By Elena Cox
One morning in 2014, Rita Kakati Shah was pregnant with her second child, trying to navigate the stairs to get the downtown 1 train with her 18-month-old son on West 79th Street.
She was traveling alone, bumping his stroller one step at a time like a dolly to get to the platform, when a stranger darted past her to catch the subway. He hit the stroller and knocked it out of her hands, causing her son to tumble down the stairs.
Luckily, he was strapped into his seat, so he wasn’t hurt, just startled. While other commuters rushed to her aid, she says, the man was already gone.
“I don’t think he even noticed,” she said.
Navigating the New York City transit system with a stroller or young child can be a nightmare for parents and caregivers. Only about a quarter of New York City subway stations are equipped with elevators, but that number can be lower when those elevators are out of service. According to MTA data, the 308 elevators across the boroughs were operable about 96% of the time over the past year.
The risks of traveling with children sparked public debate in January, when Malaysia Goodson, a 22-year-old mother from Stamford, Conn., was found dead at the bottom of a flight of subway stairs at the 7th Avenue, 53rd Street station in Manhattan. Her 1-year-old daughter Rhylee was unharmed.
Police later said they suspected Goodson, who had medical issues, died at the top of the stairs before she fell.
But the tragedy still shed a light on an issue parents and caregivers know well.
Sarah Manzo, of Park Slope in Brooklyn, says there have been times she’s made it to her destination with her 3-year-old twins, only to find the elevators out of service, forcing her to return home.
“With a double-stroller, the stairs can just be way too crazy in a busy station,” Manzo said.
If they do make it to the subway, many parents say they prefer to sit on outside seats close to the door, or stand, so they can get off the train quickly once they reach their stop.
Christine Yearwood, a mother of two from Astoria, became fed up with the transit system five years ago, after having her first child.
“I was a new mom, trying to make friends and I heard this from so many moms,” Yearwood said.
So Yearwood founded UP-STAND, a company and advocacy group that aims to make public spaces and transportation safer for pregnant women and parents. She also serves on the MTA’s Advisory Committee for Transit Accessibility, an 18-member volunteer group.
Astoria, while popular with young families, has no accessible stations.
At the time, the MTA said it planned to install elevators at one station by 2020, but that wasn’t good enough for Yearwood. She helped gather a group of parents and other activists who held a rally at the Astoria Boulevard station.
“The last time they had made improvements to these stations was 100 years ago,” Yearwood said. “So we were like …we can’t wait for another 100 years.”
In February, the MTA said it would close the Astoria Boulevard station for nine months to install four elevators. The stop is also an access point to the M60 bus to Laguardia Airport.
Patricia Green, of Crown Heights, would rather walk up to an hour from her neighborhood with her toddler son to Grand Army Plaza or the Atlantic Avenue subway station, just so she can use a subway station with an elevator.
And buses have their own issues.
MTA rules state that strollers must be folded before boarding, but it can be difficult to collapse a stroller with one hand and a baby in the other.
“Getting on the bus is an ordeal all on its own when you’re juggling everything,” Green said. “And then when you’re on, there’s nowhere to store your stroller. So there you are alone, holding a stroller in one hand, a toddler in the other and whatever bags you have strewn all over the floor.”
Some parents and caregivers have given up using public transit altogether.
Dawn Brown, of Sunset Park, hates taking the subway with her 7-month-old daughter, and feels so trapped inside her own neighborhood she’s considering moving out of New York City altogether.
While not much research has been done on the topic, an online survey last year by the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation found the nearly 550 caretakers in New York City who opted to take the survey have to budget up to $100 per month in addition to regular travel expenses to get places with their children.
People traveling with young children often have to rely on the kindness of strangers.
Jean Khemai, of Richmond Hill, has worked as a nanny for 15 years and says someone will usually offer to help carry a stroller up the stairs, even if she has to wait a few minutes.
“There are a lot of helping people out there,” Khemai said.
But Yearwood says there needs to be systemic change.
“I’m hesitantly hopeful,” she said. “But people have been doing really great work to put the pressure on the MTA.”