The Globe and Mail, December 29, 2017
MONTREAL – There’s a pair of elevators to nowhere at one of the busiest subway stations in Montreal.
Get off the train at Place Bonaventure and it’s 36 stairs up to the next level. The elevators are there for riders who can’t do that walk, but they go only from the train platform to the ticket-booth area, one level up. It’s a long walk and many more stairs from there to the street.
The station has been like this for eight years, a jarring reminder of how much of the system is off-limits to those unable to walk.
“There are good intentions, but we’ve got to go further than good intentions,” said Laurent Morissette, who heads the disability rights group RAPLIQ and laments that “accessibility doesn’t sell” when politicians are campaigning for office.
According to the STM the local transit agency whose headquarters is in a tower above Bonaventure the rest of the elevator system is the responsibility of the regional transit agency, RTM.
A spokeswoman for that agency said the work began this year after a long planning and negotiations process, and should be complete by the end of 2018.
The limited accessibility of Montreal’s transit a situation that has started to improve a bit more quickly is not unique to that system. European transit can be hit-or-miss on accessibility and even the much-vaunted rail networks in Japan can fall short, with trains sometimes coming to a stop with their floor well above or below the platform, or with a large gap between.
In Canada, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) is racing to meet a legal requirement to be fully accessible by the middle of the next decade. And the regional agency Translink in Vancouver says that, although their Skytrain network has elevators in every station, work remains to be done on their system.
This matters to more than those who are disabled. As society ages across the Western world, the group of people who might be helped by accessibility-related improvements will only grow.
And for those who are disabled, recent research out of Montreal lays bare how much they are being short-changed by transit agencies that don’t accommodate them.
A complicated job
A subway project proposed by Montreal’s new mayor called the Pink Line would be fully accessible if it gets built. And a short subway extension that opened in December in Toronto has also been built with all patrons in mind, a reflection of the changing mindset at transit agencies and the governments that oversee them.
But when it comes to existing infrastructure, cities have to deal with the decisions of the past. Sometimes, these are positive: Melbourne rail operators concluded more than a century ago that stations with ramps were better than stairs for older people, a model that persists there.
Other decisions have been more damaging.
Both Toronto and Montreal built large parts of their subway systems at a time when disability rights were not recognized the same way as today, installing underground stations without planning for elevators that might be added later. Both dealt initially with the needs of disabled patrons by establishing parallel services using specialized surface vehicles. These services cost a great deal per ride and are now criticized by many who use them; they argue that using the regular system would be more convenient and reliable.
“We have a life like everybody else,” said Montrealer Linda Gauthier, who has filed a class-action lawsuit over transit accessibility in that city. “We go to school, we work. The Metro is a must for us.”
Although not referencing transit specifically, Pope Francis recently struck a similar tone. In December, he tweeted: “Every person is unique and unrepeatable. Let us ensure the disabled are always welcomed by the communities in which they live.”
Over the years, transit agencies have come around to this view: Fleets are being upgraded with low-floor streetcars and buses. Rail operations, although more challenging to adapt, are being modified for those in wheelchairs.
Vancouver, helped by having a newer rail system in which the majority of the stations are not underground, is the first city in Canada to have achieved full accessibility on its network. There are elevators in all SkyTrain stations and an extra-wide gate, for a wheelchair or stroller, at every entrance.
In Toronto’s older system, where the transit agency is mandated by law to be fully accessible by 2025, about 60 per cent of subway stations was expected to meet that standard by the end of this year.
The agency drew up a priority list about a decade ago, working with a disability advisory committee and trying to sequence the stations based on demand, the needs of the population nearby and geographic equity.
The construction is complicated work, especially in the heavily built-up downtown area.
“You’re trying to figure out a way to thread a shaft between all of the different levels,” said Gord MacLaren, senior project engineer at the TTC. Among the difficulties, he cited buried utilities equipment, restrictions on closing parts of the roads, even cases where the work needed to be done under the porch of a nearby homeowner.
A particularly tricky job is under way now at one Toronto location, where crews building the elevator shaft had to suspend the shoring above the roof of the underground subway platform area, brace everything and then cut through the tunnel liner.
“I wouldn’t say it’s one of the most [complicated], but it’s up there,” said Joe Rocha, senior construction inspector at the TTC.
In Toronto, at least, the agency believes there is no subway station too difficult to convert. Montreal’s STM is not so sure. André Porlier, the corporate manager of sustainable development and universal accessibility, said there is no obvious way to do the work in a number of stations.
“The station [at Beaudry] is there, the exit is there,” he said, gesturing with his hands spread.
“It’s not possible to take an elevator because you’re going to be in someone’s basement. Sometimes, we don’t have the solution. So how much it’s going to cost and what will be the solution for these, now, we don’t know.”
In Montreal, which does the same sort of prioritization as the TTC but has no legal deadline to become accessible, about one-quarter of the stations now meet the standard. Mr. Porlier said STM has used recent federal transit funding to accelerate the pace of station conversion and plans to be 80 per cent compliant by 2025. The speeding up comes after years in which accessibility was done slowly, with scraps of money left over from the maintenance budget, and coincides with the lawsuit filed by Ms. Gauthier.
“If the lawsuit was not on the table, maybe [this work] would not be so quick on the horizon,” suggested Mr. Morissette, with the disability rights group. “That’s just conjecture, but I would bet $1,000.”
Value of accessibility
At its core, accessibility is simply about fairness, even if the change doesn’t help a large number of people.
In Vancouver, TransLink is installing special devices in its stations that can read remotely a card carried by passengers who are capable of operating a wheelchair but can’t tap to enter.
Although this will be used by a very small group of patrons, the agency presents it as the right thing to do.
“It was very important to us that we treat these customers with the dignity we treat all of our customers and they’re able to access the system,” said Sarah Ross, TransLink’s director of system planning, who oversees the agency’s Access Transit group.
Other accessibility-related improvements implemented by transit agencies have a much broader constituency, one that goes well beyond people in wheelchairs. Some of these features are relied upon heavily by other passengers, a situation expected to accelerate as the number of Canadian seniors increases.
“A good stat that I can give you is that 2 per cent of the people that use elevators are actually people using wheelchairs,” said Matt Hagg, senior planner for system accessibility at the TTC.
“The others are all people with, you know, canes, walkers, strollers, or don’t have a disability and it just helps them in some way get to and from the subway. Even though technically we’re doing this to help out people with disabilities, it really just helps everyone.”
But the core value of accessibility is that it can open up a city to its disabled residents. They can benefit from the spontaneity and convenience of the regular system instead of having to rely on a parallel transit service, an independence that can have dramatic impact.
A study by researchers at McGill University found that limited accessibility in the country’s two biggest transit systems greatly reduces the number of jobs people in wheelchairs could reach. People in Montreal who were disabled had access to less than half as many jobs as those who could use the system unencumbered. In Toronto the figure was 75 per cent.
Given that a proposal for a new subway that promised such a major increase in access to jobs would have a strong business case, these results offer a stark perspective on the cost of not offering accessibility. And they put into perspective the price-tag of installing it.
“You talk to me about the Pink Line, I would say take the money and invest it in accessibility,” said Ahmed El-Geneidy, an associate professor in McGill’s School of Urban Planning and one author of the study.