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A 9-Month Escalator Outage Gives Subway Riders a 6-Flight Hike

One of the deepest subway stations in one of the hilliest parts of New York City is now home to a subterranean hike.

All three escalators at the 181st Street station on the A line, which sits 80 feet underground, have been out of service since Monday. They were taken out of commission as part of a scheduled outage and won’t be up and running again until February, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said.

Inside the station this week, the escalators were walled off, with orange signs at the top and bottom informing riders they had two options: Take one of the three elevators at the opposite end of the platform, or climb six flights of stairs — a total of 89 steps.

“This is just not acceptable,” said Miryam Lakritz, 27, as she carefully made her way down the stairs.

M.T.A. officials said all three escalators operate on the same motor, so all three must be halted for repairs.Credit…Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times

Of the subway system’s 85 escalators, 32 are currently closed for repairs, according to Tim Minton, a spokesman for the M.T.A. The agency says the shutdowns enable upgrades to an aging system.

The escalators at 181st Street, a busy station in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, have long been spotty, said Jamie Torres-Springer, president of construction and development at the agency. All three were only in operation about 85 percent of the time, he said, and one of them only worked about two-thirds of the time.

But they are all powered by the same motor, which means in order to repair even one of them, all three must be stopped at once.

The station’s elevators, while functional, are at its northern end, on 184th Street and Fort Washington Avenue, requiring riders to walk up to three blocks just to use them. Above ground, they are at the top of a steep hill, so reaching them involves a hike.

As a result, many New Yorkers are opting to just take the stairs — a maddening trek they will now have to face for the next nine months, assuming they are physically able.

The State of New York City’s Subway

  • New Subway Chief: Richard A. Davey, a former Massachusetts transportation secretary, will be the first permanent leader of New York City Transit since the pandemic began. 
  • Perspectives From the Platform: We visited three stations to see where subway riders have returned, and where they haven’t.
  • Platform Barriers: In a reversal, the M.T.A. will test the use of platform barriers at three stations amid mounting concerns over safety.
  • Homelessness Plan: Mayor Eric Adams’s plan to remove homeless people who shelter in the subway appeared to be off to a slow start.
  • Transit Crime: A high-profile killing and the varied nature of some attacks show the challenge Mr. Adams faces.

Riders made the climb at varying speeds during Thursday’s morning commute, with some bounding up the stairs easily, and others clutching the railings, pausing to catch their breath.

The escalator outage highlights a broader problem in a subway system that has long been criticized for being inaccessible to those with disabilities. The system’s lack of accessible stations has forced out thousands of riders with mobility issues, advocates said.

“I get it, there’s a lot of issues on the M.T.A.’s plate,” said Jennifer Van Dyck, a member of the Rise and Resist Elevator Action Group, which has called for more wheelchair accessibility in the city’s public transit system. “The fact of the matter is that accessibility is constantly pushed down to the bottom of the list.”

At 181st Street, even when the escalators are working, the station is not particularly accessible. Reaching either the escalators or the elevators from the platform involves climbing a flight of stairs, an impossibility for some with physical disabilities.

Riders passing through the station Thursday said they were startled by the extent of the escalator outages, which were reported by NBC New York.

“I read somewhere that it was coming, but I didn’t know they had to do all three at once,” said Cade Calder, 46, a musician, as he came down the stairs with his 6-year-old daughter, Ellington.

Cade Calder, with his daughter Ellington, said he knew the repairs were coming but didn’t realize how disruptive they would be.Credit…Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times

“It was already hard enough getting to the platform,” he added. “A little more notice would have been helpful.”

Mr. Minton said the M.T.A. first started posting signs about the upcoming construction on May 11. But he and other officials said they agreed that they could have provided more advance notice.

“This communication didn’t meet our standards,” Mr. Torres-Springer said. “This is part of improving the way that we work. That’s a fair criticism, and we’re sorry we didn’t get the notice out earlier.”

Those who were able to take the stairs smoothly said they were trying to look for silver linings.

“I’m looking at it as getting solid steps in,” said Timothy McGonagle, 51, as he headed for the train.

But others said the outage posed unnecessary challenges, both for those with mobility issues, and for anyone juggling groceries or small children.

Ms. Lakritz, a teacher, said she usually commuted carrying papers to grade, gym equipment and a packed lunch.

“I’m coming at this as an able-bodied person,” she said. “This is already very difficult, carrying all the things that I need for work and getting up the stairs.”

Miryam Lakritz, a teacher, said the escalator outage would make life difficult for all commuters, but especially those who have mobility issues.Credit…Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times

Craig Clarke, 39, slowly herded his daughter Isla, 3, down the stairs with one hand while struggling with her stroller in the other. Upon reaching the bottom, Isla leaned against the wall to rest, winded from the descent.

They actually live closer to the entrance with the elevators, he said. But having become accustomed to taking the escalators over the years, he had forgotten that morning that they would be out of commission.

“If it was breaking down a lot, it’s a good thing they’re fixing it,” he said. “But I don’t know why it takes so long.”

He and other regular riders said they knew the escalators had been unreliable for years, but expressed dismay and disbelief at the timeline for the repairs.

“Why does everything take so long in New York?” said Sonia Kemp, a 32-year resident of the neighborhood. “February? Really? Is the part coming from Germany? What is the issue?”

Mr. Torres-Springer described the nine-month timeline as “typical” for the kind of repairs being made. The old motor needs to be demolished and removed from the station in order to be replaced, he said. Once construction is complete, each of the escalators will have independent motors.

“For folks who are much older, with younger kids, carrying bags, it’s not ideal,” said Jully Hong, taking the stairs with her 5-year-old son, Enzo Kim.Credit…Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times

But the M.T.A., which is trying to lure back the riders it lost during the pandemic, will likely drive people away with disruptions like these, said Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for the Riders Alliance, a public transportation advocacy group — especially if it doesn’t inform them about alternative public transit options.

Instead of telling straphangers their only choices are to find the elevators or take the stairs, he said, the M.T.A. could have put up signs explaining that riders could consider other routes, like getting off at 175th Street, or transferring to a bus at a later stop. The agency needs to make it clear that New Yorkers can still use the system to get to where they need to go, he said, instead of leaving riders with limited options so inconvenient that they may choose to forego public transit entirely.

“That needs to be the M.T.A.’s priority — not losing people to taxis or Ubers, or isolating people because there’s a detour in their route,” he said.

Ana Ley contributed reporting.

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