Some of Metro’s newest elevators at the Potomac Yard Metro station. Image by Kristen Jeffers, used with permission.
This is part one of a two part series.
While Metrorail cannot compare to the New York subway in terms of number of stations, few of New York’s 400+ stations have elevators or stair-free access for patrons. Metro, on the other hand, has had elevators and stair-free access in all of its stations since the system opened.
This article is the start of a two-part series that takes a closer look at Metro’s elevator systems. Its purpose is to dive into the history of how Metro came to be one of the first US rapid transit systems to be built to serve people with mobility limitations. In the second post, we’ll dive into how Metro’s current elevator situation still leaves a lot to be desired.
America didn’t build its transit with people with mobility limitations in mind
While the first rapid transit lines in the US — steam-powered elevated trains in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Chicago — began opening in the years after the Civil War, rapid transit service really took off around the turn of the twentieth century. In the fifty years before World War II, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia all built extensive subway and elevated rapid transit systems, while Chicago expanded its elevated lines. None of these early systems, however, were built with elevators or other stair-free access; even escalators were not provided at most stations.
As late as the 1969 opening of the PATCO Speedline in Philadelphia’s New Jersey suburbs, no rapid transit line in the US opened with elevators or other stair-free access in every station. This failure to accommodate people with mobility limitations is not particularly surprising given the broader societal attitudes toward people with disabilities in the first half of the 20th Century: many American cities had “ugly laws” banning them from appearing in public, and the last of these laws were not repealed until 1974.
Unfortunately, the repercussions of these design choices are still reverberating: even today, none of the pre-1970 transit systems have stair-free access in all stations. Notably, the vast majority of stations on the New York subway — the nation’s largest — are still without them, with the MTA promising elevators and ramps in 95% of stations only by 2055.
Metrorail was part of a new wave of transit, but it nearly left people with disabilities behind again
Metrorail opened in 1976, near the beginning of the US’s final burst of rapid transit construction: San Francisco’s BART (1972), DC’s Metrorail (1976), Atlanta’s MARTA (1979), the Baltimore Metro Subway (1983) and Miami’s Metrorail (1984) opened over the course of twelve years, each in a metro area that had, except for San Francisco’s streetcars, no rail transit at all when they opened.
These systems were, in many ways, a break with the past. They were designed to bring workers from postwar, car-oriented suburbia to downtown jobs, and so were built with lines reaching farther from the urban core than in older systems as well as stations that were farther apart, allowing for higher travel speeds that were intended to compete with freeways.
While each of these six systems had elevators and stair-free access to trains in every station from the day it opened, the first two — BART and Metrorail — originally planned systems without elevators or accommodations for patrons unable to use escalators. They only changed course after pressure from the disability rights community.
While features for people with disabilities were included in the initial design for Metrorail stations, wheelchair access was neglected
The initial proposed designs for Metrorail stations, released by a team of architects led by Harry Weese in 1966, incorporated a number of features intended to make the system easier for people with physical limitations to navigate. These included the white granite strips along platform edges (designed to contrast in color and texture with the red tile platforms, making them more visible to those who have trouble seeing), flashing lights on platform edges to indicate approaching trains to those who have trouble hearing, and escalators so that passengers with mobility limitations would not need to climb stairs.
Despite these efforts, elevators were not included out of concern that they would obstruct travel paths along platforms and provide cover for criminals in stations that had been designed with open sight lines specifically to reduce crime. Furthermore, the architects believed that few wheelchair users would use the system at all, and that their presence would itself obstruct other pedestrians.
WMATA was not alone in deciding that wheelchair users were the one group with disabilities that a new subway didn’t need to accommodate. In 1965, the BART board decided that their new rapid transit system should be designed to be accommodating – but that elevators were unnecessary. Only after three years of campaigning by activists, including the Architectural Barriers Committee of the Easter Seals Society, did the California legislature overrule the board in 1968 and require that the system be accessible to wheelchair users, making it the first US subway system with elevators in every station.
When disability advocates pressed for wheelchair users to have access to Metrorail, WMATA initially planned for diagonal “inclinators” rather than elevators
Huntington Inclinator and Escalator. Image by the author.
In December 1969, just as ground was being broken for Metrorail, the House Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds heard disability advocates testify that escalators were not sufficient for passengers using canes or crutches because these users often couldn’t safely step onto or off of them. The subcommittee recommended that Metrorail stations be built with “inclinators” — then-hypothetical elevators operating at an incline to use the same diagonal shafts as stairs and escalators. In late 1970, WMATA applied for federal grants to develop a prototype inclinator; meanwhile, the agency continued to design stations without elevator shafts.
The inclinator plan fell through when, in December 1971, the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (the predecessor to the Federal Transit Administration) refused funding on the grounds that Metrorail stations were so architecturally distinct that an inclinator developed by WMATA would not be useful for other transit systems. At this point, Jackson Graham, the system’s first general manager (and namesake of the former WMATA Headquarters building in Judiciary Square) decided to drop all consideration of inclinators and elevators.
If WMATA’s first GM had gotten his way, Metro would have been built without elevators
Judiciary Square Eastbound Elevator at ground level. Image by the author.
Graham opposed elevators both on cost grounds — they were estimated to add $65 million ($501 million in 2023 dollars) to the cost of building the system and $1.25 million ($9.64 million in 2023 dollars) to annual maintenance costs — and because they offended his sense of efficiency. He disapproved of spending money on a technology that would move passengers less rapidly than stairs or escalators and that, he claimed, only half of one percent of all passengers would use.
Furthermore, Graham bizarrely claimed that all people with mobility limitations, including wheelchair users, could use escalators, and thus that elevators were unnecessary. In an attempt to prove this, he took a film crew to Dulles Airport, which had escalators the same width as those planned for WMATA. There, he had the crew film him going up and down the escalators using a variety of braces and crutches, as well as in a manual wheelchair, in which he rode both the up and down escalators while facing upward.
Fortunately, Graham did not get his way. A group of disability activists led by Richard Heddinger, a wheelchair-using government statistician who worked near two downtown Metro stations, argued that access for people with mobility limitations was a civil rights issue rather than just a question of “efficiency.” These advocates initially had hope for inclinators, but when Heddinger pressed WMATA officials at public hearings for details on where inclinators would be installed, he received only noncommittal responses.
It took a federal court ruling to get Metrorail’s elevators built
Judiciary Square Eastbound Elevator faregate at platform level. Image by the author.
Heddinger filed a federal lawsuit against WMATA in April 1972, alleging that the agency was violating the 1968 Architectural Barriers Act — a predecessor to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 that required buildings built, altered, or leased with federal funds to be accessible to people with disabilities — by planning a federally funded subway system without inclinators or elevators. By the time Judge William Jones ruled in June 1973 that no Metrorail station would be allowed to open without elevator access, elevator shafts had to be hacked through already-poured concrete in stations on the first segment of the Red Line.
As a result of the last-minute decision, some of these early stations have unusually-located elevators. For example, unlike most stations, Judiciary Square does not have separate surface-to-mezzanine and mezzanine-to-platform elevators, allowing elevator users to use the same ticket machines and fare gates as other passengers. Instead, each platform has a single elevator from the surface to the platform, with a single fare gate and ticket machine at platform level.
Metrorail has had elevator access in every station since the system opened in 1976, a huge win for residents and visitors. The drawn-out battle over their inclusion, however, left its marks. There is, for example, one inclinator in the system, which connects the platform at the Huntington station to the southern mezzanine. (A regular elevator connects the southern mezzanine to the surface, while another elevator connects the platforms to the surface-level northern mezzanine.)
Furthermore, as we will see in the second article in this series, while Metrorail has wheelchair access in every station, it is often very minimal, with no backup option for out-of-service elevators and, particularly at the downtown transfer stations, awkward and indirect routes for wheelchair users to access some platforms.
Thank you to Alicia Trost, BART’s Chief Communications Officer, for providing a link to the National Aging and Disability Transit Center report that is my main source on BART’s elevators.
My main source of the history of Metrorail’s elevators is Chapter 6 of Zachary M. Schrag’s history of Metrorail, The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro.
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DW Rowlands is a human geographer and Prince George’s County native, currently living in College Park. More of her writing on transportation-related and other topics can be found on her website.
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