4 Days 4 Lines — Montreal Metro’s (In)Accessibility

Omer Juma
13 min readAug 12, 2020


French version / version français : 4 jours 4 lignes — l’(in)accessibilité du métro de Montréal. Translated to French by / traduit en par: Naomi Kodo

My parents visited Montreal for the first time four summers ago. One evening, I convinced them to walk and metro to dinner, one had a recent knee injury and the other had trouble taking stairs due to their hips. As we enthusiastically arrived at McGill metro’s Union entrance, we faced a design conundrum and had to change our plan. At that entrance, there was an escalator to come up to the ground but only stairs to access the metro station.

26% (18) of Montreal’s stations have at least one such entrance.
47% (32) have at least one entrance without an escalator.
76% (52) don’t yet have an elevator in at least one of their entrances.

(2020) McGill metro’s Union / Maisonneuve entrance/exit with an escalator to go up to the ground and stairs to go up or down.

4 years ago, my parents and I were standing by the door at the top of these flights of stairs, hungry and confused. At this entrance of McGill metro, there are 40 stair-steps to be precise, I found that by conducting an accessibility audit of all 68 stations of Montreal.

4 days — 4 lines — 68 stations — 8600+ stair-steps

I will be sharing with you an extensive design challenge, highlighting five odd structural obstacles in the Montreal metros, discussing implications and talking about a crowd-solving design event in October 2020. I aspire to live and thrive in a universally-accessible version of Montreal and to reach that level of accessibility, the first element is access to knowledge.

You may wonder, why didn’t we just walk over to another entrance of McGill metro. Three points: all four ground entrances/exits of McGill metro have the same format — an escalator to come up paired with 32, 38, 40, and 43 stair-steps to access the metro Terminal. Secondly, how can we ask someone with mobility concerns to put an extra effort to access a service that is supposed to assist them in accessing the city in the first place? Lastly, if somehow (empathize about their time, pain, energy, and self-esteem) they managed to get down those 32–43 stair-steps to then walk to the Terminal, they would have to take another 21 stair-steps to actually reach the McGill metro Platform to enter the train and then benefit from the priority seating marked and reserved for older people or anyone who could require a seat.

Left (2016): ‘<< Everyone could use a seat >> the STM is promoting courtesy among its customers and urges the public to pay more attention to other passengers who, for one reason or another, could be in need of a seat’. Right (2020): a rider walks their bicycle to the head of the train and an elderly rider rolls down their trolley at De l’Eglise metro station on the Green Line both heading towards East of Montreal.

In the photo above, taken at De l’Eglise metro, both riders and I took 31 stair-steps down to enter the station, then two rounds of escalators (approx. 120 stair-steps if the escalators were out of order) to then take these 18 stair-steps pictured above to reach the Platform. This platform is to go downtown. How can we extend the courtesy to go beyond the reserved seats on the train to the structures that hold it all together? Which brings me to:

1st fundamental design question: how can all riders access the metro with ease?

2nd fundamental design question: how can all riders complete their journey with ease?

The second question is equally critical because what if they want to get out at a metro station that doesn’t have any elevators or escalators from the Platform to the Terminal and then to the Ground. If they have escalators from Terminal to Ground level but not from the Platform to Terminal — that’s essentially not an easily accessible station. I refer to them below as Limbo stations. If for some reason we say well why can’t people just go to the easily accessible stations — we are perpetuating the idea of limiting their choices and opportunities.

Moreover, this information about stairs, escalators, and station accessibility isn’t available yet, which prompted me to conduct this accessibility audit in the first place. To understand the severity of this, I would like to take you on a User Experience journey.

The current User Experience (UX) of Montreal’s metro stations is not smooth. I have identified five odd structural obstacles which would render any designer or human agitated.

For the upcoming sections:
a. when I refer to steps, I mean steps on the stairs. My audit could not include the length of pathways and stations (which is something additional to be explored and recorded).

b. there are three levels in a metro station: Ground, Terminal, and Platform.
Sometimes there is also a mid-point between these levels. Sometimes there is a lower Platform, especially at connecting stations. For some, the Ground and Terminal levels are the same.

c. choose any persona and imagine yourself being someone with reduced mobility, an elderly person, an injured person, a parent with a stroller, a person with a bicycle, a person with many grocery bags, a person running late for something, or a person just tired from a long day.

Journey through the five odd structural obstacles:

1. Limbo Stations

These stations are not in limbo but would leave you in a limbo state, trapped in the Metro-ception. You have to think about how to get out of each level. Limbo stations have a combination of escalators and stairs, not side by side but one after the other. There is no flow. You may start with escalators from Ground to Terminal but then have to take stairs to go down to Platform. You may start with stairs from Ground to Terminal but then have escalators to the Platform. Add a midpoint, and you have escalators to go from Terminal to mid-point but stairs to go to the Ground or the Platform.
That experience sounds random and annoying, right? 58 of 68 stations, that’s 85% of the stations have escalators and every single one would leave you in the limbo state. 9 others don’t have escalators, and only 1 station is ‘perfect’.

Radisson metro towards the East end of the Green Line requires 26 stair-steps then go up the escalators (approx. 35 steps if they are out of order) and then have 22–26 stair-steps to get out of its three exits on Sherbrooke street.
Lionel Groulx metro station connecting the west arms of Orange and Green lines. Escalators (approx. 12 stair-steps) to go to the lower platform but 23 stair-stairs to go from the middle platform to the Terminal. Followed by 48 stair-steps and escalators to exit the station.

2. One-sided Coin

You will be scratching your head and wagging your tail using Montreal metro’s uni-directional escalators. They are intimately connected with the limbo stations. Many stations have escalators to come up from Platform to Terminal or from Terminal or mid-point to Ground but none to go down. Remember the situation with my parents?
Out of the 58 stations that have escalators, 21 of them (30% of all the stations) will offer you the wonderful experience of uni-directional escalators at some point in entering or exiting the station.

(Left) 31–35 stair-steps to go up or down and an escalator only to go up to the ground at Plamondon station on the West arm of Orange line towards the Cote-Vertu terminal station. (Right) Laurier metro on the East arm of Orange line has a uni-directional escalator going up or 63 steps to come down. After the escalator, there are 7 steps to go out on Rue Rivard.
De la Savane station on the West arm of Orange line. You enter the station and take 32 stair-steps to come down to this level, escalator only going up to the ground. Followed by bi-directional escalators or 63 stair-steps and then finally 20 stair-steps to the platform, no escalator in the final lag.

3. Stair Cardio

Flow wise, I am all up for just stairs or just escalators or an elevator. I don’t have to deal with a random switching between cardio and rest state. However, for our personas above, 6 stations with absolutely no escalators alongside stairs or elevators can be a nightmare. A recurring nightmare if they live or work there.
Green line: Angrignon (27 stair-steps), Jolicoeur (26), Viau (25)
Yellow line: Longueuil-Universite-de-Sherbrooke (25 stair-steps)
Blue line: Universite-de-Montreal (32, 41, 46 stair-steps on 3 exits)
Orange line: Vendome (34 stair-steps)

These stations are absolute stair cardio stations, don’t forget that many limbo stations have a combination of escalators and stairs, for example:

(Left) What 23 steps look like at the Universite-de-Montreal station on the Blue line. (Right) What 29 steps look like at the Place St Henri station’s St. Jacques exit.
(Left) What 24 steps look like at Place-des-Arts station on Green Line. (Right) What 32 steps look like at Honore-Beaugrand station on the East end of Green Line.
(Left) What 23 steps look like at Outremont station on the Blue line. (Right) What 25 steps look like at the Gare Lucien L’Allier exit from Bonaventure station.

4. Opposites Attract

These stations have multiple exits connected to the same pathway and Terminal but have different relationships with accessibility. Take Langelier on the East end of Green line, you climb 23 steps from Platform to Terminal then trust me the right choice is Sherbrooke North exit. It has 56 stair-steps and bi-directional escalators (going up and down). If you took Sherbrooke South exit, you have to take 34 stair-steps or bi-directional escalators to reach the mid-point and then have to take approx. 24 stair-steps to exit, no escalators at this stage. 18 out of 68 stations (26%) have multiple exits with different formats. What was the decision process in designing one exit to be more accessible than the other?
Green line: Honore-Beaugrand (terminus), Langelier, Pie-IX (Olympic stadium), Berri-UQAM (connects 3 lines), Peel, Atwater
Orange line: Cote-Vertu (terminus), Bonaventure (Central station), Square Victoria OACI, Sherbrooke, Laurier, Jean-Talon (connects 2 lines), Sauvé, Henri-Bourassa, De la Concorde
Blue line: Cote-Des-Neiges, Acadie, Saint-Michel

Sauvé was an excellent candidate for the Stair-Cardio category. 18 stair-steps from Platform to mid-point then 47 stair-steps to the Terminal. South exit required an additional 24 stair-steps and the North exit 27 steps, but they decided to add a uni-directional escalator coming up at the North exit, so it charmed its way into this category.

Langelier metro on the Green line, Sherbrooke South exit (left), you have to take 34 stair-steps or bi-directional escalators to reach the mid-point and then have to take approx. 24 stair-steps to exit, no escalators (right).
Langelier metro on the Green line, Sherbrooke North exit has 56 stair-steps and bi-directional escalators.

5. Orange Cone Barriers

Orange construction cones are quintessentially Montreal. They say if there is a street without an orange cone, call the City and they will come to place one there. Bring this concept to the metro stations — you have unnecessary barriers that can be removed or improved upon. The two vertical turnstiles at Place-des-Arts metro towards its Jeanne-Mance exit is as baffling as it gets. They exist only at that station. You climb 21 stair-steps with your stroller or bicycle to find out you can’t exit. You have to go down those 21 steps to Platform, walk to the other side of the station, climb back up 24 steps then another 32 stair-steps to get to Ground for the Bleury exit. If your destination was Place des Arts for a festival, you’ll have to circle the station or the streets.

Vertical turnstiles at the Place des Arts metro station for the Jeanne-Mance exit.

The second one is Monk station’s North exit on Rue Allard, having a ramp to go down 3 steps but there are no buttons to open the doors automatically. I didn’t explore all the doors but that’s another layer of accessibility that should be considered. What’s the use of a ramp when the very people it’s supposed to help have trouble entering/exiting the space?

Moving Montreal towards Universal Accessibility

These five baffling structural obstacles are critical in re-adapting Montreal’s metro for the next five decades. I see accessibility as a two-way relationship between the capability of being reached and being within reach. According to the Transit app, most of Montreal’s metro stations are incredibly well-integrated within the city’s densest neighbourhoods, they are within reach, prompting us to utilize the transit system more frequently. However, they are not easily reached.

STM aims to have elevators installed in 41/73 (56%) stations by 2025, this includes the 5 new stations on the Blue line. Elevators can be wonderful for individuals on wheelchairs, parents with strollers, people who have reduced mobility due to injuries, age, health; and prefer to take the elevator rather than walking through the stations and down the escalators. Sometimes elevators are not possible to be built in the current stations. These 68 stations were built over the past six decades, I am sure there are architectural features, engineering and heritage concerns as well. So how can we re-adapt our stations in the short to medium term to be accessible by more and more people?

A young rider and his mother carrying the stroller, climbing down 25 stair-steps to reach the Platform at Prefontaine station on the East end of the Green line.

Why do I want Universal Accessibility? I am an able-bodied young person, don’t design this system just for me. It doesn’t work. We have 6 decades of evidence here. If it helps people with additional needs, it will of course work out well for me too, but we can’t guarantee the other way round.

Do we want to continue experiencing Montreal with barriers? Do we want to continue systemically disadvantaging certain communities? Do we want to limit our options or do we want to collectively become an accessible city?

Let’s explore the intersection of financial and physical accessibility to understand the collective impact.

23 steps from Platform to reach the Terminal of Cote-Sainte-Catherine station on the Orange line.

How would you like to pay $85 a month to financially-access the wide-spread network of buses and metro trains across the islands but because of the architecture of stations you can only use a certain percentage of them with added fees of pain, struggle, and extra time? Thankfully, Economics teaches us how to quantify this opportunity cost. Whose opportunity costs mattered when these stations were built and whose opportunity costs matter now? Answers to this question can explain why these barriers persist.

(Left) An elderly rider takes 31 stair-steps down to access Cote-Des-Neiges station on Orange line. The East exit has 31 steps and an escalator only to come up. Followed by escalators and 42 stair-steps to reach Terminal, then 23 stair-steps and no escalators to reach the Platform. (Right) An elderly rider climbs up 21 stair-steps at the Lasalle station on the Green line, followed by escalators or 33 stair-steps to exit the station.

Imagine you have a minor mobility issue, regardless of how accomplished you are, you can apply only to a handful of companies because their offices are by an easily accessible station. How would you like it if you got accepted to study or teach or work at one of the eight prominent educational institutions of Montreal and you don’t have an escalator from the Platform to the Ground at the metro stations by your educational institution?

That’s the case for one or all of the access points of McGill and Peel metro (for McGill), Guy-Concordia metro (for Concordia), Berri-UQAM, St-Laurent, and Place-des-Arts metro (for UQAM), Universite-de-Montreal and Édouard-Montpetit metros (for UdeM, Polytechnique and HEC), Longueuil — Université-de-Sherbrooke metro (for UdeSherbrooke), Lucien L’Allier and Bonaventure metro (for ÉTS). Only Berri-UQAM station has an elevator that brings you to the ground level.

This does not even go as far as to capture your limited options of residence across the city.

Frontenac metro station on the Green Line — this man carried his bicycle up 19 steps from the platform to reach these escalators. In case these two rounds of escalators are out of order, that’s approx. 40 and then 45 stair-steps to reach the ground.

Imagine if you are trying to be eco-conscious and pairing the metro ride with a bike ride, it’s not easy to carry your bicycle up or down the metro stations. Yes, Bixi is wonderful and I prefer a shared system over individual bicycles but it comes at a yearly subscription cost as well. The Bixi service is also not yet equitably spread across the city.

How long do you think you can afford to use the taxi or Uber? How much time would you like to spend waiting on para-transit buses or regular buses especially when it’s raining or during our five months of winter? Yes, buses are a potentially great alternative but Uber/Taxi/Paratransit buses do not contribute to Montreal’s mission of reducing carbon emissions.

All these socio-economic factors are interconnected just like our transit system. However, if at the core it is designed only for able-bodied riders like me, with no toddlers on strollers or any mobility concerns, then the whole system is going to have lags and barriers.

(Left) Place St-Henri station on the Orange Line. (Right) Outremont station on the Blue Line.

Montreal’s underground metro network is a beautiful architectural facade with apparent hollow scaffolding. We can’t patch it up. It’s a design challenge for us!

We can take an equity-centred design approach to ensure that people along the mobility spectrum can access the public transit in whichever way they can without depending on someone else. I want to engage Montrealers in a crowd-solving design session on October 14th, 2020 (date modified).

54 years ago, on October 14, Montreal’s first metro was opened up. October also has awareness days for Cerebral Palsy, Osteoporosis, Breast cancer, World Spine Day, Mental Health Day, and Rett syndrome; and the timing is opportune. Reach out if you want to collaborate!

As mentioned earlier, the first element of accessibility is access to knowledge. I hope you are now more aware of this design conundrum. I will also be sharing my Excel file with all the data in an open-source format for organizations and individuals to benefit from it and incorporate it into their already existing efforts.

(Left) A mother and toddler at Mont-Royal station on the Orange line. (Right) A passage connecting different lines at the Jean-Talon station on the Orange and Blue line.

I counted the steps on the stairs because those are the imposing structures that limit many individuals. However, I would also like to point out that there are many pathways within the stations. I didn’t/couldn’t count the steps or length of these pathways but this would be essential information for people with reduced mobility and visually-impaired individuals to gauge their environment.

(Left) A pathway at the Cadillac station on the Green Line, reflecting the reality of the underserved homeless community. (Right) Construction tapes at the Place Des Arts station on the Green Line.
(Left) A visually-impaired rider canvassing their path at the Berri-UQAM station (Green, Orange, Yellow lines). (Middle) A rider climbs up 26 steps from the Terminal level to exit the Henri-Bourassa station on the Orange line. (Right) A rider takes the 2nd out of 3rd round of escalator down at Lucien L’Allier station on the Orange line. If these were out of order, they would have had to take 51 steps down. Prior to this, they took an escalator (equivalent to 37 steps), after this they took an escalator again (equivalent to 51 stair-steps) and then 30 stair-steps down to reach the Platform.

This personal project may open up wonderful avenues for research around socio-economic groups, refugee settlement, new inhabitant integration, senior citizen care, homelessness, visually-impaired individuals, auditory-impaired individuals, social cohesion, inclusive design, and civic entrepreneurship. I will be reaching out to designers, city and STM team, accessibility advocates, architectures, planners, NGOs, and foundations to see how this can go further. If you are reading this, reach out to discuss potential projects.

I would love for my fellow citizens to conduct such accessibility audits in their respective cities.

#4Days4Lines #4Jours4Lignes #Accessibility #Accessibilité



Omer Juma

Travel, Design, Urbanism, Photography, Cooking, Sustainability