Accessibility + Mass Transit in Bangkok

Modern, convenient, and efficient, Thailand's MRT mass transit system is a blessing to millions of commuters and tourists who use it every year. To those in wheelchairs, the elderly, or recently injured, the stairs pictured above pose a formidable obstacle. What can we do to help them cross this obstacle?

January 12, 2015 A nation's mass transportation system is a source of national pride. In many countries, these systems can even be seen featured on currency. They are modern marvels of engineered infrastructure contributing to the convenience and prosperity of the people and businesses that use them. But what about people unable to use them? What about their convenience and prosperity? 

Today's event at the Thai Health Promotion Foundation (สสส).
That was the question brought up at today's meeting held at the Thai Health Promotion Foundation (สสส). Bangkok has a very decent and growing mass transit system both in the form of the BTS Skytrain and the MRT underground. These two train systems intersect and compliment each other, and for those able to access them, they are an irreplaceable means of traversing the city.

But for those bound to wheelchairs or otherwise unable to negotiate the stairs and escalators greeting commuters at BTS and MRT stations, accessibility is a serious problem.

Along the BTS lines, built before the MRT system, there are stations that lack lifts altogether. Those that do have lifts, may have only one despite each station having several entrances.

The MRT is a newer system, and thankfully, each station includes at least one lift. However, at some stations, the problem of only one lift despite multiple entrances remains, meaning that who need them must negotiate difficult intersections, crossing Bangkok's notoriously dangerous traffic in order to reach them.

According to the website Accessible Thailand and Wikipedia, only 16 stations out of 34 along the BTS line have lifts.

Lat Prao MRT Station. 4 entrance, 1 lift.
Accessible Thailand states on their website that:
Bangkok can be a tricky place for wheelchair users to move around due to a lack of proper pavements and because it is so busy. By far one of the best ways for wheelchair users to move around Bangkok is on the skytrain or BTS as its known. The skytrain will take you to many popular destination within close proximity of a disabled friendly venue. But some of the stations along the skytrain are not accessible to wheelchair users.
It lists BTS stations that are accessible including: Chong Nonsi, Krung Thon Buri, Wongwan Yai, Asok, On Nut, Mo Chit, Siam, Bang Chak, Punnawithi, Udom Suk, Bang Na, Bearing, Pho Nimit, Talat Phlu, Wutthakat, and Bang Wa. However, Wikipedia lists the current count of BTS stations as 34. Accessible Thailand does report that the MRT is accessible with lifts at each station.

Both BTS and MRT stations with lifts see a frequent number of ordinary people using them as a matter of convenience. These lifts circumvent station security checkpoints and are often abused by those who do not need the lifts. This leads to many stations locking lifts to prevent abuse. Those in need often wait up to 10 minutes to be accommodated.

Some of these issues may seem trivial to many, but to the handicapped and even the elderly or recently injured, such issues pose a serious obstacle to moving about and conducting one's daily business.

What Can Be Done and Why it Would be Good for Business. 

When Bangkok's BTS was first built, accessibility was obviously seriously overlooked. People raising awareness and advocating for proper access has helped decision makers see the need for proper accessibility. This may account for why the MRT system included lifts at each station. Still there is work to be done.

Helping spread the world, alone, can help make a big difference. When people hear this message, and see the faces of those affected by these oversights, it will be more difficult to ignore the problem or to make such oversights in the future.

An example of a wheelchair accessible road crossing in Singapore. Not only are Singapore's road laws and driver courtesy at road crossings famously efficient, but signaling lights and ramps easily accommodate wheelchairs, the elderly, and the recently injured. Some could successfully argue that Singapore's prosperity and value is in part due to its commitment to world-class infrastructure and universal accessibility.

At the same time, as always, we must search for creative and even technical solutions to help those in need now before the lifts are constructed and future infrastructure is built with accessibility for all in mind. Could special RFID passes be issued for those who need to use the elevators without assistance by station staff? Can under-used stairwells at station entrances lacking lifts be retrofitted with wheelchair lifts?

Could proper intersection crossings be devised to help those in need reach lifts that currently exist? Surely, for those who have tried crossing Bangkok's many intersections, proper crossings would be a benefit to all, not just the handicapped.

A lot of these solutions may be costly, others not, but when examining other nations like neighboring Singapore, it could be argued that much of their prosperity and perceived value can be owed in part to world-class infrastructure as well as addressing universal accessibility. In other words, not only would solving these problems make a difference in the lives of those who face them daily, it would add value for the mass transit systems and the cities they are in. It would be good for business.

While expensive to do, retrofitting existing stairs would still be much cheaper than adding lifts to existing entrances that currently lack them. Not only would such an addition make a difference in the lives of those who need them, the added value to both Bangkok's mass transit system and the city of Bangkok itself in terms of its humanity would be a lasting benefit at home and abroad. 

One thing that struck this author particularly, sitting in a room with people many of whom were confined to wheelchairs, was that at any moment, due to illness or an injury, I could end up facing these same challenges. Could it hurt to help speak up for them now, while I have my health and strength to aid me? Could it hurt me to spend a little time and energy when I can to think about what can be done to help solve this problem? Could it hurt you?

Update :: updated their BTS guide to include a total of 16 stations now featuring lifts. These corrections were made to the article above. 

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