59th Street METRA Station, 25 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act

This was the scene yesterday morning at the 59th Street Metra Station–the one distinctively marked “University of Chicago.” I could have picked more dramatic pictures of senior citizens struggling on the stairs, or of people slipping in sleeting rain. These are pictures from a nice sunny day. This departing passenger happens to be wearing a heavy cast on her foot.

And this was a nice day.

On the sunniest day, Hyde Park residents with disabilities, a 12-year-old Laboratory School student who uses a wheelchair, a University of Chicago visitor, student, staff member, or faculty member with impaired mobility cannot use the nearest train station marked “University of Chicago.”  My 84-year-old mother might want to see David Axelrod or other University luminaries who speak at International House, which is right next door to the station. She couldn’t do that, because she couldn’t handle the stairs.

My mom and everyone else would need to find less convenient alternatives. The 57th Street station is not at the end of the world. Still, it’s a brisk walk away, much further from many University of Chicago buildings and amenities. President George HW Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act more than 25 years ago. Because 59th Street is not deemed a “key station,” there is apparently no legal requirement for full accessibility.

As it happens, the 59th Street station is an eyesore. Renovations now underway might make it less of a blight on the neighborhood. You can see the outward signs of this work in the pictures below the fold.  The cosmetic surgery is beside the point. The City of Chicago, Metra, and the University of Chicago need to get this right.

We might be making progress. A Metra representative Meg Thomas-Reile, emails that:

The work that is now going on at 59th St. to replace the platform and head houses does not include the addition of an elevator.

However, Metra does have plans to do a more extensive renovation of the station that would include the addition of an elevator. We expect to begin design work on that project soon.

I read this with hope, Then my heart sank to read the remainder of her email, which includes the classic Illinois catch:

The timeline for the work, however, would be dependent on funding. We are currently planning to use $3.5 million from the state bond program to help pay for the work. That funding is now on hold due to the state budget situation.

Like everyone else, people in wheelchairs are waiting for our fair state’s political budget gridlock to be resolved.

There’s really no excuse that we’re still talking about this issue in 2016. Metra should certainly pay for this. But if there is a glitch, the University should make sure this gets done. We’ve had more than a quarter-century to secure proper disability access at the train station that bears our name. Our multi-billion-dollar endowment is certainly used for more costly investments in real estate and neighborhood infrastructure than one long-overdue train station elevator. There’s equally little excuse for our student activists–ready to demonstrate about a myriad of national issues–to be so passive about boring yet basic issues of inclusion that hit much closer to home.




Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

24 thoughts on “59th Street METRA Station, 25 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act”

  1. Speaking as someone who's spent time on crutches, stairs are in fact incredibly dangerous to go up, or worse, down, on them. One slight mistake and you're going head over heels down an unforgiving sequence of bone breakers.

    But, they don't have to wait on an elevator. The (temporarily or permanently.) disabled are a small fraction of the population, you can accommodate them with cheaper provisions, such as stair lifts. Or even a call button for a taxi.

    1. Parents with strollers benefit from elevators, as do folks with luggage. The benefits are not just to a small fraction. Most of us were infants at one time, after all.

      1. I've carried a stroller up and down stairs before. It's not the mortal danger that doing a couple of flights of stairs on crutches is. It's just inconvenient.

        1. I suspect your experience of navigating stairs with strollers may owe something to your not being a smallish person and perhaps also not trying to manage diaper bag and stroller while not waking baby. As an engineer, you'll be aware of the problem of balance for a (let's say) 5'5" person weighing 120 pounds carrying a 15-40 pound stroller with a 20 pound child in it who may or may not be awake, may or may not find the odd rhythm of stair movement jarring and upsetting.

          Consider also the reach one must have to lift the stroller, let alone to balance it comfortably, and the fact that you can't see your feet, either going up or coming down. I mentioned the diaper bag–it's subject to shifting as one navigates stairs. II didn't mention the other passengers who are intent on their own destinations, trying to avoid being late to class, or, on their way in, hearing a train, possibly theirs, arriving and hurrying to get on it and completely oblivious to what's going on with anyone else.

          Mortal danger indeed–especially if one considers someone (like the baby) other than oneself. I don't want to make this a contest as to who is more inconvenienced, since the point is that everyone should have access, but the person on crutches can also pause to rest on a stair; the person with stroller can't.

          1. You haven't met my 80 lb wife; She denies it, but I think at some point she was bit by a radioactive spider. You should have seen her carry her end when we brought in the piano.

            Still, point taken. Awkward becomes peril when you're carrying a baby.

            I am somewhat surprised that this doesn't qualify as an ADA violation. It's a bit long term to be deemed "temporary". I guess they get away with it due to government institutions being self certifying for compliance; It's difficult to violate a regulation when you get to decide yourself if you've complied with it.

      2. Agree–but also strongly agree with Brett.

        A couple men can install a stairlift in less than a week, for less than $50,000. (A typical house stair lift, which my elderly former landlord uses, costs about $5,000.) An elevator will cost (per the article) $3.5 million, and be done several years from now.

        Even if a stair lift is only 60% as helpful, it is a huge improvement over nothing.

  2. The politics of fake scarcity in action yet again. All the things we can spend money on, but not this. How did one of the richest countries in the world come to think it had to live like one of the poorest?

    1. It's not the whole country that's broken, it's the big cities. One party states are usually dysfunctional, and our large cities are mostly one party states in miniature.

      1. I don't see NYC or Boston as broken, myself. Certainly mass transit could be improved in both places, but transit funding, and how it interacts with highway funding and so on seems to be a fairly murky subject, so I tend to wonder whether that is part of the problem.

        Note, by the way, that federal highway funding draws in part from the general fund.

          1. No, I've also got a pool, and it hit a hundred today. But this IPad ain't waterproof.

            What do you want, detailed comparisons of big city vs everywhere else crime rates? I thought the Big Dig was about as on point as it gets, given the OP.

          2. A "broken city," to me means high crime, lots of poverty, poor schools, lack of opportunity,etc.

            The Big Dig was a very badly mismanaged construction project – Trump himself couldn't have done worse – but it has nothing to with the matters I listed. Boston is in fact a pleasant and prosperous city – not broken at all.

          3. I was under the impression we were talking about mismanaged construction projects.

            And while I kind of understand the impulse to deny that somebody you dislike has any competencies at all, you're dinging Trump in what is apparently his core competency, managing construction projects. Such as that skating rink.

          4. It's not the whole country that's broken, it's the big cities.

            That's the very broad comment you made that I was responding to. Nothing specifically limited to construction projects there.

            Crawfish much?

            As for Trump, his core competency seems to be bankruptcy – of his own projects and his suppliers. If he's such a great manager why can't he pay his bills? And how do we know, anyway? Seen his books?

          5. So, blame Paul. He's the one that looked at a miss-managed construction project, and generalized to the whole country. I was narrowing the focus.

            Trump runs a multi-billion dollar business empire. I'm not shocked you can find a hundred or so people who are willing to say he doesn't pay his bills. That doesn't mean he's incompetent.

            It means he's running for President.

          6. The point stands: Identify a 10 billion dollar business empire that doesn't have a bunch of mad bill collectors. "Trump's companies don't pay on a timely basis at least 0.01% of their bills!" does not strike me as a winning campaign slogan, so lack of context is pretty important here. And the reports use the word "alleged" a lot. I'd be interested to see how often he loses these in court.

            I mean, if he's habitually stiffing his creditors, it's going to show up in a record of court losses, right?

            I'm not particularly bothered by this, either way. It's to be expected that partisans will focus on every zit of the opponent, and airbrush their own candidate. Clinton has a history of stiffing her creditors, too.

          7. It's not a hundred. It's hundreds, plural. And they are not statements, they are lawsuits. And that doesn't even count the Trump University scam, and the deceptions involved in financing his casinos.

            Trump's core competency is being a con man. You, and the Republican Party, have fallen for it. I only hope the country doesn't.

  3. Metra? To the out-of-towners in the house: most of us use 'CTA' (i.e. the city transit). Metra is the suburban rail system.

  4. FYI: Metra has dozens of stops in the city, many in areas that are not served by CTA rapid transit.

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