As the Olympics loom, Paris’s transport grid worries wheelchair users

By Yiming Woo

PARIS (Reuters) – With just under a year to go before the Paris 2024 Olympics and Paralympics, campaigners are worried would-be spectators using wheelchairs could feel left out of the Games as only a small number of metro stations are accessible without using stairs.

With Paris streets often clogged by traffic, travelling underground is often much quicker but only 9% of metro stations can be accessed without walking up and down steps.

“Today, going around Paris in a wheelchair is difficult, bumpy and sometimes just impossible”, said Franck Maille, 52, from campaign group APF France handicap, who has been in a wheelchair for most of his life due to a neuromuscular disease.

A metro ride from the historic Alexander III bridge, where triathlon swimming is due to take place, to the northern Porte de la Chapelle, hosting basketball and rhythmic gymnastics, takes 35 minutes.

Wheelchair users, however, would need to travel by bus as both metro stations have stairs and no lifts, a test ride carried out by Maille, who was accompanied by a Reuters journalist, showed.

This would take them more than twice as long, not including the time needed to change buses, the test showed.

Transport for London on its website states that about a third of its Tube stations have step-free access. In Berlin, 83% of underground stations are accessible for wheelchair users, according to the operator.

In Paris, transport operator RATP pledges to increase this number in the French capital by the start of the Games but only to 14%, blaming the grid’s age – the core was built about 100 years ago – for not undertaking a more ambitious push.

“I hope these Games will make our political leaders realise that … we can’t wait another 30 years for full accessibility but it needs to happen now,” said Maille.

The Paris 2024 organising committee expects 4,000 spectators using a wheelchair during the Summer Olympics, which start on July 26, followed by another 2,600 visitors in wheelchairs for the Paralympics one month later.

RATP regional vice president Gregoire de Lasteyrie told Reuters that all Olympic sites would be accessible to everyone, thanks to buses and trams.

The company also plans to deploy 250 specially refitted buses that can transport more wheelchair users, he added.

But wheelchair activist Maille said this won’t help many visitors with their trips between hotels and venues.

“Once you leave the Olympic village, nothing, or at least not much, will be accessible,” he added.

(Reporting by Yiming Woo, writing by Tassilo Hummel, editing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Ken Ferris)