Ramps– An Accessibility Myth: Insights from a Parisian Train Station

“So infrastructures for mobility that ensure the safety, security, efficiency, and comfort of the privileged may shape space in ways that not only prevent others from enjoying the same, but also actively create insecurity and discomfort by bypassing and bisecting these degraded spaces.”

Excerpt From: Mimi Sheller. “Mobility Justice”

Why Study 'Non-Places'?

Gare Montparnasse is one of the six large Paris railway terminals, located in the14th and 15th arrondissements of Paris. This station serves intercity trains to the west and south-west of France, suburban and regional train services, and also serves as a metro station, hence making this a spatially complex station.

A large part of the experience of using the public transport lies at the station itself. A train station is a non-place. Non-place is Marc Augé's term for generic places such as bus depots, train stations, and airports, which however elaborate and grandiose, do not confer a feeling of place. 

 

My objective was to analyse people’s behaviour, emotional state and movement patterns at this ‘non-place’ where anyone can feel ‘at home’ regardless of their actual background, because a non-place is equally alienating to everyone. 

 

The aim here is to note observations and conclusions made in an hour of observation that could be used to improve the experience of traversing through this place of transit.

Gare Montparnasse, Monday 29 JUNE 2020, 1100 - 1300 hrs

Photograph by Twisha Mehta

On Accessibility

Gare Montparnasse claims to be an accessible station with ramps and elevators to commute across the station. I decided to measure the efficiency of the ramps by calculating the number of people that use it and by identifying its current purpose.  The conclusions that were brought up were interesting from an experience and utility standpoint. 

 

In 30 minutes of observation, out of 40 passengers descending the staircase, 25 passengers had an additional accessory: a stroller, a piece of luggage or a trolley. 17 of whom did not choose to use the ramp, even when they could use some aid with their heavy accessory. Out of the 22 people that made the decision to use the ramp (none of whom were commuters with baby strollers), only 12 succeeded in having a seamless experience while using the ramp.

The rest of them had a rather obstructive experience. 

To name a few hurdles: the commuters felt startled and embarrassed because they couldn’t control the speed at which their luggage moved, causing a loud, attention-grabbing rattling noise Most times, the luggage didn’t even make it till the end of the ramp without tipping over the ramp, or worse, falling.

The existence of a ramp doesn’t guarantee the simplification of a commuter’s journey. In fact, it proves to be an architecture of discomfort almost half of all times that it is used. 

Of course, there were a couple of use cases where the experience of the ramp progressed without any abruptness . 

The Most Disadvantaged User

Out of the people who opted to use the station’s “accessible” infrastructure, the most disadvantaged commuter turned out to be a single parent. It was noticed that carrying a baby in a stroller was difficult even when both parents were present– two people are required to carry one stroller across the staircase. In the case of a single parent, it took more than thrice  the time it takes a traveller with no heavy luggage to get past the staircase.

The common factor between the people who: 

1a. Made decision to use the ramp and 

2a. Succeeded in using it, 

Was that they didn’t stop and hesitate before they rolled their luggage and that helped them go through the process intuitively. 

 

The ones that:

1a. Made decision to use the ramp and 

2b. Didn’t complete the process seamlessly,

had their doubts even before they used the ramp.

Beyond Humans

The station seems to be designed only for humans and rightly so. But what was interesting to find when I was on the lookout for extreme use cases, was that the station was frequented by commuters with pets. Every new cycle of rush (from an incoming train or new entries into the station) had around 6 cats and dogs on average. Cats were either in cages or cat-carriers and can hence be considered luggage, dogs on the other hand were on leashes, or in bags. Animals on a leash were all masked. Apart from having to cage the animals, there was no other discomfort observed in their commute. 

Non-Human Commuters

Photograph by Twisha Mehta

Selective Social Distancing

Queues for queries or ticketing counters maintained social-distancing. However, touching the same kiosk defeated the purpose of such distancing. Social distancing as an activity is largely dependent on architecture, and I say this solely because of the difference in nature of the queues at two points in the same space. Escalators and ticketing counters essentially consisted of the same commuters, yet ascending or descending on an escalator barely followed the norms of distancing. In fact, each step managed to cram two people.  

Spaces built for transition, unlike queues (which are static) cannot police distancing unless the model of movement is changed.


 Selective social distancing occurs when time is a factor along with space. It is easier to distance in a queue as it doesn’t come with a disadvantage of priority

Can natural interfaces improve the experience of socially distant queues?

But in architecture made for transit– like escalators, distancing costs time. It can also only work if each commuter is willing to sacrifice the same time as a co-commuter. Hence, spaces that are not specifically created judiciously with social distancing in mind, will only put the onus on the user to selectively keep distance.

Selective Social Distancing

Photograph by Twisha Mehta

Most Common Unusual Activity

An activity that is only observed to happen frequently in a station with varied transit lines, other than speed-walking, is searching for a lost ticket. A hiccup like this is a common obstacle in having a smooth transit experience. The fear of not being able to make it in time, to get fined, or to have to buy another ticket in the midst of a journey raises panic levels in an already heated space. In one hour, it is easy to spot at least 6 ‘bag-diggers’, or ‘pocket-patters’ searching for their tickets in one spot. This also is common when the flow is upstream into the station, that is, the travellers have completed one part of their journey. 

 

Card-holders or frequent travellers hold tickets of higher value and face this lesser than one-way journey tickets. One-way journey ticket holders are also often commuters commuting long distances with luggage. Stopping midway with luggage causes delay to not only the commuters themselves but also to co-commuters by occupying space.

Queue Activity

It would be a common assumption to make that people in queues spend their waiting time on their phones. Interestingly, I noticed that when wait times are short, people visibly do nothing except wait for their turns. 

Speed 

The pace of the commuters moving downstream (towards metro lines) was medium-high, with barely two sprinters in an hour and half of observation. This suggests that people’s expectations of metro timings are well managed, either from their own travel experience or from the assurance of frequent metros.

 Sprinters were only found going upstream (towards the trains) as they are less frequent and being time-bound is necessary or it can delay your travel easily by 30 minutes at the least. 

Unconventional Ethnographers

Staying put in a place of high transition and movement for observation can reveal patterns in human behaviour quite quickly. I realized that the best way to learn about patterns, anomalies and attitudes of spatially distributed people was to talk to fellow non-traditional observers. In any public space, just like in this train station, I noticed that there were people stationed exactly like I was to observe and make (mental) notes. They happened to be the homeless, people asking for money and in extreme cases pick-pockets (not rare in Parisian Stations).

 

To get an opportunity to talk to them and understand how the space affects people’s emotions, behaviour, and experience, could be more insightful than conducting short observation sprints. Further, I wondered if equipping them with the right tools (like counters, timers etc) could also aid ethnographers and researchers in collecting quantitative data. 

Informal Ethnographers

Photograph by Twisha Mehta

Scope 

Using cameras to analyse speed of movement and obstructions in pathways can help redesign the space for efficiency also providing insights into how the frequency of the trains and metros affect transition in a station.

Visualising social distancing behaviours through data collected can help create robust public spaces that don’t have to suffer during contagions like the COVID 19.

Revealing literal ‘touchpoints’ in the station through observation can help in designing for a

low-touch economy.

Visual informatics in designing for non-places can assess the quality of mobility in cities and promote the use of public transport systems over private ones. 

 

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