‘Obstacle course’ for the disabled: Can Paris transport be made accessible in time for the Olympics?

The Summer 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games are accelerating plans to improve disabled access in and around the French capital, according to organisers. But plans for the Paris public transport network have sparked concern that the temporary improvements imagined for the games are a “missed opportunity” for lasting change.

Serge Mabilly types his destination into his mobile phone: the Bercy Arena in Paris’s 12th arrondissement(district). From the metro stop at Place d’Italie, the 2km journey should take around 15 minutes on metro line 6.

But for Mabilly, who is in his 50s, it will take around 40 minutes – a wheelchair user, there is no way for him to navigate the maze of stairs at his nearest metro station.

“Paris is like an obstacle course for people with reduced mobility,” said Mabilly, vice-president of the APF France handicap association. “They are going to have to speed up [improvements] to be ready for the Olympic and Paralympic games.”

350,000 disabled users

Since Paris put itself forward in 2015 as a candidate to host the games, organisers have committed to holding an “inclusive and accessible” competition that would have a tangible positive impact on the 12 million people in France – 17% of the population – who have motor, sensory, cognitive or mental disabilities.

Much of Paris’s housing, roads, transport links, Olympic sites and shops are being newly built or upgraded ahead of the 2024 games. But of all these projects, public transport in the greater Paris region in the Île-de-France seems to pose the biggest accessibility challenge.

An estimated 350,000 disabled people will want to travel between sites in the capital in summer 2024, which breaks down to 4,000 to 5,000 users per day with limited mobility.

But just one year ahead of the competition, taking the metro, the bus or an overground RER train remains a nightmare for disabled travellers.

“The metro is the worst,” said Mabilly. “Only line 14 and a few other stations are accessible, otherwise it’s just stairs everywhere. And I can’t even count the number of times the lifts are out of order.”

Often, Mabilly’s only option is to make do with the bus. “But the waiting times are much longer, and you’re more dependent on traffic,” he said. “I often can’t even get on the bus because the access ramp is broken, or it’s already too full of passengers, or the bus hasn’t been able to park properly.”

Adding to the issues with public transport, things like potholes, high kerbsides and road work can make negotiating city streets a trial. “When you have a motor disability, you either need to be patient, athletic or be able to take a car,” Mabilly said.

Transport authority Île-de-France Mobilités has pledged to step up improvements ahead of the Games.

A €1.5 billion budget has been allocated to improving accessibility at the 270 national rail stations in greater Paris serving more than 5,000 users a day. There are plans to install raised platforms and upgrade audible alerts, guidance paths, signage and assistance.

“All tram lines, and the A and B RER lines, have been improved already, and by 2024 all the bus routes in the region will be complete,” said Grégoire de Lasteyrie, the vice president overseeing the Paris area at Île-de-France Mobilités.

It is, however, “much more complex” to make changes to the metro, he said. “The network is 100 years old and some stations cannot be changed.”

Even so, four more metro stations are set to be made accessible by 2024, increasing the total to 18.

“And the 21 new stations created by extending lines 4, 11, 12 and 14 will be more accessible as well,” de Lasteyrie said.

Shuttle buses, taxis, parking

In total, 5% of the metro network will be accessible to disabled users during the Olympic and Paralympic games.

The organising committee has acknowledged that the planned improvements will not be enough to transport all of the expected disabled visitors to and from the 24 Olympic sites in greater Paris.

Too make up the shortfall, it has proposed multiple solutions.

Access to an on-demand public transport system for disabled users called PAM (Pour Aider à la Mobilité, “helping mobility”) will be simplified and its prices reduced to €2 per ticket. Disabled access shuttle buses will be situated at major stations and Olympic sites.

The government has promised to increase the number of wheelchair-accessible taxis in the capital from 200 to up to 1,000 vehicles.

Parking and pick-up spots closest to Olympic sites will also be reserved for disabled access.

“Our overall approach is to guarantee support that meets the needs of disabled spectators at the Olympic and Paralympic games, from the start to the end of their visit,” said Ludivine Munos, head of Paralympic integration and accessibility for the Paris 2024 Organising Committee, and a former paralympic swimmer.

“For transport, that means offering a number of alternatives.”

“We are also working in the areas surrounding stations and Olympic sites to make sure that everyone can get around as easily as possible, without barriers.”

Mabilly welcomes the plans but still has some doubts. “The shuttle bus system sounds very good on paper, but we still need to be able to make it to the departure stations. Are we going to have to use public transport to get there?”

As a wheelchair tennis player, Mabilly is planning to buy tickets to watch his favourite sport. For now, he doesn’t know how he will get to Roland Garros, the venue west of Paris where matches will be played.

“The current plan only covers places for a disabled person and one accompanying person. What if I wanted to go with my family? There are four of us. How should we do it? Will we have to split up?”

“And we’re talking about [transport for] 350,000 people. Will there be enough shuttle buses and parking spots available?”

An inclusive legacy?

An accessible Olympic Games has been all but ensured for the roughly 9,000 paralympic athletes who will compete. They will be housed in the athletes’ village in Seine-Saint-Denis, which is set to be completely accessible and inclusive, from purpose-built showers to street signage.

Read moreParis 2024 Olympic Village: A welcome makeover of Seine-Saint-Denis?

But what legacy will remain after the athletes leave?

Nicolas Mérille, the national accessibility adviser at APF France handicap, has attended meetings on expanding access with the Olympics Organising Committee, transport authorities and the government. He is concerned that “short-term measures” introduced for the event risk overshadowing an overall “lack of progress”.

“The Olympic and Paralympic Games were the perfect opportunity to make considerable improvements to accessibility in Paris and the capital’s greater Île-de-France region,” he said. “We hear a lot about the legacy of the Games, but in terms of transport it seems that it will be – unfortunately – quite limited.”

Mérille’s disappointment is not entirely unexpected – France has long trailed behind comparable nations in legislating for the interests of disabled people.

A UN report in 2021 called on the French government to “review and bring into line” disability laws and policies that did not comply with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities at the national, departmental and municipal level.

These included the definition of a disability in the national Equal Rights and Opportunities Act of 2005, which, the report said, was focussed on the idea of preventing and treating disabilities even though the act enshrined into French law the notion that accessibility should be guaranteed for all.

Almost two decades after the law was introduced, Mérille has not given up hope.

“There’s still a year to go, and all parties seem motivated,” he said. “There is still time to pick up the pace so that the Games are not just a success in summer 2024, but afterwards, as well.”

(This article was adapted from the original in French.)

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