On a journey through London yesterday, what started as an idle glance at the underground map resulted in more detailed research followed by a feeling of shame – how can this be acceptable in this modern era?
This was the Bakerloo Line, one of eleven lines on the London Underground service. I must have looked at the map hundreds, if not thousands, of times over the years. But on this occasion, this tiny little notice caught my eye. Yes, there is a special symbol to indicate which stations have step-free exit from the platform to street… interesting. So they don’t all have that? No… a total of two stations (Harrow & Wealdstone, and Willesden Junction) have step-free access. There are 23 other stations on the line which don’t provide that – twenty three! Admittedly, the line is more than a hundred years old, and more than half of the stations are actually underground, but how can wheelchair-bound passengers possibly cope with that?
A journey on the Central Line later in the day provided further opportunity for research. Here the situation was rather better, with eight stations (White City, Shepherd’s Bush, Bank, Stratford, Woodford, Epping, Roding Valley, Hainault) out of a total 49 stations providing step-free access from platform to street. Better, but still not good enough.
By contrast, the DLR (Docklands Light Railway), operated by Transport for London, is much newer and every station is designed with wheelchair access in mind. Indeed, it was the first railway in the UK designated as “fully accessible”.
It is always easier to design these things into a project at the start, and the cost of adding lifts to an underground system more than a hundred years after it was originally built (in one of the most congested cities in the world), must be colossal. Anyway, how can you possibly put a price on that?
How wonderful it must be for wheelchair users to see signs like this one, which I encountered in Tignes, France. Brilliantly inclusive, admittedly without massive financial cost (presumably):
Thinking back to the time when my own children were babies in pushchairs, I recall how every journey on foot had to be carefully planned to avoid steps. In time, every ramp, lift and escalator in every town was committed to memory and formed part of all days out. In fairness, there were actually very few places which were totally inaccessible. Sometimes, “thoughtless” shopkeepers put baby-change facilities upstairs, downstairs, or completely inaccessible from street level, and usually a moan to the shopkeeper would confirm that changes were planned “at some time in the future”. But generally it wasn’t too bad. According to my parents, all very different from how it had been when I had been a baby myself. So gradually, these things are changing. But it’s not a quick process.
For parents of babies in pushchairs, this is just a passing phase – it lasts only a few years before the pushchair can be banished forever, and a new phase starts. At that point, determination to get local authorities to make improvements subsides, and memories fade and become rosier… “it wasn’t easy, but it was manageable… and in any case, it was only for a few years”. But for wheelchair users, the same cannot be said. It must be heartening to know that improvements are coming despite the massive cost, but at the same time, immensely frustrating to know that these things can take an entire lifetime. For wheelchair users, that is just completely unacceptable. But isn’t it just the same for the rest of us – completely unacceptable?