Talking Accessibility with the MTA

Alex Elegudin during his second day as the MTA’s accessibility chief, at the agency’s offices in Lower Manhattan. | Photo by Dusica Sue Malesevic

BY DUSICA SUE MALESEVIC | Alex Elegudin, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s new and first-ever accessibility chief, is ready to listen.

“People with disabilities have, in the past, somewhat been left at the curb in terms of inadequate access to the system and also not [having] a seat at the table,” Elegudin, who uses a wheelchair, said. “That’s ultimately what we’re trying to change.”

He added, “We’re bringing them in and we want to speak to them. We want to hear from them, and we want them to have a say in the decisions that are made for things that are being planned for them.”

On June 18, the agency announced Elegudin’s appointment as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) New York City Transit’s first senior advisor for system-wide accessibility.

“I think with the leadership of [NYCT] President [Andy] Byford, the morale and the message have changed. The MTA has said words publicly like full accessibility, things that as a disabled user myself and as part of the community, we haven’t heard,” he told NYC Community Media during an interview on Tuesday at the MTA’s offices at 2 Broadway.

As co-founder of the nonprofit Wheeling Forward in 2011, and as the former accessibility program manager at the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission — he left that position earlier this year — Elegudin has been working on accessibility issues for some time.

“I sustained my disability when I was 19 in 2003,” he recalled. “I went to law school and kind of fought really hard to get my life back together and my own independence.”

Elegudin started in his new role on Monday, saying, “It was very action-packed. I came here understanding that I was here to work on some challenging issues, and, you know, they let the fire hose go on the first day.”

In late May, the agency and Byford released “Fast Forward: The Plan to Modernize New York City Transit,” which prioritizes accelerating the system’s accessibility. Part of that plan includes more than 50 new accessible stations “within five years, so all subway riders are no more than two stops from an accessible station.”

Currently, 118 out of 472 stations are wheelchair accessible, according to the agency. The MTA’s capital plan for 2015-2019 “includes $479 million to replace 42 existing elevators and 27 escalators,” and the Fast Forward plan “proposes the addition of 180 elevators over the course of 10 years,” according to the press release announcing Elegudin’s appointment.

Elegudin said one of his goals — and also as outlined in the Fast Forward plan — is to train frontline employees who are dealing with people with disabilities across buses, trains, and paratransit such as Access-A-Ride.

“We’re already working on a revised curriculum, more sensitivity, better etiquette training,” he said. “We’re revisiting our policies to make sure that, you know, they’re in line with what people with disabilities need.”

The training should be up and running to some degree by the end of the year, and, moving forward, for it to be a routine part of training, he said.

Communication with riders is another area he would like to tackle.

“How do we communicate better to… passengers with disabilities on an array of issues, whether it’s when there’s a broken elevator to make sure that they don’t find out about that when they arrive, but how do we tell them that in advance so they can make alternative plans,” Elegudin explained.

He said the agency is looking at maps and at other ways to communicate better about finding ways through the system.

“Certainly at paratransit Access-A-Ride, how do we make people more informed and empowered about their trips?” Elegudin asked.

The MTA is testing out an app called MyAAR — My Access-A-Ride — with Elegudin saying that on Thurs., June 28, the first 100 users will be giving feedback.

NYC Community Media publication Chelsea Now has chronicled some complaints — long delays and inflexibility — about Access-A-Ride, and other issues riders with disabilities and those visually impaired have had using both the subways and buses: the difficulty of scooters getting on trains, the possibility that wheelchair lifts on buses are out of order, and, sometimes, the lack of announcement of a stop.

Elegudin said the agency is working on improving Access-A-Ride in areas like routing, making sure there are more direct trips, and less shared rides.

“That’s already been improved,” he said. “I believe last year… 72 percent were shared rides and that number [has] gone pretty significantly down through things like more efficient scheduling, the e-hail programming [and] taxi usage.”

Outreach to the disabled community and passengers as well as advocacy groups are also a part of his agenda.

“I also think a lot of meetings we’ve had in the past are, ‘Hey come and talk to us about the New York City Transit’ — that’s just too big, there are too many different parts,” he explained.

He added, “We need to break this up into paratransit, subways, and buses, potentially even more granular, and invite advocates as well as just passengers with disabilities to come talk to us. We really need to take in all that feedback, suggestions and complaints and make into a formalized kind of catalogue of what we’re trying to do and what we need to address.”

He said he also wants to have more local meetings in the boroughs.

“I have every intention of us getting out there and going to the consumer and the passenger,” he said.

Elegudin said that he has meetings concerning the upcoming L train shutdown as work to fix damage from Hurricane Sandy is slated to begin in April next year.

“When it comes to service outages… or maintenance that’s coming up, we need to take that seriously,” he said. “People still need ways to get around.”

Locals and politicians have expressed concerns for those who have mobility issues and what kind of access they would have when the city turns 14th St. into a “busway” during the shutdown. The city’s Department of Transportation announced this week that the hours for the busway would be from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day, the New York Daily News reported. Reportedly, locals and visitors still will be able to use the avenue for pickups and drop-offs.

For his part, Elegudin said, “I’m incredibly excited about the changes that are forthcoming but ultimately we understand that it is the delivery of all that that we’ll be judged upon and we have every intention of delivering that.”

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