I moved from Paris to Berlin 2 years ago. Although I’m more of a bike person, I use public transportation and the underground in particular, especially at this time of the year, when it is too cold outside to bike. Taking the underground in Berlin is a completely different experience than taking the Métro in Paris. One of the things that surprised me the most is the absence of turnstiles. Perhaps the most surprising was that for the first time, I was actually witnessing people in wheelchairs using public transportation.
This inspired me to consider and research if there are any points of access for wheelchair users to enter and board Paris’ underground. I discovered that only one underground line (M14, the newest line) fulfills the requirements necessary to welcome wheelchair users. This means that only 2,98% of Paris’ underground network is accessible to wheelchair users. Compare that to 61,27% of Berlin’s underground network. This sad observation led me to wonder: what makes the experience of using the underground for wheelchair users so much easier in Berlin than in Paris? And why is Paris lagging so far behind Berlin? Let’s find out.
There are three main steps involved in traveling on the underground:
- Planning the travel
- Navigating in the underground
- Accessing the train
Based on my observations, I’ve uncovered differences and opportunities to improve accessibility for wheelchair users in both Berlin & Paris.
1. Planning the travel
Which station is accessible to me?
The first question one might ask when preparing a trip is where to start and where to end. This question is an easy one for whoever doesn’t use a wheelchair, but consider the difficulty for those who do. Accessing a station as a wheelchair user requires the station to be equipped with lifts. The BVG in Berlin makes it easy: you can see whether or not a station is equipped with lifts on every single map of the underground. That’s not the case for Paris’ map.
The BVG, however, proposes various options because different disabilities require different equipment! For instance, visually impaired persons don’t need lifts to access train platform, but they might find tactile paving useful.
Which price should I pay?
Another piece of information one might need when planning a trip is how much they should pay for their ticket. But this information is hard to find on both the BVG and RATP websites. I went on the BVG pricing page and there is absolutely no mention of pricing for people with disabilities in general. Why? Because it is free. But locating this information seems impossible unless you use the search functionality.
It’s pretty frustrating, since the breadcrumbs indicate that this information can be found on the page “condition of carriage”, accessible from the “fare overview” page (“Tarifübersicht” in german) but the “fare overview” page isn’t translated yet and the German version of this page doesn’t even have a link directing to the “condition of carriage” page.
On the RATP side, things are more considerate: on the pricing page, one can filter by type of user or occasion to travel. There is a category called “Person with reduced mobility” and once clicked, the title updates. BUT, one has to dive deeper to actually find the right title. As a wheelchair user, you probably own a disability pass, in which case the title you should pay for is the reduced fare. When clicking on the “t+ tickets”, you can eventually see who the reductions are for. Unfortunately, and this is the case for all RATP websites, they only mention “blind civilians” or “disabled veterans”. You must admit: the range of people with disabilities who own a disability pass go far beyond these 2 categories of users.
And since the previous pricing page has a section called “Reduced fare tickets”, why can’t you see the reduced fare in there?
Can I buy a ticket online?
As we have seen previously, wheelchair users don’t need to buy a transportation title in Berlin to use the public transportation. However, it is good to know that everyone can pay on their website or app regardless of their transportation title.
In Paris, it is possible to pay online, only if you have a travel pass such as Imagin’R or Améthyste, on which you can load individual or periodic titles.
2. Orientation in the underground
How can I access the station?
Now, let’s jump out of our computer and see how the experience looks on site.
Getting into a station in Berlin while in a wheelchair requires that the station be equipped with lifts. When it is, the lift might stop at different levels including:
- outdoor entrance/exit
- Connection corridor (in case the different platforms are not on the same level)
- train platforms
Lifts are a must to make train stations accessible to wheelchair users but it doesn’t mean they provide the most delightful experience. To better understand the experience, I followed wheelchair users while getting in and out of underground stations and discovered that it takes a huge amount of time. The elevator capacity is quite limited: only 2 people in a wheelchair or trolley can board at the same time. This can result in very frustrating situations for wheelchair users who have to wait for the 3rd lift to arrive to finally have enough room to get in.
That said, installing lifts is a difficult task in terms of civil engineering. Especially in a city like Paris, whose underground is said to be like a “Gruyere cheese”.
“For several centuries, vast gypsum quarries were installed in the near Paris outskirts, in order to supply building materials to the capital. Gypsum, a rock found in abundance in the Isle of France, was thus used and exploited intensively. This strong exploitation will result in the fracturing of many underground cavities … While the rampant urbanization led to an increasingly extensive occupation of space, buildings were built on friable soil, previously exploited. Under the effect of bad weather in particular — gypsum being a rock which dissolves on contact with water — these old underground galleries collapsed by the hundreds, sometimes taking with them the buildings located on the surface…”
But civil engineering is not the only reason why it is so hard to install lifts in Paris’ underground. The architecture in itself is also a huge obstacle.
First, the turnstiles (or gates) installed at the entrance of all stations create a barrier.
To prevent fraud at each station, RATP will need to install at least 2 lifts for people in wheelchairs to be able to access the platform, one before and one after the gate.
Second, the platform architecture complicates things. In Berlin, the railways are on the side, while the platform, located in the middle, is shared by commuters going in both directions. This means that 1 lift gives access to both directions of 1 line. In Paris, the reverse is true: The railways are in the middle and the platform on the side. So if RATP will have to install lifts for all lines and at each platform. This adds up to about 586 lifts.
To access the platform at Gare Saint-Lazare, a wheelchair user has to take 3 lifts. One to get to the ticket office, one to go to the second level and one to reach the platform. Each platform is equipped with its own lift.
As I write this (December 2019), none of these lifts are functioning, which also highlights another issue related to lift: maintenance. So even if the station is made to be accessible, you might not be able to access it because the lift is broken. The BVG has been collaborating with SOZIALHELDEN, a local Berlin association fighting for more consideration towards people with disabilities, to provide BrokenLifts, a tool that can update you on the current state of the lifts on all the transportation networks in Berlin.
An alternative to lifts found at Gare Saint-Lazare are ramps. But this might only work as an alternative for small stairs, as the recommended slope (in the USA) has to be kept below 1:12 (8.33%).
Buying a ticket
In this section, I will only focus on Paris’ case, since wheelchair users are not supposed to pay tickets to use the public transportation in Berlin.
The average height of a wheelchair is 45cm. By measuring the height of my colleagues when they are sitting, the average height of their vision field in addition to those 45cm is between 1m15 and 1m30. I agree this is not the most reliable measurement, but my point is that both the ticket office and this ticket machine are too high to ensure a pleasant experience for wheelchair users. I can imagine this is the case for all subway station in Paris…
3. Accessing the train
How can I get in the train?
The space between the platform and the train varies a lot depending on the line in both Paris and Berlin.
This creates another barrier for wheelchair users. Berlin is managing this issue by installing ramps that train drivers can use to help wheelchair users get in and out of their train.
The wheelchair users can position themselves at the front of the platform so that the train driver sees them. The train drivers will then have to get out of the train, take the ramp, put it between the train and the platform, unfold it, let the wheelchair users get in, ask the users where they want to get off, put the ramp away, get back into the train and finally, leave the station. Drivers will have to repeat this process at the wheelchair users’ end station.
It is certainly a tedious process: It takes time to set up, the ramp isn’t very light to carry, it makes a lot of noise when unfolded… It also draws a lot of attention to the person using it. Most significantly, it makes the wheelchair users completely dependent on the train drivers. Although some wheelchair users need someone to assist them in daily tasks, lots of wheelchair users don’t need anyone. Autonomy is an important topic for wheelchair users and this solution is making all wheelchair users dependent on someone else to enter and exit the train. So while this is a midterm solution, it is definitely not a long-term solution.
In the end, it doesn’t seem like there are too many workarounds regarding the transition from platform to train. Hopefully, the newest trains are designed to be at the same level as the platform, and the closest as possible to it. This way, wheelchair users can enter and exit the train at will.
It is also worth mentioning that in Paris, all the platforms of stations that are automated (like M1 and M4) are leveled and raised, which is a great step towards accessibility.
Is there a place for me on the train?
Finally, let’s talk about travel in and of itself. Similar to train access, the travel experience varies a lot depending on how old the train is. A report from The European Conference of Ministers of Transport published in 2008 recommended:
“A wheelchair space, clearly marked as such, with a flat surface without obstacles and with minimum dimensions of 1 300 mm x 750 mm as well as space to manoeuvre.”
What is happening in practice, more than 10 years after the release of this guide? Although this excerpt comes from the “buses and coaches” section, I tend to believe these recommendations can also be applied to underground trains. The older trains are once again, the less adapted regarding accessibility features. Some hacks, however, can be found again.
In Berlin, stickers have been added to older and newer train structures to make clear that certain spaces are dedicated to wheelchair users. The newest trains go as far as to state this explicitly on the facade of the train that this wagon has a space dedicated to wheelchair and trolley users.
Once you board the train you can instantly see where the wheelchair space is located, since it is clearly marked on the ground — just like the report recommends. So far, I have seen no such thing in Paris, even in the newest train, the M14.
Additionally, the layout of the trains in Paris makes it really hard to navigate for wheelchair users, because of the poles that stand right in the middle of each entrance. We agree that these are convenient to grab when many people are packed inside, but on the other hand, it creates a new barrier for wheelchair users to overcome.
Trains in Berlin are designed to avoid such issues. Poles are kept on the sides and top of the train, leaving room for wheelchair users to move freely.
Others questions one might ask when traveling in the train are related to observation:
- Where I am?
- What is the next station?
- How much station do I still have to travel?
Trains in Berlin are equipped with many types of screens, whether video or LED, all of which inform you of where you are and where you are going. In newer trains, one can find screens that tell you whether or not the next station is equipped with lifts. Only the newest M1 train has TV screens and although some other lines are equipped with LED maps, this is not the case for M14. Having screens in underground trains would benefit everybody: most travelers don’t hear or understand vocal announcements as easily as visual elements, whether they are listening to music, have a hearing impairment, or do not speak the official language of the country.
Building an underground train is an extremely complicated task, especially when it has to be done on top of a 120 year old infrastructure that has been built with little to no consideration for people with disabilities. It is great to see that mindsets are shifting alongside policies and that both trains and stations are being constructed to include more and more features for people with disabilities.
The question now is how to bridge the gap between the infrastructure that already exists and what will exist tomorrow. As I outlined in this article, some hacks already exist and can make the everyday life of wheelchair user a little easier. The Paris underground can be improved in many ways, although some obstacles, such as the constraint of the ground foundation, might be impossible to overcome.
I would like to conclude with the topic of the turnstile, which in my opinion creates more barriers in the underground than it does reduce the amount of ticket fraud. While yes, I have witnessed more fraud than wheelchair users in Paris’ underground, I also appreciate that the Berlin BVG trusts their users enough to avoid installing, what is probably a huge and costly piece of infrastructure.
Thanks for reading!
I hope you enjoyed reading through this article. If you noticed something that is missing or should be added, please let me know. I am always happy to get feedback. Big thanks to Maya Guice for proof-reading this article and to Anne Morel for the beautiful illustration. Also thanks to Goodpatch for giving me the time to invest this topic and write this article.