PARIS — Soon after arriving in Boston for my university studies, I began to notice people in wheelchairs and others with physical disabilities struggling to use the city’s public transportation system. It’s been almost two months since coming to Paris, and I have not seen a single person in a wheelchair use the city’s legendary metro.

As anyone who has visited Paris will have noticed, not all metro experiences are created equal. That is part of the charm, with different station designs and train models. But the price for any lack of modernity is paid above all by the disabled. The oldest lines tend to be the least wheelchair-friendly, and it is only the newest line which can claim full accessibility to both trains and stations. But now, in the lead up to the 2024 Summer Olympics and Paralympics, this may begin to change.

The French Minister of Transportation, Elisabeth Borne, recently announced plans to make France’s public transportation fully accessible by 2021, according to Le Monde. If achieved, this would bring Paris’s metro system up from being one of the worst in the world to one of the — ranking alongside places like Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., which were found by a 2017 Guardian article to be 100% accessible.

It leaves wheelchair users no choice.

To be fully accessible, a station must be set up so that someone in a wheelchair can get from the street to the inside of the train car without requiring assistance from anyone else. Currently, there are only nine such metro stops in Paris, and they are all on Line 14, which was built in 1990 and is already fully automated, unlike most of the other lines. Considering the many different technological levels present in the Paris metro, not to mention other cities in France, Borne has a major challenge on her hands.

Of course, Paris is not the only city with inaccessible public transportation. Back in Boston, of 145 trolley stops, 31 of them are still not handicap accessible – most of them on the four-armed Green Line and five of the seven stops on Boston University’s main campus, according to information gathered from the MBTA local transportation authority’s website. Of the many stations that are accessible, the person must request a modification of some sort to access the train itself, whether that be a ramp or the lowering of the train car. For the commuter rail, there are again 31 stations that are not handicap accessible. The trains themselves have only a very small area that is accessible – regular seating areas are accessed by a short flight of stairs either up or down. This setup leaves wheelchair users no choice but to stay directly in front of the doors, in an area that is often used for storing large luggage items.

The MBTA is currently working on making one of the inaccessible Red Line stops fully accessible — a process that began in April 2017 and is set to continue through 2020, the Boston Globe says. The renovations include three accessible elevators, two new escalators and new bathrooms, according to progress updates from local authorities.

Commuters on the Red Line between Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston — Photo: Scott Teresi

The Olympics, it turns out, can be a boon to transport accessibility. When Barcelona was preparing to host the Games in 1992, it began making its metro system fully accessible. Of its 156 stations, only 15 are not currently accessible, and two of those are currently being upgraded, with plans fixed to upgrade the rest. The bus system is also fully accessible, both for those with mobility impairment and those with impaired sight.

It's hard to imagine a fully modernized version of the iconic Parisian metro system, and no doubt effort will be spent to maintain its old world charm. But for Paris to be truly worthy of hosting both the 2024 Olympics and the Paralympics, the city's public transportation must be accessible to athletes from both competitions — and each and every one of us mere mortals as well.


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