When I moved to London to pursue a postrgraduate degree, I quickly realised that Londoners absolutely love talking about the tube. What lines get them from home to work, what disruptions have they experienced? Quite often, people don’t give a second thought about including me into these conversations, only to be surprised to hear that I use the tube only once or twice per year, if even that. As a wheelchair user, it is simply not accessible to me. While about a quarter of stations (71 out of 270) are step-free with assistance from Transport for London (TfL), and 50 out of those are accessible without assistance, that leaves 199 inaccessible stops.
None of the tube stations that are within a 20-minute walking distance from my flat are accessible, and at my university in Covent Garden, I’d have to get to over the bridge to Waterloo to reach a step-free tube station (and I still could not get home, so there is no point). The excitement many of my friends and colleagues felt over the new Night Tube service that was rolled out last year left me feeling excluded in a similar way, as only 7 out of the 52 stops are accessible.
It is hard to feel equal when even the way from home to work already takes twice as long for me for half the distance.
Most London wheelchair users I know, myself included, never use the tube, but instead move through the city via taxis, cars or buses (in theory, all London buses should be accessible, with the caveat that only one wheelchair user at a time is allowed on board, which makes travelling with disabled friends a logistical nightmare. And don’t even get me started on travelling with a baby pram…). As a result, transport is far more expensive, stressful and time-consuming for wheelchair users than it is for nondisabled people, which makes me feel very frustrated at times.
It is hard to feel equal when even the way from home to work already takes twice as long for me for half the distance. Whenever I am abroad in cities where the majority of their underground transport is accessible, for example Barcelona and Vienna, I can’t but help feeling disappointed that travelling around in London is so much more difficult.
I understand that the London underground system is very old, and that fitting in lifts can be complicated, expensive and, in the case of certain stations, impossible. However, I am worried that plans to make more stops accessible have been delayed, and that TfL seems to prioritise other developments. While it would seem that making the overground accessible would be easier, here too only around half of the stations are step-free. The forthcoming crossrail promises to make things significantly easier for travellers who require step-free access, as all of its London stations will be accessible.
I am hugely excited for its opening, because it will finally make it possible for me to visit certain areas of London without travelling for hours and/or spending extortionate amounts of money on a cab. I am deeply grateful to the campaigners who fought hard for this, as initially, TfL only committed to making 33 out of the 37 London stations step-free.
When I discuss the lack of access on public transport with nondisabled friends, they often seem surprised by it. This lack of awareness is part of the problem. It was deeply disappointing when the former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, refused the challenge Paralympian Hannah Cockroft set for him, to travel around London in a wheelchair to all of his appointment for a day. Accepting this challenge would have opened the eyes of politicians and the public to the extent of the issue. There are 13.3 million disabled people in the UK, and disability could potentially affect all of us, at any given moment.
Taking this and our aging population into account, disabled access should be everyone’s concern and responsibility, and not just regarded as a niche minority issue.