How accessible is London really?

by ALEXANDRA BOUDREAULT-MANOS

In a sprawling city like London, time is a precious commodity.
Every minute seems endless as we wait for crowded trains and hop onto buses.

But imagine the time of your journey being doubled because you can’t access a Tube platform.

This is the reality for the thousands of wheelchair users living in the capital.

Dubbed the most accessible city in Europe by the Mayor’s office, all black cabs and 98 per cent of buses are wheelchair accessible.

But less than a quarter of London’s 270 Tube stations are wheelchair friendly.

“The Tube is the most affordable and efficient mode of transport. But the lack of accessible stations underpins everyday living for me,” said 33-year-old Martyn Sibley.

Sibley, the head of the UK’s fastest growing disability lifestyle website, suffers from a neuromuscular disorder, and has been in a wheelchair since the age of three. 

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His preferred mode of transport is his adapted car, as it makes him feel in control.

“A big issue was when I wanted to drink alcohol and leave my car behind. Then I needed to rely on buses or taxis; and maybe their ramps would be broken or the drivers wouldn’t be supportive or I simply couldn’t hail them,” he said.

The difficulties with wheelchair accessibility run deeper than a lack of accessible stations.

According to blogger Amy Oulton, the writer behind accessibility blog www.hotwheelsgoes.com, London’s whole infrastructure is the problem. Shoddy or non-existent dropped kerbs, broken bus ramps, and a severe shortage of accessible housing are all issues  wheelchair users face everyday.

“It’s fair to say that it’s one of the most accessible cities in Europe, but the bar really isn’t set high. I would really like to see Sadiq Khan do a day in a wheelchair and then see if he feels so proud,” she said.

But there is hope. Srin Madipalli, a corporate lawyer and entrepreneur, has been in a wheelchair his entire life due to a neuromuscular disease and believes new developments are increasingly focused on wheelchair access.

“Some areas in London are very accessible and others aren’t so. The area around Stratford that was redeveloped for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics is a good example,” he said.

“I’d like to see Sadiq Khan do a day in a wheelchair and then see if he feels so proud.”

“It’s very easy to get around, all new shops and restaurants are accessible, and Stratford station is wheelchair friendly.”

Despite this, Madipalli considers the London Underground network to be the biggest failure for accessibility. 

According to Madipalli, creating a fully accessible city should not be a daunting feat.

“It can be done on a slow but constant basis to continuously improve and enhance the situation,” he said.

Currently, the legal right to accessible transport is protected by the 2010 Equality Act. Under it, transport providers across the UK have a responsibility to make “reasonable adjustments” to offer equal service to both disabled and non-disabled people.  

But there are loopholes.

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Wheelchair accessibility regulations for access to public transport use a “reference wheelchair” with specific measurements to set standards.

While this “reference wheelchair” is bigger than most wheelchairs, some mobility scooters and powered wheelchairs exceed these measurements.

In these cases, the transport operator in question has no legal obligation to accommodate them.

There are currently no laws requiring Tube stations to be accessible. While Transport for London (TfL) is  “introducing more and more step-free access” their website advises wheelchair users that, “ it’s important to plan your step-free route in advance and check before you travel in case of disruptions”

As of 1 January 2017, all double decker buses are now accessible under the  Public Service Vehicle Accessibility Regulations 2000 criteria.

This includes having space for a standard wheelchair and a boarding device (ramp) to enable wheelchair uses to get on and off.

“Accessibility is a scale rather than all-or-nothing.”

Wheelchair users now also have priority on accessible space on transport over buggies, but Sibley doesn’t see this as a victory.

“It shouldn’t be a one or the other, in a perfect world the bus can be designed to have a space that could take both.”

Sibley remembers several times when he opted to take the bus rather than his car to get somewhere.

“I would sometimes need to take three different buses. With each bus [transfer], I remember waiting and not being able to get onboard because there was already a buggy or another wheelchair, and having to wait until I could finally board one of the buses that stopped.”

For Sibley, the current reality remains an everyday challenge, but he’s hopeful for a perfectly accessible London in the future.

“Accessibility is a scale rather than all-or-nothing. Society is generally getting more educated and open-minded about disability, and the situation improves with every generation.”

Featured photo by Alexandra Boudreault-Manos