Last week, a mother died after falling down a set of subway steps carrying a baby buggy. Will it finally convince cities to improve access to transport?
I’m halfway down the footbridge, thunking my nine-month-old son from step to step like someone trying to hit ketchup out of a bottle. He starts to cry – a wheedling, disgruntled moan – so I take one hand off the buggy to stroke his face. In that moment he squirms, the buggy tilts and I get a flash, for a microsecond, of the drop, the concrete, the depth and the danger. For lack of a lift, a ramp or an assistant I could have lost the centre of my world.
Last week, Malaysia Goodson, a mother from Stamford, Connecticut, is believed to have fallen to her death while trying to get down a flight of stairs at the Seventh Avenue station in New York City while carrying her one-year-old daughter in a buggy. Goodson was found lying unconscious at the bottom of the stairs beside a tipped-up stroller. Her daughter, miraculously, was unharmed, but is now motherless. The authorities later said that it appeared her death was related to a pre-existing medical condition, however it has prompted demands to improve accessibility on the subway. The incident caused the mayor, Bill de Blasio, to state on Twitter: “The subway system is not accessible for everyone, and that’s an environment the [Metropolitan Transport Authority] should not allow.”
To many parents, the incident is chilling, and call into question how we can address the accessibility needs of parents alongside wheelchair users and other disabled people.
For many parents, accessibility in cities means more than just ramps, lifts and lowered kerbs. You must be able to keep a child safe but also within touching reach; you must carry luggage, sit to feed, avoid high levels of air pollution, regulate a healthy temperature, be able to change a nappy and go to the toilet yourself, and eventually guard against a mobile-but-unstable child who insists on walking. While slings and rucksack carriers may make navigating public transport easier, they are not always suitable for parents with disabilities, nor the solution to something as nuanced as finding a suitable place to feed your child. I can’t be the only person who has sat on a concrete bollard, in the rain, beside two lanes of traffic, with my shirt open, my buggy wedged against a set of fragrant railings, wondering if there might be a better way.
Nevertheless, it is easy, as a parent, to start to view any transport network – whether it’s in London or São Paulo – as simply impossible when travelling with children. Steps, footbridges, broken lifts, narrow trains, gaps between train and platform; all are a nightmare for those with mobility issues or in wheelchairs, and a significant obstacle for anyone with a pram, buggy or pushchair.
A few cities are taking steps to make the urban landscape more accessible to parents, from the Universal Design principles innate to Singapore’s Building Construction Authority to TfL’s Baby On Board badges. In Washington, DC all 91 Metro stations are fully accessible, with gap reducers between train and platform and priority seating in each carriage.
So why are just 117 out of New York’s 472 subway stations fully accessible? Why does the Paris Metro have just one accessible, barrier-free line? While it could be argued that including these features at the time of construction (much of the subway in Washington, DC was built in the 1970s) is easier than retrofitting them into Victorian engineering, for parents it can often seem that the problem is not one of practicality, but of priority.
In particular, urban design often seems to set wheelchair users in competition for space against parents or other people with disabilities. Having a single space for both wheelchair and buggy users immediately sets up a necessary but unpleasant hierarchy of need. Too often, I see bus drivers simply fail to let wheelchair users on a crowded bus, despite the fact that, by law, they must take priority over those with buggies or pushchairs.
In Berlin, most buses have a designated space for three buggies, or a wheelchair and two buggies. But the solution could, perhaps, be as simple as providing more pull-down seats, providing space for disabled, non-disabled and pushchair users alike. Luggage racks could help stop children having to vie for space with suitcases and shopping trolleys. In Tokyo, many trains have specific carriages with space for prams and wheelchairs, with their position marked on the platform so passengers can more easily wait in the right spot. I have been pleased to notice the overhead signs on many London underground stations indicating where the wheelchair and buggy sections will be.
Better training could help for drivers and other transport staff, who often seem to feel as though the onus is on parents to take up less space. The NHS advice is for all babies to lie flat in a buggy or pram until they are able to sit up unaided (approximately around six months) with preference for a carry cot – or bassinet – on wheels for the first few months. It is therefore not quite so easy for parents to choose a fold-up or space-saving option.
Because public attitudes to small children are almost universally positive, we can too easily slip into believing that parents can “get by” thanks to the assistance of strangers. Sadly, the bystander effect – the psychological state that tells onlookers that someone else will help, so you don’t need to – is as visible at the top of station steps or by an unlowered kerb as anywhere else in the city environment. In order to break it, we can look to better signage and design. For instance, upholstering your priority seats in a different fabric to make them visually conspicuous, as they have done with bright yellow seat covers in the Bay Area Rapid Transport trains around San Francisco, or colour-coding lifts for disabled and buggy users. Once you introduce ramps, lifts, lowered buses, in the ways recognised by the European Commission Access City Award in cities like Lyon, Chester, Milan and Viborg, you no longer place the onus on the public to “do the right thing”. Moreover, we can do more to inform parents of the insurance and liability responsibility that often falls to staff: for instance, a Transport for London employee may ask you to take your child out of a buggy before carrying it up the stairs.
There are other child safety issues on public transport. A 2017 WHO report said that 570,000 children under the age of five died every year from illnesses that could be linked to pollution. Air pollution, while a problem for all city dwellers, is particularly dangerous at traffic highpoints like bus stops, road junctions, traffic lights: places where parents with buggies are impelled to wait. I had never asked so many idling cars to switch off their engines as I have since having a child in a buggy at exhaust-pipe height. Low emission zones, congestion charges, bicycle subsidies and disincentives for parents to drive to schools and offices could all improve air quality without great change to public infrastructure.Advertisement
A city accessible for parents, along with wheelchair users and disabled people, is simply a city that is better to live in for everyone. I was lucky, that day on the footbridge. I managed to grab my second handle in time. I managed to thunk my way down to the platform despite the sweat on my palms and the racing in my chest. I managed to get away with it that time. But it could very easily have gone the other way. Malaysia Goodson was not an exception, but must be a warning to us all.
Best and worst city transport
Wheelchairtravel.org describes Berlin as having “one of the most wheelchair-friendly public transportation systems in the world” including accessible trams, buses and trains. The two major metro rail systems, U-Bahn and S-Bahn, are accessible at the majority of stations, while the Berliner Verkehrsbetrieb (BVG) site allows users to plan a wheelchair friendly route through the city, including barrier-free routes. Although Berlin’s famous cobbled streets can prove a challenge for anyone navigating the city with a pushchair, the city is largely flat and covered by a network of accessible buses. The German government has also abolished kindergarten fees in Berlin making it one of Europe’s most attractive cities for young families.
Breda, The Netherlands
Despite being a medieval city, the winner of the 2019 European Commission Access City Award has wheelchair access in over 800 shops and businesses. Most of the sport centres, museums and theatres are also wheelchair accessible under the banner campaign of “Breda For Everyone”.
In a bid to make the windy, hilly city more accessible for wheelchair and buggy users, Seattle’s AccessMap allows users to plot routes according to customised settings including avoiding steep inclines and raised kerbs.
According to VisitCopenhagen all metro stations are equipped with lifts, while the S-train has an adjustable ramp that the driver can lower to allow wheelchairs or buggies to board. Most of the city parks have paved walkways and breastfeeding is common in public areas.
Just 117 out of 472 New York subway stations are fully accessible, and only a quarter have lifts, making it almost impossible to navigate without a high degree of local knowledge. However, a law was passed on 1 January requiring all new and renovated buildings with public toilets to include changing tables, including in men’s toilets.
Although most of the Parisian bus network has wheelchair access, the Metro has just one accessible, barrier-free line (number 14) and at many stations parents will have to ask Metro staff to open ticket gates as there is no wider buggy or wheelchair gate and for assistance getting on and off of the trains. Like so many cities, Paris also suffers from narrow pavements, cobbled streets and steep inclines, some of which include steps.