How to Help People with Disabilities Get a Better Experience on the Subway?

How to Help People with Disabilities Get a Better Experience on the Subway?

How to Help People with Disabilities Get a Better Experience on the Subway?


Twelve American cities are operated with a subway: Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, San Juan and Washington, D.C. Ever since the first station opened in Boston in 1897, over 1000 stations, for a system length of around 816 miles in total, are now in operation in the United States of America. These railway transit systems, elevated and underground, represent a vast labyrinth that enables thousands of people to move around every day without using the often congested streets that we all know too well. 

If the subway is the favorite transportation solution for the major part of the population, it can prove to be a real puzzle for disabled people.

How can you feel safe in a congested and confined environment? How can you find your way around when you have to deal with complex stations? How can you reach the platforms in an environment where elevators are rare or even nonexistent?

We’re going to review the difficulties encountered by disabled people and the good practices to adopt throughout all the steps of a subway trip.

Welcome to the subway!

Preparing your trip

In order to go from point A to point B using the subway without any problems, there’s nothing like properly prepare your route. But this can be difficult for a disabled person.

Difficulties encounteredGood practices
Understanding the route to takeWebsite or app with a suited route
Lack of information on disruptionsReal-time information during disruptions
Lack of information on the presence and state of elevators/escalatorsReal-time information of the functioning state of elevators and escalators
Forgetting the routeReminder of the route


Finding the station

It’s not easy to find the subway entrance for those who are blind or visually impaired.

You need to choose a clear and homogenous accessible signage for the whole network. Universal accessibility requires good lighting, visual contrast, audio-based navigation systems, detectable warnings, and tactile paths.


Going down to the station

Due to the many steps that separate the station entrance and the station itself, the installation of elevators and escalators is essential for people with reduced mobility.

Since the majority of the network was built before 1990, a lot of stations can only be accessed using stairs. Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), forbidding discrimination towards people with disabilities, cities had to review their accessibility standards. New York City, for example, has already renovated 120 stations and the number keeps growing.

A vertical access to the subway is critical for the millions of Americans and tourists with reduced mobility who would like to move around in a city. The lack of such measures compel them to use another means of transport or even stay at home.

Further information on accessibility on public transportation for physically disabled people

Buying a ticket

It’s impossible to pass the turnstiles without purchasing a ticket.

You can find several options: at the station booth with the help of a staff member, at the ticket machine or online. But these options need to be accessible.

Difficulties encounteredGood practices
Locating the station booth or the ticket machineSound guiding system, visual signage and guide paths
Using the tactile buttons of the ticket machines Embossed buttons
Lack of sound informationEarphone jack
Counter heightLowered counter
Difficulty to comprehend the offerSimplified presentation of information (pictograms)
Difficulty to readLarge-print and accessible vocabulary (Easy-to-read)
Stress due to the impatience of other usersBuying a ticket online, by text or by an app
Communicating with the staff Staff training to welcome and assist disabled people


Going through the turnstiles

Going through the turnstiles can be stressful. The impatience of other users, the lack of time to cross them, the strength of the doors while closing are all anxiety-provoking and are intensified when you have a disability.

How do the visually impaired find the turnstiles? How can they quickly go through them without hurting themselves or their guide dog? What about those with a mental disability intensified by stress or those who just need more time to comprehend their environment and how to move around?

The main goal of transportation networks is to avoid fraud but it’s also important to enable everybody to safely access the platforms.

Difficulties encounteredGood practices
Inadequate passage width for a wheelchair Dedicated airlock for people with reduced mobility enabling people with strollers, wheelchairs and people being accompanied to access the platform
Ticket validity control too highLowered ticket validity control for people of small stature and children
Difficulty to insert your ticketContactless validation
Distinction between entry and exit gatesVisual contrast, illuminated pictograms for a better visibility (for example a green arrow and a red cross), guide paths
Fast closing mechanismPresence detector
No detector for children, people of small stature or guide dogsLowered presence detector
Difficulty for people who can’t use their right arm to validate their ticketGates with left access to validate, double validation inside PRM airlocks
Difficulty to find and operate the open button for PRM airlocksA visually contrasted and easy access open button


Finding the platform

In some stations, finding the right platform can turn into a real track game. The complexity of the area, the number of connections, the lack of information and the passenger flow during rush hours make it difficult to find your bearings.

In response to the difficulties encountered by the most vulnerable users, a clear visual and audio signage is essential. A digital navigation system can help them be completely autonomous and can make them feel reassured during their travel.

Finding a seat on board, whether the wagon is full or not, is not always easy. Making your way to ask for another person’s seat requires a certain confidence and sensory capabilities that some of us don’t have.

That’s the reason why it’s important to define priority and clearly identified seating spaces. 

Getting off at the right station

To know when you need to get off, a map of the entire subway line inside the wagon is vital. A visual and sound announcement before every station and during potential disruptions enables to counterbalance the mental and sensory impairments that some users may have.

For further reading, please see our article Public Transport Information Accessibility: 5 Solutions for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Users


Different needs

The stations that already are ADA-accessible in New York City dispose of:

⊗ Elevators or ramps

⊗ Handrails on ramps and stairs

⊗ Large-print and tactile-Braille signs

⊗ Audio and visual information systems, including Help Points or Public Address Customer Information Screens

⊗ Accessible station booth windows with sills located no more than 36 inches (91 cm) above the ground

⊗ Accessible MetroCard Vending Machine

⊗ Accessible service entry gates

⊗ Platform-edge warning strips

⊗ Platform gap modifications or bridge plates to reduce or eliminate the gap between trains and platforms where it is greater than 2 inches (5.1 cm) vertically or 4 inches (10 cm) horizontally

⊗ Telephones at an accessible height with volume control, and text telephones (TTYs)

⊗ Accessible restrooms at stations with restrooms, if a 24-hour public toilet is in operation

It’s up to the transportation network companies to set up adequate solutions to better meet the needs of the disabled. A dialogue between associations representing the disabled and those in charge of the network enable to address in the best possible way the needs of the intended people.

Although the ADA has enforced the transportation network companies to review their planning since 1990, accessibility is still a work in progress. Some stations show a fine example of what accessibility should be but most of them still need to fit the required standards compelling the users to get around via another means of transport.

A lot of solutions, whether they are known or groundbreaking, enable to reach the accessibility standards fixed by the regulations. Discover some of them on our website

Further reading on accessibility in New York City


In response to the difficulties encountered by the most vulnerable users, a clear visual and audio signage is essential.


Zoe Gervais

Zoe Gervais

Content Manager

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