Public Transit for the Mobility Limited - Scope: Global
December 4, 2019 10:25 AM   Subscribe

What cities around the world have developed great public transit solutions for people with limited mobility—especially those in wheelchairs or with strollers? What did the city do to make public transit more navigable and accessible? I’m particularly curious about apps/websites that have made public transit easier to navigate for people with mobility limitations.

Here’s a common example of the type of problem for which I’m hoping a city has already developed a solution: I need to meet a friend in an area I’ve never visited. I go on the train company’s website to look up stations nearby that have elevators; the one closest to my ultimate destination does not have one, but another one does. I arrive at that station, only to find that the elevator is (a) incredibly hard to find within the station , (b) one of three elevators I have to take to exit the station, each of them spaced far apart and hard to find, (c) broken, (d) filthy, and/or (e) incredibly slow-moving and overcrowded, adding fifteen minutes to my commute.

What kinds of solutions have cities and/or citizens come up with to address these issues? Is there an app out there that’s made this easier in any city? A remodeling of train stations to make them easier to navigate?
posted by saltypup to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Montreal's metro (subway system) was initially built with no elevators. The first layout opened in 1966 but the later blue line (last station opened 1988) didn't have them either. By the time the Laval extension opened in 2007 it had become clear this was a serious oversight, and the three new stations included elevators in the design.

The STM has been working on retrofitting elevators into existing stations. The metro map shows an elevator icon next to all stations that have them. More are being added yearly.

Most STM buses have a front ramp for wheelchairs and a space allotted for them inside. The bus schedules on the website allow you to select for specific departures with the ramp. (Eventually this specification won't be needed, I think, as all the new buses have them.)
posted by zadcat at 10:38 AM on December 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

Chicago is doing a pretty good job about highlighting where elevators are on their system and, whenever rehabbing, adding elevators. Elevator alerts (i.e. non-functional elevators) are on their website at that link. They have an accessibility page on their website that's the parent to all these pages.
posted by WCityMike at 10:54 AM on December 4, 2019

London’s underground website has options that let you search by what kind of access you need, escalators, lifts, step-free access. It can be difficult to have quick journeys but does help.
posted by ellieBOA at 10:59 AM on December 4, 2019

Warsaw is quite decent - the metro is new enough that all stations have elevators, ramps or both, all buses are wheelchair accessible, and low-floor trams are marked on the schedules. It could still be better, e.g. the old Russian metro trains have a gap between train and platform that means only very athletic wheelchair users can get on - my neighbor basically tilts her chair back by 30 degrees to clear it - so you can get stuck waiting for 15 minutes for a modern train to come along. Similarly a friend had to actually teach tram drivers how to deal with their platforms. There are websites devoted to accessibility of public buildings, run by NGOs with public funding and cooperation, but stuff like restaurant accessibility is still a question of calling them up and checking.

Cracow has an official app for tourists with accessibility needs. I don't think Warsaw has one yet.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 11:12 AM on December 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

Portland, Oregon's transit system, Tri-Met, is very kind to those with limited mobility. The light rail system is mostly surface level, with only a few stops requiring stairs/elevator. Busses are prolific, and most stop downtown on a transit mall, so for transferring, you just walk a block or two in either direction to catch the transfer.

Their website's Transit Planner allows you to input how far you are willing/able to walk for your trip, down to 1/10 of a mile. The site will plan around that.
posted by hydra77 at 11:35 AM on December 4, 2019

Some of this will vary by the age and design of the system. Here in Calgary, all of the buses are accessible (they have deployable ramps) and all of the light rail stations are accessible as well. (Trains have relatively small gaps, but the middle doors on each car have a small ramp that reduces the gap even further). The original LRT stations were built in the early 1980s, part of the first wave of North American light rail, the same time as Portland. The system at the time was designed to maximize separation of passengers and the tracks; the designers were very worried about that. As a result, a lot of the early stations were built like this one, where the platform is to the right in the median of the road, then you have to go up into the red building to the second floor to get out (there's an elevator); you cross the pedestrian bridge over the road, then down the spiral ramp on the left to street level -- the station is symmetric, so the same setup exists on the other side of the road. In all of these cases, the elevator is sort of tucked away so that the primary access is through stairs and escalators, so that elevator use is for those who need it.

It turns out that there never really was a problem with people on the tracks; after community pushback over a big station in an affluent, politically active community, a much lower profile one was built and turned out to be just as safe. Newer stations are generally more built like this one; the station access is direct, with a path across the tracks and a ramp up to platform height. Downtown, the stations look like this one, where the entire sidewalk is the platform, just a gentle slope up. (Some stations still have elevators and ramps because they are in depressed road medians, underground or elevated; but these are becoming the exception rather than the rule.)

This station is two stops past the first one I linked; it has the same design with elevators and so on, but was retrofit so that the other end of the platform (to the left) has a ramp that leads to an at-grade crossing of the road, which is a lot easier than the two storey ramp, and doesn't have the wait for or risk of failure of an elevator. But this level crossing is only feasible because the electricity for the trains is in the overhead wires; a lot of older metros use third-rail power, where contact with the rail can electrocute you. Most of the original stations where the only access was through elevators in the station head have been retrofit to have this easier at-grade access; the main exceptions are those where the other end of the station is in a road that doesn't have an at-grade crossing (a few in the median of a freeway, for example). This station is notable because it still has the grade separation, but an additional ramp was added to get to the platform without elevators; this station serves the arena and Stampede grounds, so it gets very busy periods. (It's also planned for more substantial renovations in the future).

A term you may be interested in, if you haven't run across it yet, is "universal design". This is the idea that designing for everybody helps even people who might not be the original target. For example, level boarding of transit is vital for people using wheelchairs, but it also helps out people with strollers, carts or luggage; people with reduced mobility who could climb stairs but with difficulty. But it also helps out people who could climb stairs if they want, it's easier to not have to, and vehicles board more quickly. And this universal design means that every transit app here provides the best route for any user of the system, since all vehicles and stations are accessible.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 12:04 PM on December 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

What kinds of solutions have cities and/or citizens come up with to address these issues?

In part, laws and regulations that mandate accessibility, e.g., the Americans with Disabilities Act (U.S.), the Equality Act (U.K.), the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (Ontario, Canada -- municipalities are a provincial jurisdiction; Manitoba has recently enacted similar legislation; the recently-passed Accessible Canada Act will apply to federally-regulated transportation like passenger rail and airlines), and, if we're talking cities, a patchwork of local accessibility bylaws and ordinances.

Here is the Toronto Transit Commission's (TTC) 2019-2023 TTC Multi-Year Accessibility Plan (pdf), which they are mandated to create and file under the AODA. It explains accessibility requirements, upgrades, and programs that have been implemented or that are being planned.

Specific to elevator access, the TTC has a elevator status info line and email alerts about elevator and escalator status.

The TTC's trip planner also has an "accessible trip" option that restricts routes to barrier-free ones.

See also the U.K.'s Department for Transport's Inclusive Transport Strategy: Achieving Equal Access for Disabled People (pdf).

Just suggesting this because you didn't use these in your question: some of the terms you're looking for are "accessible," "accessibility," "universal design," and "barrier-free," as they relate to transit.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 12:05 PM on December 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

Also, there's an European Parliament report you might be interested in: Transport and tourism for persons with disabilities and persons with reduced mobility (pdf)

It includes a section that documents and illustrates accessibility best practices from a number of transit systems in cities across Europe, such as:
Coordinated accessible mobility across Berlin

Accessible transport within the context of wider urban accessibility in Lyon

Accessible Destination: Barcelona

Accessibility of metro networks from design to maintenance and everyday use in Athens
It's worth noting that Athens, as the host city for the 2004 Olympic and Paralympic Games, was required to make a number of substantial accessibility upgrades to public transit, buildings, and sites (this included the Acropolis).
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 12:35 PM on December 4, 2019

I seem to remember Seattle being very good at this.
posted by DrAstroZoom at 12:39 PM on December 4, 2019

There are massive ramps to get all people between the first and second floors at the bus station (for size of station, imagine something on the scale of an airport in the US) in Puebla, MX.
posted by aniola at 12:53 PM on December 4, 2019

Also in interesting regulations, the EU adopted a regulation with detailed technical specifications on how to make all rail transport accessible in interoperable ways (so you can board a train in Cracow and go straight to Prague without having issues with your wheelchair): TSI Mobility. Adoption varies, but in general the European Commission is freakishly particular about accessibility issues in all EU-funded transport projects.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 1:10 PM on December 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

Japanese train and subway stations were pretty good for having elevators. In stations without them I remember seeing signs at stairs indicating that staff would carry you and your wheelchair up or down them.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 1:20 PM on December 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, all, for the answers above! If anyone has particular insight into cities/apps that have made the availability of accessibility accommodations more predictable (for example, by adding wheelchair symbols on maps or providing real-time updates online when elevators are not working), please share.
posted by saltypup at 1:29 PM on December 4, 2019

by adding wheelchair symbols on maps or providing real-time updates online when elevators are not working), please share

See my answer above re: Chicago re: online updates for elevators not working. Also, wheelchair symbols are indeed on the transit maps.
posted by WCityMike at 2:38 PM on December 4, 2019

I am not in a wheelchair, but from what I can tell Vancouver BC is pretty good at this. Their transit network is fully accessible. All their buses "kneel" (where they will lower to curb height) and have ramps to aid in boarding as well as designated areas for people in wheelchairs and with other mobility issues.

The Translink website gives maps of stations to show accessibility information as well as provides info on any elevators in the SkyTrain network that are out of order and also gives real time announcements on trains when a particular elevator is unexpectedly out of order, also giving a proposed solution to those who need the elevators. It used to be that a couple of the stations on the original SkyTrain line (built in the mid-80s) didn't have elevators, but these have been retrofitted and now every station has elevators and the location of these elevators is clearly marked within each station so that when you get off the train you are pointed to where the elevator is. There's a section on the Translink website under Rider Guide for accessibility that has more details that I could possibly know.

They also have a separate bus system called HandyDart for those with disabilities who cannot use conventional public transit and this provides door to door service. I unfortunately don't know much about how effective this service is, as I know the one in Ottawa, where I live, has poor public service with regard to booking rides.

What is always a challenge is providing room for people with strollers and in wheelchairs at peak hours. In many systems, buses will be packed so there is no room to pick up someone who is using a mobility aid.
posted by urbanlenny at 3:29 PM on December 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

All of the BART stations in the SF Bay Area are handicap accessible with elevators, and although they go out, the status is communicated often in a ton of different ways. See the website here: - anyone who rides Bart can attest to the frequency of elevator status update announcements.

(Plus the downtown ones have been less full of human waste since they started doing the Attended Elevators thing...)
posted by brainmouse at 5:03 PM on December 4, 2019

Search to see if any cities you’re interested in have apps that track and allow users to rate the accessibility of various venues (like Yelp style reviews and user submitted pics).

I’ve heard talk about one being developed in Toronto - I can’t search right now to add any links to this comment but you may be able to find something.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 8:08 PM on December 4, 2019

@nouvelle-personne the app might be Maayan Ziv's Access Now. Here's an article about the app. Incidentally, I briefly met Maayan and she's a tour de force in person. Super smart lady doing super smart things.
posted by urbanlenny at 8:48 PM on December 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

See and the app.
It is crowdsourced.
Started in Germany, I do not know how well it covers other parts of the world.

In addition to the European good practices mentioned by mandolin_conspirancy the EU gives yearly awards to barrier-free cities.
posted by bluedora at 4:41 AM on December 5, 2019

The Washington DC metro is one of the newer systems, so may be better than old systems like those in NYC. Info on elevators here.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:17 AM on December 5, 2019

In Atlanta, MARTA has only kneeling buses, and the MARTA subway system has elevators at all stations. The MARTA app is quite good at reporting elevator closures, and they also tweet updates on temporary closures throughout the day. Unfortunately, the system is aging and desperately in need of maintanence, so there have been a LOT of closures this year, which I know is really awful for people who need them, but they are careful to have only one closure per station and to provide clear instructions in the app about the easiest detour to return to the station on the other platform with the functioning elevator.
posted by hydropsyche at 9:59 AM on December 5, 2019

WMATA in DC has close to real time online info for closed elevators, and all stations have elevators. As far as I know, there are no stations that require more than two elevators to exit.

Alerts here
posted by mercredi at 10:06 AM on December 5, 2019

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