The last time I boarded a train at Union Station in D.C., it was on the low platform tracks.
That means for people to board the train, they need to climb up some pretty steep stairs that descend from the train car doors. This is no problem if you, like me, are taking a very short trip with a simple daypack. But lots of people riding an intercity train have larger bags that they may struggle with. I was right behind a woman who was on the smaller side and really struggling with her roller bag. I had a moment of indecision as to whether it would be chivalrous or condescending of me to offer to help her, but I decided to go with helping out.
The low platforms also, of course, make it impossible to roll a wheelchair onto the train, which is an Americans with Disabilities Act no-no.
But because adversarial legalism is weird, the upshot of the ADA is that instead of spending the money to create better train platforms, Amtrak has “accommodations” for people in wheelchairs. If you need a special ramp to get onto the train, they have special mobile ramps available at all the stations, and an Amtrak employee will go get one for you and wheel it over so you can board the train. If you’re just struggling with a heavy bag, then maybe someone with free hands will help you out.
I was thinking about this when I read Freddie deBoer’s ’stack on self-diagnosed mental illnesses on social media, where he makes this observation:
What I can tell you for a fact is that society cannot possibly give special accommodation to everyone. This, more than anything else, is the project of social justice in 2022: the demand that more and more people be treated with special dispensations that in some way exempt them from the more unpleasant aspects of modern life. If you’re Black, you deserve special dispensation; if you’re a woman, you deserve special dispensation; if you’re gay, you deserve special dispensation; if you’re trans, you deserve special dispensation; if you’re neurodivergent, you deserve special dispensation; if you’re suffering from chronic illness, you deserve special dispensation. And in general I agree with all of that. But the actual expression of what special dispensation means is everything. The Americans with Disabilities Act standard is one of the most elegant and useful in law - that we should extend every reasonable accommodation, but not every conceivable accommodation, to those with disabilities. This is why we have elevator and ramp rules in public buildings but no legal demand that blind people be able to become pilots, because the former is reasonable and the latter is not. But what happens when the demand for accommodations expands beyond just those with disabilities and comes to encompass those with all manner of other identity categories? And what happens when demands overlap and compete?
I think the point he is offering about the incentives this discourse creates for people to invent ever-finer-grained forms of marginalization is correct. But I don’t really agree with the implication that we should see this primarily as a good impulse gone bad.
There are worse things than making special accommodations so that people in wheelchairs can get on a train. It would be worse, for example, not to make the accommodation and deny them access. But what would be better is investing the money necessary to create level boarding. Not just because that would be a more dignified solution for people in wheelchairs, but because it would be generally better — better for people with roller bags, strollers, young kids, and people with knee pain. There’s room in life for special accommodations, but I think our society’s current obsession with identity groups reflects the triumph of a scarcity mindset and a genuinely catastrophic loss of focus on how we can find big levers to make positive changes in the world.
It’s good to solve problems
Joe Biden recently remarked offhandedly that “the pandemic is over,” which is, of course, completely correct in a political sense.
It prompted backlash, though, from the usual quarters on Twitter where the people who’ve spent the past year fighting a losing rear-guard action in favor of continued non-pharmaceutical interventions tend to invoke the specter of Long Covid and the needs of marginalized communities. It often seems to me that the people claiming personal vulnerability in these cases are not necessarily the most objectively vulnerable; they’re simply following the norm that if you want something, that’s the way to press your case for it.
But whatever their motives, they’re clearly not winning the argument. The mass public isn’t going to (and I think shouldn’t) embrace an essentially permanent state of siege for the sake of minimizing Covid-19 transmission.
What I think is important to acknowledge, though, is that even though “the pandemic is over” is a better option than “non-pharmaceutical interventions forever!” the existence of endemic Covid-19 is in fact very bad. If you went back in time five years and said you could eliminate the flu by pushing a magic button, everyone would think pushing the button was a really good idea. Yes, the flu is just the flu, but lots of people die every year because of it. Plenty of school is missed. It’s annoying being sick. But instead of making the flu go away, we now have the burden of a whole new respiratory virus over and above everything else. It’s bad.
The best solution, though, isn’t just to hector for more consideration for the most vulnerable — it’s to try to attack the virus with science.
Right now the government, sadly, has lost any sense of urgency about developing next-generation Covid-19 vaccines that could target multiple variants at once and block transmission by putting defenses in our noses. Better vaccines would reduce Covid-19 just by virtue of being better. But better vaccines would also be more widely used, so the social efficacy of superior vaccines would be dramatically higher.
Something I think about sometimes is that while I’m “not disabled,” my eyesight is in fact terrible. If you plopped me far enough back in time, my inability to see anything would be a huge issue. In the real world, it’s not a big deal because eyeglasses are very effective — nearsighted people don’t need special affordances because we can get glasses and contact lenses. It doesn’t fully level the playing field, of course. If my glasses slipped off my face while I was boarding the train and fell onto the tracks, my whole trip would be ruined. But for practical purposes, developing a technical solution for nearsightedness has solved our problems.
Better policy is better
Back to trains. In D.C., all metro stations are accessible by elevator.
I never thought about that until I found myself in possession of a baby who needed to be pushed around town in a stroller. Then for several years, I was a frequent user of the metro system’s elevators. My kid has now outgrown the stroller, but I have taken my bike on the metro using the elevator. It’s a nice feature to have.
The New York City subway system is much less accessible since it’s older. But back in June, they announced the settlement of some ADA litigation that will lead to 95 percent of the system being accessible by 2055. Why does it take a full generation to install some elevators? Well, as Alon Levy explains, the cost per elevator is so astronomically high that it’s just not feasible to do more than eight or nine stations per year.
The current program to make 81 stations accessible by 2025 is $5.2 billion. This is $64 million per station, and nearly all are single-line stations requiring three elevators, one between the street and the outside of fare control and one from just inside fare control to each of two side platforms. Berlin usually only requires one elevator as it has island platforms and no fare barriers, but sometimes it needs two at stations with side platforms, and the costs look like 1.5-2 million € per elevator. Madrid the cost per elevator is slightly higher, 3.2 million €. New York, in contrast, spends $20 million, so that a single station in New York is comparable in scope to the entirety of the remainder of the Berlin U-Bahn.
Alon’s point is about the limits of adversarial legalism.
ADA litigation can make New York launch an elevator program, but it can’t force the city to figure out contracting and management practices to get it done in a reasonable time. ADA litigation can force Amtrak to make special provisions for people to board trains at low platform stations, but it can’t make America’s passenger railroads prioritize level boarding projects.
But the even broader point is that the situations of people with special needs are less “special” than you might think.
New York’s construction costs are exorbitant not just for elevators, but for everything the MTA does. A successful campaign to drive the region’s construction costs down to Nordic levels would unlock dozens of potentially useful mass transit projects all around the metro area, speeding commutes and increasing housing flexibility for everyone. In the context of a dysfunctional system, money for elevators crowds out other capital projects. The most relevant question becomes distributive — who wins and who loses — and we need to ask which groups we care most about and which get special affordances. But elevators, like level boarding, are good for everyone. The problem is inadequate ability to undertake construction projects, which ultimately comes down not to stinginess or poverty, but to poor management.
Winners, winners, everywhere
Something that a lot of people who I like and respect are probably too good at is explaining why this or that problem can’t be solved because of dysfunctional contracting relationships or bad labor unions or whatever.
What I always want to say in response is that while of course these problems would’ve been solved already if they were easy to solve, I reject the idea that they are genuinely unsolvable. When a problem is genuinely very severe, the upside to solving it is large. And when the upside to finding solutions is large, it should be possible to align incentives. After all, whatever contracting fuckery is making it too expensive to reconstruct train stations to have level boarding is currently generating $0 in revenue, not a windfall. A cost-effective proposal might actually be implemented and generate revenue for contractors and jobs for labor.
The elevator situation isn’t quite as bad, because they are going to build some elevators. But it’s still true that the exorbitant cost of building in New York City is leading to less total spending on new projects rather than more because there are all kinds of projects — like a rail tunnel from Hoboken into lower Manhattan and then out the other side to connect to Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn — that are just inconceivable under the current cost paradigm.
It’s very challenging to come up with ideas for reform that make literally everyone better off. But the point of a good reform should be to create so much value that it’s possible to strike win-win deals with a large share of relevant stakeholders. That’s not easy — both policy design and politicking require skill and effort — but it’s not impossible either. But it does require people to get out of the habit of trying to come up with particularist claims to make on behalf of themselves and getting them in the habit of advocating for positive-sum ideas that happen to be aligned with their interests. If you’re fired up about Covid-19, get fired up about obstacles to vaccine development. If you’re mad about the poor transit service in your neighborhood, try to understand why overall costs are so bad. If you’re feeling social anxiety about whether it’s appropriate to offer to help someone lift a bag up the stairs, ask why there’s a staircase there in the first place.
In other words, the answer to the impossibility of getting a special accommodation for everyone isn’t to ask for less, it’s to ask for more — for more profound solutions to bigger problems.