Photo shows a closeup of a subway emergency exit.
An Upper East Side subway station's emergency exits will be locked with a time-delay in what one advocate calls "an anti-disability move" | Upper East Site

MTA to Lock UES Subway Station’s Emergency Exits with Time Delay, Potentially Trapping Disabled Commuters in Danger

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Emergency exits at three subway stations, including one on the Upper East Side, will soon be locked and prevented from opening — even in an emergency — for 15 seconds, an amount of time that advocates say could prove fatal for a disabled commuter trapped inside a station during a train fire, mass shooting, or terror attack — scenarios that have already occurred in New York City in the past few years.

Revealed yesterday at an MTA Committee meeting, the Emergency Gate Pilot Program will create a delay for anyone attempting to enter or exit a station through the emergency door. Though it will eventually open, the delay is meant to redirect impatient riders toward the turnstiles, thereby reducing the number of people who sneak through and evade the fare.

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Photo shows a row of turnstiles and a black emergency exit door inside a NYC subway station.
Under the pilot program, emergency exits will stay locked on a time-delay at three subway stations | Upper East Site

At a press gaggle on Monday, Richard Davey, the president of the New York City Transit, which oversees the MTA’s subway operations, defended the program.

“That’s the goal. It’s to frustrate folks who might want to be using [emergency gates] as a matter of convenience, where you have a perfectly good turnstile next. And then if that door opens, as we know, it becomes the fare evasion superhighway.”

Receiving a waiver from the state to time-lock the emergency exits, Davey called many of the gates “redundant” and assured reporters that “we still have a safe station, we still have the ability to provide adequate egress within the station. Despite having a 15-second delay, we’re confident that we’ve done so safely.”

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Photo shows a short row of turnstiles and a black emergency exit door inside a NYC subway station.
Advocates say the plan to lock emergency doors on a time-delay poses a danger to disabled commuters | Upper East Site

Not everyone agrees.

“The MTA is prioritizing money over my life and the lives of other people with disabilities,” disability advocate and former Upper East Side City Council candidate Rebecca Lamorte told Upper East Site. In an emergency, such as the mass shooting in a Brooklyn subway station in 2022, disabled people who could not get through turnstiles would be delayed in exiting, and a delay of 15 seconds could kill.

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“The MTA is prioritizing getting $3 swipes. And that’s even more egregious because, in emergency planning, disabled people are never taken into account.”

Lamorte, who became disabled 10 years ago after being shoved and falling into the gap between the train and platform in a Midtown station, stressed the fact that the city’s subway system is already inaccessible, with only about a quarter of stations featuring elevators, and platforms often being too thin for wheelchair users to navigate.

Photo shows a woman with curly brown hair and a light complexion dressed in black holding a cane standing in front of an entrance to the 51st Street subway station.
Rebecca Lamorte is a former Upper East Side City Council candidate and disability justice advocate who became disabled after being shoved and falling into the gap between the platform and the train | Nora Wesson

Thinking of the subway shooting just under two years ago, Lamorte remembered the pictures and video of the attack and its aftermath.

“I saw seniors; I saw people with disabilities that could not escape because it was not an accessible station,” she said, her voice shaking.

“So on top of that, now if we have security gates, our emergency exit gates with a time delay on them, you’re going to have disabled people sitting there waiting, potentially to die, to be physically harmed in the system.”

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Photo shows chaos inside a Brooklyn subway  station after a mass shooting, including victims bleeding on the ground and smoke from smoke bombs.
Frank James was sentenced to life in prison for the mass shooting on a Brooklyn subway train that wounded 10 commuters | @angry_yeti / TMX

Davey said Monday that “if there’s an emergency, customers will be able to get out of the station because there’s enough other means of egress to do so,” though he did not elaborate.

Even outside of emergencies, Lamorte believes the 15-second delay will inconvenience and discriminate against disabled people.

“Those emergency exits are not just for emergencies. They are for people with disabilities that cannot enter or exit the subway system — if a station is even accessible for them to — that cannot go through the turnstile,” she said.

Photo show a crowded subway station.
The MTA claims the time-delay locks on emergency exits won’t be a problem for commuters fleeing in an emergency | Upper East Site

“So now, if you are, say, a wheelchair user, you’re going to be sitting there for 15 seconds, waiting for the door to open, because the city is more worried about fare evasion than you being able to move about the station and the city you call home as quickly and easily as able-bodied passengers in the system.”

Lamorte added, “That’s egregious, but that’s sadly expected from the MTA.”

The pilot program will be launching in mid-February, according to reporting by Gothamist, at the East 59th Street-Lexington Avenue subway station, as well as those at 138th Street and Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn. It is currently unclear when, or if, the program will be expanded citywide.

Photo shows a subway entrance in the side of Bloomingdales with black tile out the outside and white tile on the inside leading to a staircase.
The 59th Street-Lexington Avenue subway station is one of three to receive time-delay locked emergency exits | Upper East Site

At the 59th Street Station Tuesday morning, Upper East Site found eight turnstiles out of service and an unknown number blocked off by construction fencing for a project that won’t be finished until next June, according to signage.

No one used the emergency gates during our visit, though one man did hop the turnstile at a platform entrance while police officers were stationed at the other end.

“I’m feeling a lot of rage,” Lamorte said. “This is furthering the inaccessibility of our public transit system.”

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