On Tuesday this week Prague’s Národní třída metro station –one of the busiest in the city centre –closed its doors to the public for two long years. The closure is due to a large developer’s project in the close vicinity of the station where work has already started on a four-storey administrative and shopping centre.
The decision to close the station for two years will impact some 21 thousand people who use the transport node daily. Miroslav Vančura from the Centre for Transport Planning and Research admits that the closure will be an inconvenience.
“Admittedly the situation is not ideal in view of public transport services in the area. This is a busy node that covers a large area of the Vltava embankment with the much-visited National Theatre and is also used by people heading for the Lesser town via Betlémske námestí. On the other hand I should say that the area is well-covered by trams and that the nearest metro station Můstek is just a stone’s throw away – around 150 meters at the most.”
For those who want to avoid the rush-hour traffic jams sprinting to the nearest metro station may sound like a sensible option. Unfortunately, it is not a solution one can recommend to wheelchair users or people with mobility problems. They will be hard hit by this closure and aired their dissatisfaction with the decision by staging a mock funeral ceremony at Národní trída on Tuesday to say their last goodbye to one of the few stations with barrier-free access on the Prague B line. The protest was organized by the NGO Asistence which helps people with disabilities and was attended by several people in wheelchairs who used the station on a daily basis. Erik Čipera from Assistence explained what was going on.
“We are here to lay flowers and light candles outside the metro lift which provides barrier free access. You can see there is already a makeshift coffin for the departed….when the station closes we will walk to one of the two other remaining stations with barrier-free access on the B-line by-passing those that do not serve wheelchair-bound users and at each stop we will say a few words while our friend Michal here plays a funeral dirge on the violoncello.”
While the mock funeral ceremony for the metro station –which some attended in mourning dress - occasionally raised a smile from passers-by the issue at stake is no laughing matter for those it concerns. Karolina is a wheelchair bound student who used the Národní trída metro station daily surfacing just a short distance from the pedagogical faculty where she attends classes. Its closure means that she will have to disembark at Florence station instead having to cover the two-kilometer distance to her faculty in her wheelchair.
“I have classes just around the corner so the closure of this station will hit me hard. Of course I understand that construction work needs to take place around the city centre but the problem is that there are so few stations with barrier-free access that the closure of any of them is a severe blow. Making the trip from Florenc to my faculty several times a week will use up a great deal of my time which could have been put to better use.”
“This is really a serious problem because there are only four metro stations with barrier-free access in the centre of Prague and thus any closure has a big impact. You must admit that 23 stops without barrier free access is not a tenable situation in the long-term –certainly not for a modern European city in the 21st century. If you look at Vienna you will see that its entire metro network has barrier-free access and other European cities are following the same policy. Here politicians just pay lip service to the issue in the run up to elections but once they get elected their enthusiasm for barrier-free access wanes very quickly.“
So why have city councilors and the city’s transport authority been sleeping on the job in this respect? Jan Heroudek from Prague City Hall says the implication that councilors did not consider the needs of disable people important is unfair.
“Prague City Hall and the transport authority have long tried to arrange barrier-free access to the Můstek metro station in the heart of Prague and everything pointed to the fact that by the time Národní trida closed Můstek would have barrier-free access. The agreements with the developer were signed in good faith that this would be the case, but then talks with the owner of the property where the lifts were to have surfaced broke down and things have become complicated. People forget that this metro was built under communism “for the working people” as they said then. No one thought about the needs of disabled people and for us today it is often difficult to find an acceptable solution technically – and when we do we have to persuade the owner of the respective property to agree to it.”
In all fairness one must say that stations on the suburbs and those built after the fall of communism have barrier free access as a rule. But Erik Čipera says this is simply not good enough.
“Not even the city transport authority uses that excuse nowadays. Where there’s a will there’s a way -as they say -and we know there is a solution to providing barrier-free access at each and every station if only someone tried hard enough to find it. I would say that if city hall could find a way to build Blanka -a massive 6.3 kilometre tunnel under Prague linking Holešovice and Hradčany –then it shouldn’t be hard to build an elevator. It is a question of priorities.”
Miroslav Vančura from the Centre for Transport Planning and Research concludes that either way mistakes were made in planning.
“Firstly the two-year closure is way too long. And then, frankly, the elevators at Narodni Trida were installed in May of this year. For two years now it will be a dead investment. Such plans are made long in advance and they must have known about the construction work in the pipeline. So if they were investing approximately 100 million crowns into giving a station barrier free access it would have made more sense to install it at the I P Pavlova or Náměstí Republiky stations –rather than installing it and then closing it down for two years.“
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