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Sunday, Oct. 23, 2011
Toward a barrier-free Japan
Japan's move to make urban environments and transportation systems barrier-free came much later than other developed countries. However, in the decade since Japan's barrier-free transport law was enacted in 2001, the number of barrier-free stations has more than tripled. The transport ministry reported that 93 percent of major train stations are barrier-free as of the end of March.
The barrier-free movement has not been easy or simple to accomplish. As remodeling took place, every commuter in the country has been rerouted, jammed onto crowded platforms, and made to wait for staircases and escalators. When construction is completed, though, disabled passengers long denied access to stations, platforms and trains, will be able to get around more conveniently than ever before, and so will everyone else.
However, more remains to be done. Remodeling has been mainly at train stations with daily passenger volume of 5,000 or more. The ministry reported that of 2,813 stations surveyed, 2,603 are now equipped with elevators, ramps and other facilities to help disabled passengers. The remaining smaller stations, those with daily volume of 3,000 to 5,000 passengers still need to be improved. Redoing those will be even more difficult, working with cramped spaces and little room to maneuver.
Problems are persistent. In Tokyo, many of the older station platforms are too small to accommodate barrier-free changes. Elevators squeeze into limited space, creating human traffic jams and dangerous conditions. Stairs and escalators remain crowded at peak hours. Redoing a system is not easy, especially with so many passengers, so many interconnections, and so many places needing barrier-free upgrading.
However, the effort to improve the flow for all passengers is one that provides benefits to all. As barrier-free improvements are put in place, other changes that make commuting and getting around easier have also been instituted. Ramps and handrails, among other improvements, make movement easier for many kinds of people. That is a good example of that old Japanese virtue wa, or harmony.
The inclusion of barrier-free thinking into the design of transportation networks means a broader and more flexible understanding of what urban transport should be and for whom. Train stations now adapt to the people, rather than the other way around. Japan can pride itself on its transportation network, one of the best in the world, and as it becomes increasingly barrier-free, it can take even greater pride.