Meet Jérôme Mabon, creator of the États Critiques movie review blog and occasional contributor to Bordeaux cultural webzine Happe:n . Jé...

Accessible Bordeaux: how wheelchair-friendly is the city?

Meet Jérôme Mabon, creator of the États Critiques movie review blog and occasional contributor to Bordeaux cultural webzine Happe:n. Jérôme also happens to be physically disabled and kindly agreed to provide me with a personal guided tour of Bordeaux as viewed through the eyes of a wheelchair user.

We arranged to meet up at one of Jérôme’s favourite (and accessible) bars, the legendary Chez Auguste on Place de la Victoire, where we discussed Bordeaux’s ranking in the annual “Baromètre de l’Accessibilité” as drawn up by the Association des Paralysés de France. The city currently lies 13th in the table which is topped by Grenoble, Nantes and Caen: “Bordeaux has its shortcomings and there is definite room for improvement, but I do think that position is a bit harsh. On the whole, I’m satisfied by what has been done in the city.”

We make our way towards the nearby tram stop. “The tram network is a godsend for disabled people, enabling us to get around Bordeaux. As the stations and their immediate surroundings have been designed with wheelchair users in mind, these are also among the most accessible areas in the city.” However, I soon gather that boarding the tram is far from simple, especially at this busy time (it’s 10:30 in the morning). As Jérôme enters the tram, the doors close on him, almost leaving me stranded on the platform. Luckily the doors re-open and we can continue our journey both unharmed and together. With people all around, alighting at the next stop is also a challenge: Jérôme has to reverse off the tram with little or no view of what is behind him. He makes it out but it all seems very hair-raising.

However Jérôme prefers this to catching a bus: “Buses are far less comfortable and drivers are not always fully aware of how to use the hydraulic access ramp system. There is an additional taxi-like service known as “Mobibus” for disabled people to get around the city with their travel pass. But I never use it because it’s always fully-booked! I remain loyal to the tram network, and all the more so since the introduction of new trams where there is more space for wheelchair users and the buttons to open the doors have been lowered, making them easier to reach.”

He has brought me to the Musée d’Aquitaine to show me an initiative which is full of good intentions but poorly executed: the disabled access via a side entrance. There he points out the wheelchair lift, which is nothing more than a metallic platform which sits precariously to the side of some steps. It looks a bit scary, and Jérôme, clearly speaking from experience, eloquently describes it as “casse-gueule”. Later in our stroll we will compare the system with a far more reassuring set-up at the Grand-Théâtre, where the wheelchair elevator is enclosed by glass panels.

Wheelchair access at the Musée d'Aquitaine and the Grand-Théâtre.
We carry on towards Place Pey-Berland, where Jérôme makes good headway: “Generally speaking, it is easy to get around the main streets of the city. The pavements are wide enough for us and are lowered ahead of pedestrian crossings. In some places, near Esplanade des Quinconces for instance, the crossings themselves have been raised to pavement level.” As we make our way into the pedestrianised shopping streets, Jérôme shows me a side street which is typical of the kind which causes problems: “Note the narrow pavements and numerous obstacles which mean we sometimes end up on the street itself alongside cars.”

Left: a wide, wheelchair-friendly pavement; top right: a raised pedestrian crossing;
bottom right: an obstacle-strewn city centre street like this is not good news for Jérôme.
It soon becomes clear that in Bordeaux, as in any city, the basics of wheelchair accessibility revolve around being able to get up and down steps. Jérôme shows me shops which are out-of-bounds for him because of the single step in their doorway. Others have a low step that can be overcome fairly easily. We head towards Place du Parlement and independent bookshop La Machine à Lire, where efforts have been made to welcome disabled customers. A ramp has been laid on top of the steps and Jérôme whizzes up and into the shop… where it is somewhat difficult to navigate through the narrow aisles. At one stage Jérôme has to manoeuvre and sends a few books flying. However, all credit to the shop, where one attendant was quick to welcome Jérôme with a promise of help if needed. However, when leaving the store, Jérôme drives on to the steep ramp at a slight angle which gets me worried he might topple off the edge before he reaches the bottom. Again, he makes it. 

Top left: one step too many; bottom left: this low step can be overcome; right: using the La Machine à Lire ramp.
We talk about the city’s cultural venues, and Jérôme is full of praise: “The modern cinema complexes like Gaumont and Le Français are particularly accessible. The UGC is hit and miss with some screens out-of-bounds, while the Utopia cinema has done a great deal to be able to accommodate wheelchairs. Concert venues put lot of effort into making us welcome. At Rock School Barbey we have our own raised viewing platform, and at the Krakatoa they install one upon request either near the stage or towards the back of the venue – we often end up with a better view than most of the punters!”

But Jérôme is not so enamoured with the facilities at the Stade Chaban-Delmas football and rugby ground: “The main problem with the disabled area is that it is not under cover, so there is nowhere to shelter when it rains.” He has heard that the situation should be different in the new football stadium

Moving on to Rue Sainte-Catherine, the street is already busy with Saturday shoppers. I ask Jérôme whether he has ever been involved in any unfortunate collisions. There have been a few minor brushes with strangers but he tells me that smartphones are the most dangerous factor to deal with, as people wander around “with their noses glued to their screens” instead of watching where they’re going.

In a way though, I am pleasingly reassured by how people fail to “notice” Jérôme in Bordeaux. Other than a couple of people staring at him and his electric wheelchair at the tram stop, he is as much a part of the landscape as any able-bodied person. However, Jérôme confides that when he is with an able-bodied travelling companion and the pair ask for directions, people tend to direct their responses at his friend rather than him.

Our tour finishes up on the waterfront, Jérôme’s favourite part of the city: “I love it here when it’s sunny. The surface is perfect for wheelchairs, there’s plenty of space and the scenery is beautiful.” So much so that Jérôme sometimes even completes a full riverbank loop, by crossing first the Chaban-Delmas bridge, meandering along the right bank of the Garonne, and crossing back over the Pont de Pierre. “It’s an absolute delight and the pedestrian access to the new bridge is fantastic.”

We clearly have a satisfied customer. After all, Jérôme moved to Bordeaux from his native Brittany in 2005, so the city must be doing something right if he’s still here after nine years. But does he have a wish-list of things that could be done to make things better? The “step” issue returns: “Bars, restaurants and other buildings with steps should be obliged to have a ramp, even if it’s not a permanent measure. And it would be great to have more tramway stations to be able to get out and about to more places!”

In Bordeaux, as elsewhere, accessibility is naturally a priority and there is constant room for improvement. But judging by the evidence, the city isn’t doing too badly and, on the basis of Jérôme’s experience, its main streets are very much conducive to disabled people leading contented lives. 

Thanks Jérôme!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I am going over to Bordeaux in June I am an electric wheelchair user myself. Can you please give me more advice?

    1. Hi there, just reading back through the article I don't have much more to add! The waterfront is very accessible, you can make good use of the tram network, and museums such as the Cité du Vin and the newly-reopened natural history museum have both been designed with accessibility in mind. Go rummaging through the blog archives for ideas of things to see or else the "Essential Bordeaux" page of tips, but other than some narrow city-centre pavements (and sights such as Pey-Berland tower) you'll find it easy to get around and will make the most of the city!

  3. Hi Jerome

    Thanks so much for a brilliant analysis by wheelchair in Bordeaux

    I am a wheelchair user and will be visiting the city in September this year
    I was a bit concerned about how wheelchair friendly the trams where but you have put my mind at ease
    Thank you so much for all the information, I wish more persons would do it

    1. Thanks for that kind feedback, which has been passed on to Jérôme! We're pleased you found the article useful and hope you enjoy your stay in the Bordeaux!