ALL RIDERS: The battle for accessibility of New York City’s metro system

All RIders the struggle for accessible New York City Metro System

The new documentary ALL RIDERS highlights the ongoing fight for accessibility – specifically, access to the metro system – in New York City. In an emotional 15-minute documentary, director Victor Dias Rodrigues and producer Branton Choi take their audience on a journey through New York’s underground and portray the lost and won battles: for elevators, for lives, for equal rights, and overall, for disability rights. 

Inaccessible New York City metro.

A person with a wheelchair stuck underground, a woman with a stroller hurrying down the stairs with her child, a young man carrying his suitcases upstairs: An everyday picture in the New York City metro system. But what do all these people have in common? Like many New Yorkers, they commute via the subway but can’t use the elevator because only a quarter of New York City’s metro stations are accessible. For some people, this might only be a minor inconvenience. For others, the lack of accessibility means they can’t get to their workplace, a doctor, or other crucial places, or, in the most tragic case, the lack of accessibility can be life-threatening, as the death of Malaysia Goodson has shown. Due to one of many inaccessible stations, the young mother had to carry her daughter in a stroller downstairs and fell. Shocked by the incomprehensible event, Dias-Rodrigues asked himself how something like this could happen; he researched more about accessibility and wanted to actively get involved. The idea behind ALL RIDERS formed.

Showing what’s right in front of our eyes.

The short documentary ALL RIDERS shows its audience what’s right in front of their eyes – a picture we all have seen many times: broken elevators and a lack of access. In this captivating and, at times, shocking documentary, Director Victor Dias Rodrigues and Producer Branton Choi take their audience by the hand and show them why accessibility concerns us all. And it’s not the first time the two young men highlight a social justice issue and give an underrepresented minority a voice. With his previous film ‘The Ending of a Dream,’ Dias Rodrigues sheds light on the harsh realities of undocumented workers in New York City. The film director was born in Brazil but grew up across four continents, which shaped his outlook on the complexities of the human condition, as he says himself. When Choi, an independent producer based in Los Angeles, met Dias Rodrigues, he felt inspired by his passion for the issue and immediately wanted to help him create this short film. Choi himself produced a number of award-winning films, such as ‘After Class’ and ‘Red Bean Soup.’ “Most producers have a distinction, such as ‘I am a documentary filmmaker; I am a fictional producer.’ But I am not really like that. I am drawn to stories with a beating heart at the center,” Choi explains. “I saw documentary filmmaking as my tool to touch people’s hearts with stories that have a universal quality to them, which compelled me to make ALL RIDERS,” Dias Rodrigues adds. 

A black woman with red hair stands in front of a subway train looking towards the ground
The family of Malaysia Goodson revisiting the site of the tragic accident with the filmmakers.

Sasha Blair-Goldensohn is a leader of the disability rights movement. 

The two filmmakers, who both identify as persons without a disability, early on decided to let the activists tell their own stories in order to represent them accurately. “Most times, I was the only able-bodied person in the room. So it was really important to have the human aspect of the story be front and center without us appearing in any way. It was crucial for us in order to represent the issue fairly and accurately to give the voice to the people who experience the issues every day,” Dias Rodrigues says. The team spent a lot of time with New York’s disability activists to learn from the barriers they are facing in New York City, but also what they are doing to reduce those. One of ALL RIDERS’ main contributors is Sasha Blair-Goldensohn, a passionate disability rights activist based in New York City. Blair-Goldensohn started fighting for access after becoming a wheelchair user in 2009. One morning, while doing what so many New Yorkers do – jogging through Central Park – a large trunk broke off a tree and hit Blair-Goldensohn on his head. Unconscious and heavily bleeding, he lay on the moist ground. As the ‘luckiest unlucky guy,’ how his mother calls him, he was saved by a doctor who also made his rounds in the park. Blair-Goldensohn survived but experienced a spinal cord trauma. Suddenly, what was once a simple everyday task, commuting via subway, became a lot more complicated, but Blair-Goldensohn isn’t a person to simply accept that he cannot use the metro like other people. 

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Only one-quarter of all metro stations in NYC are accessible.  

He began speaking up about the lack of accessibility in New York City and co-founded the Elevator Action Group, an organization fighting for improved access to the metro system. “The purpose of the Elevator Action Group was to make accessibility and inclusion of everyone, specifically, people with a disability, a reality for New York and the subway system,” Blair-Goldensohn states. According to the Elevator Action Group, only 109 of the 445 elevators to NYC’s metro stations are accessible. That’s only every fourth elevator. The organization additionally states that other cities, for example, Los Angeles or Washington DC, have stair-free access to all of their metros. When they analyzed all daily outages in 2014, they found that of the quarter of accessible elevators, 25 failed every day. Right now, the MTA’s website says there are 18 elevators out of service – some for planned work, some for planned replacement, but eight for repair and one that’s under investigation. 

As a consequence of the lack of access, Blair-Goldensohn, together with several other individuals with a disability and many non-profit organizations, went to court to prove that a significant number of the high-volume station’s elevators break down during rush hour and therefore restrict access for people with disabilities further. The case is still ongoing.

ALL RIDERS wants to raise awareness for these common issues. 

Access is often something many people without a disability take for granted, and filmmakers Dias Rodrigues and Choi realized that’s exactly where they come in. “Our job is to look at places where people don’t look. The goal is for people to finally be aware of this issue. Hopefully, as more people see it, the right ones will stand up for it,” Choi explains. “But we just cut the tip of the iceberg,” Dias Rodrigues adds, “because accessibility is not only in transit. It’s in every aspect of life. And that’s what we, as able-bodied people, don’t realize.” Creating a film on such a crucial topic comes with many responsibilities but also challenges. “Building the relationship and gaining the trust of the activists was a very long process. It’s a tightened community, and I came in as an outsider. So that was hard but gratifying,” Dias Rodrigues says. For Choi, the biggest hurdle was how to pack all the footage in only 15 minutes of film. “The biggest challenge was leaving people out, because we had such great relationships with them.”

One person they were not able to include in ALL RIDERS is Quemuel Arroyo, the new Chief Accessibility Officer at the MTA, successor of Alex Elegudin, who makes an appearance in ALL RIDERS, but does not work for the MTA anymore.  

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“Accessibility is one of our top three priorities!” – Quemuel Arroyo. 

Arroyo, who calls himself a transit nerd, is the one person that can and hopefully will improve access in the area of public transportation in NYC. Just like Blair-Goldensohn, Arroyo seems like a passionate advocate for access himself and is now in a position to help make New York City a more accessible place – not a small task to begin with. “Becoming paralyzed from the waist down in a mountain biking accident 14 years ago, I discovered the world of accessibility and disability, and learned about so many voices who are silenced that I decided to reshape spaces that don’t work for people like me, people with disabilities,” Arroyo says. 

Like the “quintessential New Yorker,” Arroyo is regularly commuting by bus and subway himself. When asked if that’s because as the Chief Accessibility Officer, in order to fix an issue, he first needs to know where the problems lie, he laughs and says: “The real truth is: I commute because I don’t know how to drive, and I don’t want to learn how to drive. So commuting is the only way for me to move around.” As a wheelchair user, he knows quite well what Blair-Goldensohn and his organization is criticizing. “Two blocks away from home, we have a train that is not accessible to me right now. So yes, I am facing the same issues that other New Yorkers – older people, people with disabilities and many more – face within a system that wasn’t designed with us in mind,” Arroyo states. 

Film Poster: A comic like illustration with several people sitting in a subway train. One has a cane, one uses a wheelchair. Text: All Riders, a film by Victor Dias Rodrigues
ALL RIDERS Film Poster

Commuting as a wheelchair user in NY is complicated. 

Blair-Goldensohn, who works at Google, commutes by subway as well. Before his injury, he had no issues getting back and forth between his office, that’s about three miles from his apartment. “It always seemed natural and not interesting at all to use public transportation at any time of the day; I could change my plans last minute and meet somebody after work, and we would go over to Brooklyn, but once I started trying to get around independently in my wheelchair, I realized it was not that simple anymore,” Blair-Goldensohn says. First, it starts with a lot of planning. “Before I go out, I have to think about: What’s the weather like today? Is it raining? Do I have a big bag? When is my meeting? Can I be late? Your natural inclination is that you choose the best possibility, but that list gets very constrained when you use a wheelchair, so suddenly, there is really only one subway station, and it’s not the closest one. You only have one choice where you used to have many. And it’s not even your choice; somebody has chosen for you,” he explains. So unlike other people, Blair-Goldensohn cannot use the metro station right at his house, nor can he use the one in front of his office, because neither has an elevator or ramp. He needs to find the nearest accessible station and hope that the elevator is working. But that’s not all. When he reaches the closest accessible station, Blair-Goldensohn faces four elevators in total until he gets to his destination. In the middle of his transit, he has to transfer between two trains, which means switching platforms by elevator, “and that elevator is constantly out of service,” he says. If only one of those four elevators is broken, he either has to take a long detour – considering NYC winters and blizzards – or he may be stuck underground. 

Redefining accessibility in NYC. 

Arroyo not only plans to create more access for people with disabilities, but wants to redefine accessibility beyond elevators and ramps. According to the young man, who grew up between the Dominican Republic and New York City, compared to any prior plans, the MTA is working on the most robust capital plan for accessibility. They are going to allocate $5.3 billion to install at least 70 new elevators throughout the metro network. “Additionally, I am normalizing accessibility and disability at my office so that all of my colleagues that come after me are comfortable speaking about accessibility when I am not in the room. My personal measure of success is: When I leave this position, and I am the only one talking about accessibility, I failed epically,” Arroyo states. He says barriers were built unintentionally, which they now try to break down. One new measure to improve accessibility is that whenever a train comes into the station, accessibility information will be announced so that passengers know if an elevator is out of order before they get on the train. Another accessibility feature is that the passenger load of each of the train’s cars will be shown, which will help commuters to know where to find an empty seat.

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But why does this take so long? And more importantly, when will all stations be accessible for everyone? A tricky question. “To rebuild a system without ever taking it offline… You want me to replace a plane without stopping it from flying? It takes time to do that efficiently. I worked on a similar project in a previous job, and I gave us a 30-year timeline there, but NYC is so complex, you likely need decades,” Arroyo says.

Arroyo stresses several times that he wants to create access for all people, all New Yorkers. “My door is open, and I have a brilliant team here, but in order to deliver the system the public wants to see, we need to hear from everyone. I make that invitation because I believe the best policy arrives when we work with the end-users. I don’t want to hear from one group alone; I want diversity: Parents, seniors, tourists, people with and without disabilities.”

The MTA’s strategy sounds promising if really all happens as planned. However, if not, Sasha Blair-Goldensohn and the behind-the-camera team of ALL RIDERS will surely be there, watching the process closely, and together, they will raise their voices to make everyone aware that “fostering an inclusive society elevates the living standards of all people,” to put it in the words of Victor Dias Rodrigues, or, with a bit more pressure, from a person that’s directly affected, Sasha Blair-Goldensohn, “If we are being excluded, it is not only wrong and damaging to us, but it is a huge loss to the society at large. The belief that accessibility is too difficult or too expensive is not only morally wrong, but it’s factually and economically incorrect.”

[The film is currently in contention for the best documentary short subject category at the 94th Academy Awards, and versions with captions and descriptive audio will be available as well.]

by Karina Ulrike Sturm

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