Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A Vision Realized

Another thing I like about being a civil engineer: over 20 years ago I was the assistant project manager for a study on how to make the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) light rail system accessible to all users. 

Just today, while leaving Arlington station on the light rail Green Line, I noticed a man in a wheelchair, unassisted, take the elevator to the lobby, go through the turnstiles, and take another elevator to the street. The vision is realized and now what was impossible is just a matter-of-fact everyday event.

Getting on and off the light rail
vehicles required stairs
Back then around 1990, none of the MBTA light rail system was accessible.  There were no elevators in stations.  Passengers had to climb stairs or use an escalator where one was available.  And getting  on and off the cars also required stairs.   Thus, the system was not accessible to people with mobility limitations, especially those using wheelchairs.

Streetcars of 1950s vintage still run
on the MBTA Mattapan-Ashmont
The MBTA light rail system is one of the few in the United States that has its routes in the streetcar system that grew up in the late 1800s.  In Boston, that included the first subway in the US, which was used by nearly 40 streetcar routes and is still in service as the Green Line.  One other distant streetcar line remains, the "Mattapan-Ashmont High Speed Line," which got its name in the 1920s when a rail line was converted to streetcar use and "high speed" was defined as 30 mph.

All the streetcars used low, street or track level platforms, which required passengers to climb 3 or 4 steps up into the car.  This practice continued into the 1990s.

The MBTA Light Rail Accessibility Feasibility Study recommended a series of improvements including:

  • adding elevators to subway stations for street-to-platform access
  • acquiring a fleet of "low floor" cars that would reduce the distance between platform and the car floor
  • raising the station platforms to an "intermediate" height to be level (or near level as implemented) with the car floor
The Type 8 low floor cars feature a plate
ramp that allows a person in a wheelchair
 to have level access from platform to car.
As implemented, the MBTA acquired approximately 94 "Type 8" low floor cars, which featured two doors to the low floor section, which is a few inches above platform height.  For wheelchair users, a ramp slides out of the car and one can wheel right into the train.  See photo at right.

The platforms at most subway stations and selected at grade stops were raised.  Elevators were added to most underground and elevated stations.

While not entirely accessible yet, for many trips, using the MBTA light rail system is just a matter-of-fact experience.

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