Ask the Architect

Wheelchairs and public transportation


Q. My question is about handicapped requirements. I’m in a wheelchair, and I work in the city and take public transportation. I’m wondering why it took so long for the City of New York to do anything about handicapped access, especially for the subways. Recently I learned that there’s a big lawsuit, and so the city is finally going to address the problem. As a building designer, do you think this is going to be possible? Some stations seem difficult to reach by wheelchair, and I wonder how I’ll get around in rush hour with so many people, and stay away from the edges of the platforms and stairs. How can this be addressed, safely?

A. Excellent question, and one I actually dealt with 35 years ago, in 1982. I was hired from the Midwest to come to New York and work on renovating subway stations. My background to do this came from work in Milan, Italy, as a college student, designing interiors for high-speed trains. Unfortunately, we had a lot of problems proposing guards and staging areas meant to keep wheelchairs from rolling off the platforms and onto the tracks, special surfaces with different colors and textures for the sight-impaired, and even sound devices as warnings.

For all the effort, long before the first President Bush signed the Americans With Disabilities Act, which became law in 1990, we couldn’t “guarantee” the safety of people with many types of disabilities. The federal government, which provided the money to New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, eventually rescinded the funding, opting instead for ground-level transport in the form of “kneeling” buses developed by the Grumman Corporation. I remember that day very well because I had relocated here, had just married and was trying to learn how to get around in a big city when, suddenly, I was out of a job. (Twenty minutes later, I was hired by a different firm and found myself working on three entire new city designs in Saudi Arabia.)

Now the issue we could not solve to safe levels for people with disabilities is back. The lawsuit has forced New York to revisit the problem, and I’m concerned about how, as you noted, a bunch of pushing and shoving riders are going to behave when rushing around a slower-walking or wheelchair-bound person. I hope to never hear of someone rolling or falling onto the tracks because a group of well-meaning people thought it was a good idea to be all-inclusive and well-meaning, but were unaware of the dangers.

Raised edges on platforms, to stop a wheelchair, have problems if the mechanics to drop the guards when a train pulls into the station malfunction. The guards become tripping hazards, and when the first person falls, others will land on top of them. Many more people may be in jeopardy. Your question is a good one to be posed to the same authorities being forced into decisions, once again, that may cost more than just money.

© 2015 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.