Public Transportation: Not Just a Berlin Problem

By Kinga Julia Faraldo Stoklosa

Imag­ine this: You’re wait­ing for the next train to Berlin Alexan­der­platz at the train sta­tion Friedrich­straße. But before the train even stops, you let out an annoyed sigh. Not again, you think. It’s one of those old train cars, the ones with a step. Now you ask a strong-look­ing per­son for help, and even though it’s Berlin (which is not known for being the friend­liest place in Ger­many), the per­son is will­ing to lift the front part of your wheel­chair to help you get onto the train. Two sta­tions lat­er, you have to ask some­one else for help to get off the train.

This is the real­i­ty for many peo­ple in any major city. But it’s not just trains – it’s the sub­way, the bus, and even train sta­tions them­selves that make pub­lic trans­porta­tion a liv­ing hell for many indi­vid­u­als. Espe­cial­ly in Berlin, where every quar­ter moon half of the sub­way lines seem to be under some sort of repair, and a big sign at the train sta­tion announces Schienen­er­satzverkehr (rail replace­ment ser­vice), which means you have to use five dif­fer­ent busses to get to your destination.

We often don’t have dis­abil­i­ty on our radar until we are con­front­ed with sim­i­lar prob­lems: walk­ing around with an elder­ly per­son or even a baby stroller can be chal­leng­ing when ele­va­tors aren’t there or aren’t work­ing. In the Euro­pean Union, around 80 mil­lion peo­ple have a dis­abil­i­ty. Accord­ing to the Cen­ter for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion, one in sev­en adults in the U.S. has a dis­abil­i­ty that affects their mobil­i­ty. But even if the num­bers were small­er, acces­si­bil­i­ty should always be a pri­or­i­ty when con­struct­ing or ren­o­vat­ing build­ings or when plan­ning pub­lic transportation.

The truth is that even though acces­si­bil­i­ty has been improv­ing in Berlin and else­where, it still isn’t accept­able. The Berlin­er Verkehrs­be­triebe (BVG) set out to make almost all train sta­tions acces­si­ble by 2022, and they have invest­ed around 60 mil­lion Euro into acces­si­bil­i­ty since 2019. But the last ver­i­fied num­bers I could find on the BVG web­site indi­cate that only around 78% of the sub­way sta­tions can be accessed with­out stairs. The prob­lem is how we view the sit­u­a­tion: Is the glass half full or half emp­ty? More than half of the tram sta­tions are acces­si­ble, and all busses have ramps. All new sub­ways are now on ground lev­el. How­ev­er, that’s still only 40% of all the sub­ways. 73% of the sub­way sta­tions have tac­tile paving, but what about the oth­er 27%?

Sim­i­lar to Berlin, New York City is also try­ing to make their sub­way sys­tem more acces­si­ble. With the addi­tion of 11 new sta­tions in 2020, there are now more than 130 acces­si­ble sta­tions. There is also an Ele­va­tor and Esca­la­tor sta­tus web­page, which informs the user of any ele­va­tor out­age. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the NYC bus sys­tem has not made much more progress than Berlin’s. If a per­son in a wheel­chair seeks access, the bus dri­ver is required to deploy a ramp and secure the wheel­chair in posi­tion inside the bus and also free it upon exit. In Berlin, new bus stops are being test­ed that have an aver­age curb height of 22 cm, mean­ing that a per­son would not need a ramp in order to get onto the bus. There would be no need for anoth­er per­son or the bus dri­ver to help. How many of those bus stops exist, I can­not ver­i­fy but if they work, they do seem to be a great alternative.

In gen­er­al, changes seem to be com­ing far too late and far too slow. Even though the BVG and the Deutsche Bahn – which is respon­si­ble for the S‑Bahn in Berlin and most inter­ci­ty and region­al trains in Ger­many – have set their goal on mak­ing all pub­lic trans­porta­tion acces­si­ble, real­is­ti­cal­ly speak­ing it might still take decades. So, let’s all try to raise aware­ness, e.g. via pub­lic cam­paigns or dona­tions to asso­ci­a­tions for the dis­abled like the AAPD (Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion of Peo­ple with Dis­abil­i­ties) or the BBV (Berlin­er Behin­derten­ver­band). Even though you might not be direct­ly affect­ed, we all should be inter­est­ed in a more just and inclu­sive soci­ety with access for all.

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Kinga Julia Far­al­do Stok­losa is a Bach­e­lor stu­dent of Eng­lish and Span­ish at Hum­boldt-Uni­ver­si­ty in Berlin and is cur­rent­ly in her eighth semes­ter. She works as a stu­dent assis­tant at the ZfL Berlin (Leib­niz-Zen­trum für Lit­er­atur- und Kultuforschung).