In June, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of New York City announced that it was hiring Alex Elegudin, an attorney, wheelchair user, long-time disability rights advocate and New Mobility’s 2017 Person of the Year, as its first-ever accessibility chief. With an official title of senior adviser for systemwide accessibility, Elegudin will report directly to the president of New York City Transit, Andy Byford. Elegudin is tasked with improving the accessibility of one of the largest public transit systems in the world — with a scope that includes subways, buses, above ground rail, bridges and tunnels as well as paratransit. The New York subway system alone had an estimated ridership of 1.75 billion in 2016. Elegudin acknowledges the history of inaccessibility within New York’s transit system, “People with disabilities have been left out of the conversation for a long time, meaning that the system has a long way to go in terms of being accessible,” he says. But he sees the creation of the position he now fills and a new master plan for the future of MTA, known as “Fast Forward,” as sending a strong signal that the MTA is serious about remaking its transit system to properly serve people with disabilities.
The Fast Forward plan, announced by Byford in May, seeks to accelerate the modernization and repair of NYC’s transit system, with accessibility being one of the core priorities. The plan calls for a strategic retrofit of 50 subway stations within five years so that riders are never more than two stops from an accessible station, with an additional 130 accessible stations in the five years following. Subway infrastructure is the most-visible and costliest of the accessibility proposals with the Fast Forward plan, but Elegudin is also looking to other changes that can make an immediate impact for riders with disabilities. “Those things include better communication with the community, getting them involved in our decision-making processes; operational things like better training for all MTA staff on issues of ADA sensitivity and disability etiquette, [which is] something we’re already working on; improving real time information on elevator and escalator outages, so that when people arrive at an elevator they’re not looking at a broken one; improving the way that stations show signage about accessibility,” he says. Above the planned specifics though, perhaps the most important long-term component of the creation of an executive-level accessibility coordinator is to put the needs of the disability community at the forefront of the discussion when the MTA plans the future of NYC’s transit system. “The number one role of my job is to be a voice for the disability community. I have a seat at the table,” says Elegudin, “and I want to inform myself of what people with disabilities really need, and the needs are different for every disability and in different regions of the city. I want to be that voice that brings everything together and creates a cohesive, unified plan to improve accessibility.”