New York And Berlin: A Tale Of Two Unequal Cities

May 1, 2012
Originally published on May 7, 2012 9:35 am

As a native New Yorker now living in Berlin, I am constantly amazed at how often these two cities are compared to each other.

From my perspective, apart from being big cities for their respective countries, they have little in common.

And one place where they differ most is in handicap access to public transportation. In this respect, New York is in the Stone Age and really should be ashamed of itself.

Berlin, on the other hand, has amazing access.

I am not physically handicapped, but my cousin, who is a life-long New Yorker, has trouble walking. He loves Berlin. In fact, I call him the Berlin freak in the family. He could easily drive a cab here, he knows most of the streets, but he doesn't want to visit the city now because of mobility issues. Yet he is way better off in the German capital than in NYC.

I wonder how he can get along in New York. He doesn't. He lives on Long Island and rarely comes in to the city.

No wonder. The Metropolitan Transit Authority, which operates New York's subway system, among other things, says there are 468 subway stations in the city of New York.

Of that, 89 are handicap accessible and in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act rules.

That's right: 89 out of 468, or 19 percent. Not even one in five stations in the Big Apple is ADA compliant.

New York should learn from Berlin, which is light years ahead of the city.

A direct comparison is tough, because in Berlin, the system is run by two entities. The subway (UBahn) and buses are run by the BVG, the German acronym for the Berlin transport group. Die Bahn, the German federal railway, controls the S-Bahn, which runs trains through the city but also to outlying areas.

The BVG operates 173 subway stations of which 94 are handicap accessible – 85 with elevators and the nine remaining with ramps. There are also 106 stations with a system to help blind passengers.

There are 166 S-Bahn stations in Berlin and neighboring Brandenburg. Of that 143 are handicap accessible and 125 can be accessed by blind passengers. Railway authorities don't break out the Berlin-only figures.

So in the Berlin subway system, 54 percent of the stations are handicap accessible. And in the S-Bahn system, the figure is 86 percent.

And New York can't even make it to 20 percent?

I asked my other cousin about this. She's a lawyer for the MTA, but she doesn't work on ADA issues. But I thought she might know something.

She says it's because New York's system is so old.

I didn't buy that. Berlin's system is even older. The New York subway system started in 1904, two years after Berlin's system went online.

So I called the MTA's press office and got Charles Seaton on the line. He backed my cousin's argument.

"Our system is over 100 years old."

I told him Berlin's was older and they do way better on handicap access.

His excuse? It's expensive to remodel a station.

It was hard to pin the MTA down on just how much it costs to make a New York subway station ADA compatible. The first figure tossed out by Seaton was $20 million, but that was seen as too high by his colleague, Deidre Parker. She checked with the engineers at MTA but they refused to produce a figure.

The MTA remodels three to four stations a year and it adds ADA access when it does those, Seaton said.

Then, why, at 14th Street, a major hub, are the L, Q, and R lines handicap accessible, but key lines like the 4,5, and 6 remain off-limits to those in a wheelchair?

Because the L, Q, and R were set for remodeling, but the 4, 5, and 6 were not, Seaton said.

His colleague Parker added, "The 4, 5, 6 part of the station cannot be made ADA accessible because it is technically infeasible." Overall, it's not easy to install an elevator in the New York subway system, she wrote in an email.

"There is a challenge of finding space for the elevator itself and a room to house the electronics, moving utilities, and acquiring property in stations that were built in the first half of the 20th Cent."

Back in Berlin, the BVG's Christina Albrecht deals with questions about handicap access, among other things. She's surprised that Berlin is ahead of New York when it comes to access.

"We're always told at how things are always so much better in the USA when it comes to handicap access," she said. Albrecht wasn't able to give me a per station figure but said installing an elevator costs €1.5 million at most, but planning and other costs raise those fees.

New York's handicap riders are out of luck if they think the city will take a lesson from Berlin. The Voluntary Compliance Agreement (VCA) with the Federal Transportation Authority (FTA) "requires that MTA NYCT (New York City Transit) completes 100 Accessible Key Stations by 2020," wrote MTA spokesperson Seaton in an email.

"There is no plan to expand the 100 Key Station Plan at this time."

Oh well. I guess that means one thing.

Cousin, you should visit me in Berlin. It's much easier to get around.

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