessibility extends beyond ADA violations. The incident sparked a flurry of visceral reactions from fellow moms and dads who, like most New Yorkers and many residents of other large U.S. cities, use public transit nearly every day. “EVERY New York City parent has experienced having to carry a stroller by themselves into the subway because of the appalling lack of elevators,” tweeted the New York Times journalist Dana Goldstein. In an email, Amanda Freeman, a sociologist at the University of Hartford who studies gender and poverty, observed that when she was a single mother of a baby, passers-by often offered help to pregnant women, but they were less inclined to support those “toting crying, wiggling, screaming babies on the subway.”

Pearlstein, of Riders Alliance, recalled a recent experience when, after celebrating his daughter’s 13-month birthday with family in Brooklyn, he found himself struggling to carry his baby and her stroller up the Seventh Avenue station’s numerous flights of stairs. As one of the MTA’s relatively new stations (it opened in the early 1930s), the Seventh Avenue stop is built almost like a Jenga tower: The platform for trains heading uptown is at the lowest level, Pearlstein told me, while the level for trains heading in the opposite direction sits just above that; on top of the downtown level is the platform where riders enter via turnstiles, which connects, after another flight of stairs, to the street.

Government officials, urban planners, and disability-rights advocates all tend to agree that money—or a lack thereof—is a root source of the problem. Installing an elevator can be extremely expensive, especially in an old, massive, cavernous, and perpetually running system like New York City’s. In 2015, the MTA estimated that installing an elevator in the Seventh Avenue station in Brooklyn (not the one where Goodson fell) would cost $15 million, as DNAinfo reported at the time. While accessibility renovations aren’t cheap anywhere, the size of New York City’s system makes them an especially daunting undertaking: The MTA network comprises 472 stations total; Chicago Transit Authority, the second largest system in the United States, has 145 stations.

Limited public resources in big cities, Pearlstein says, can make inattention to accessibility issues convenient, if not inevitable. Sometimes a legal settlement is necessary to force a lasting overhaul, as was the case in Boston a little more than 10 years ago. That city’s system had suffered for decades from disinvestment, and by the early 2000s ADA violations were rampant, from dysfunctional elevators in even the busiest of stations to widespread reports of bus drivers refusing to serve riders with disabilities. Not until a high-profile class-action lawsuit did Boston’s public-transit system undergo a comprehensive makeover—including a dedication to upgrades that prevent outages as well as continual community-outreach efforts, says Laura Brelsford, who helped spearhead Boston’s transit overhaul and who today helps oversee the system’s accessibility department. But absent such pressure, loopholes in the ADA’s language enable some public-transit agencies to sidestep maintenance.

“There is zero doubt that we need to expedite delivery of an accessible subway,” Patrick Foye, the MTA’s president, said in a statement provided to The Atlantic. This goal is, Foye noted, cited in the agency’s robust modernization plan as a top priority that he intends to fund in part through increases to fares during rush hour. Over the next five years, the MTA plans to ensure that no rider is farther than two stations away from an accessible subway; the ultimate aim is to make all stations accessible within 15 years. The city also recently tapped Alex Elegudin, a wheelchair user, for its newly created accessibility-chief position.

Kaufman, the transportation scholar, suspects that a lack of accessibility may be partially a result of demographic imbalances among those in charge of designing public transit and other public-infrastructure projects. Women make up only 20 percent of licensed architects, and an even smaller portion of partners and principals at architecture firms, Allison Arieff wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed. And at least historically, Kaufman says, transportation systems were designed “by and for the commuter class—people, primarily white men, working 9-to-5 jobs.”

Against this backdrop, one can’t ignore the fact that buses seldom provide sufficient room for strollers or take into account the needs of someone who struggles with hand-eye coordination, or that—decades after states first started seeking “potty parity”—women still find themselves contending with longer restroom lines than those faced by men. It’s also noteworthy that few urban-planning initiatives are explicitly geared toward kids’ needs, and that researchers have found evidence of certain housing policies in parts of the United States discouraging Millennials from starting families.

Both Freeman, the University of Hartford sociologist, and Kaufman lamented Goodson’s death as a sign that in cities like New York, the lack of accessible facilities may exacerbate gender and income inequality. Women—who account for a majority of public-transit riders nationwide—are still the primary caregivers of children; four in 10 U.S. families have female breadwinners, and most of those breadwinners are single mothers. More generally, women make up 60 percent of all caregivers—whether of children, the elderly, parents, or other dependents—and that job can make them particularly reliant on public transit. New York City caregivers’ commutes can be expensive, tacking on an extra $75 on average to their monthly travel costs; burdened with, say, wheelchairs and medical equipment or strollers and diaper bags, caregivers often resort to taxis or more expensive alternatives absent accessible subways or buses.

“Transportation should be viewed through a gender lens,” Kaufman says, noting that while women account for the majority of public-transit users in the United States, three in four of the females she and her research partners surveyed last year said they face harassment during their commute. “Without a true consideration of how caregivers need to travel and the accommodations that should be warranted to them, cities cannot serve the needs of their populations.”

Change is happening, especially as underrepresented groups rise to urban-planning leadership roles, Kaufman acknowledges. Women—including mothers—now occupy several key positions within the MTA. And as tragic as the Seventh Avenue–station accident is, Pearlstein, a native New Yorker, says he hopes that people continue to “seize on it” in a way that finally prompts lasting change.

Disability-rights and rider advocates acknowledge that securing the accommodations they desire will take time. But many developments that could move public transit toward being more accessible for all people are far less complex and costly than installing more elevators: measures such as louder and more conspicuous stop announcements, awareness-raising campaigns for non-English speakers and those who can’t read, and concerted efforts to solicit feedback from parents as well as from people with disabilities and workers tasked with transporting bulky items. “It’s really easy to feel overwhelmed by such a seemingly insurmountable load of work ahead,” says Brelsford, the Boston transit-accessibility official. “But the thing is: You have to start somewhere.”