Clothilde Goujard is a Paris-based journalist who has contributed to The Washington Post, The Guardian, Le Monde, and other publications.
Only 3 percent of Metro stations are fully accessible, but the company that runs the system says increasing the number would be too difficult and costly.
Paris’s Metro is many things: Its Art Nouveau entrances are romantic, its platforms dirty, its never-ending corridors tiring, and its buskers diverting. But for all its charms and irritants, the French subway is almost wholly inaccessible to parts of the population. Out of 303 Metro stations, only nine (or 3 percent) are fully accessible for wheelchair users—with an elevator from the street to the exchange room, another elevator to the platforms, and platforms that align with trains. Six other stations are semi-accessible with staff assistance. As the French capital prepares to host the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the inaccessibility of the Metro has become a thorny issue.
Jean-Michel Secondy works for APF France Handicap, an association advocating for people with physical disabilities, and has been a mobility activist for 25 years. “First, we fought to make buses accessible, and now it’s the Metro,” he said. “Just look at how many stations are accessible for people in wheelchairs, and you’ll get what the problem is.”
A 2016 study commissioned by the greater Paris mobility department, Île-de-France Mobilités, found that about 9 percent of the area’s population has a motor disability, accounting for 72 percent of all people with disabilities there. However, roughly a third of the area population has mobility limitations due to age, pregnancy, use of a stroller, or a temporary health condition.
France adopted legislation in 2005 to improve accessibility in public places, but the Paris Metro was excluded. Many of its lines were built more than 100 years ago—it is one of the oldest subways in the world. The company that runs the system, RATP, has argued that making stations accessible would be extremely costly, a matter of €4 to 6 billion.
Regulations for emergency evacuations have complicated things as well. The regulations state that any person must be able to find shelter during an emergency. So if an emergency arises while they are on the train and between stations, they would likely get off at the next station and shelter there. What that means, an Île-de-France Mobilités spokesperson told CityLab, is that having one accessible station makes little difference unless the rest of the line is also accessible.
Then there is the matter of sewage lines and the general lack of space in Paris. “As of today, norms are making it extremely complicated technically speaking and cost-wise, and almost impossible to [adapt the Paris Metro],” said the spokesperson.
Several groups have questioned these justifications, pointing out that older and equally complex subways have been adapted for greater access. In Barcelona, 143 out of 158 stations have been adapted. New York’s subway is 24-percent wheelchair-accessible. London’s mid-19th-century Underground is now 20 percent accessible. Most of the track in Paris lies only about 19 feet below ground, compared to a depth of 82 to 196 feet in London.
RATP has made the greater-Paris bus network 90-percent accessible, and has upgraded many suburban stations on the RER rail network. Newer transit options such as tramways are fully accessible. But the problem of the Metro remains.
Following three failed attempts since 1990, in 2017, Paris won the 2024 Summer Games after other cities withdrew their bids. The city’s bid stated that the Games would act as a catalyst to make France “an even more welcoming place for residents and visitors with an impairment, with accessible infrastructure and attitudes befitting the most visited country on Earth.” It reiterated the existence of accessible above-ground public transit in Paris.
The big transit project touted in the bid was the Grand Paris Express, a Metro expansion that is now under construction, with four additional lines, 124 miles of new tracks, and 68 new stations. It will be completed in phases by 2030 and will be accessible. “Politicians have been promising a lot with the 2024 Paris Games, saying it’s an amazing opportunity for accessibility and that they’ll make efforts, but associations on the ground say that they’re not being taken seriously and that there won’t be more [infrastructure investment] outside of the Grand Paris Express,” said Emmanuelle Dal’Secco, a journalist who has been covering disability issues for the past decade.
However, a law passed by the National Assembly in March spelled out the need to “simplify procedures for the accessibility of the historic Paris Metro for people with disabilities, including physical ones.” In June, the deputy minister in charge of disability issues, Sophie Cluzel, promised a “real plan,” and said an audit was being conducted. In July, Paris’s city council asked the president of the Greater Paris administration (which partly finances the Metro) to begin studies to make some stations accessible. The council cited the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics in London, when several older and central tube stations added elevators and ramps.
RATP told CityLab that previous studies, including one made for the Olympics bid, showed “great technical complexity and at times infeasibility and highly considerable costs,” and that the company has no current plan to adapt existing stations. “The objective is to take people in wheelchairs [from the outskirts] of Paris so that they can then transfer to other accessible transit options such as tramways and bus,” added the spokesperson.
Taking buses, trams, and suburban rail instead of the Metro can mean more transfers and longer journeys, and these systems are not glitch-free for disabled users, either. Secondy, the activist, said the elevators in the stations that have them are sometimes broken. When buses are full, as they often are, drivers may not let wheelchair users on. Or they don’t have the patience to unfold the ramp, and ask riders to wait for the next bus.
“Being in a wheelchair in Paris means managing your time every single day,” said Secondy.