Tuesday 1 January 2013

Where Is The Accessible Transport?

Are we still living in the dark ages?

Well, as has become the family custom, just before Christmas, we headed "up West" to see the lights. As usual, I couldn't quite switch off, but hey, who can? I got thinking a bit about how accessible transport in London really is.

Starting with the train, our local mainline station has no lifts and so people using wheelchairs and mobility scooters are basically screwed. The solution is to travel a couple of stops out of London to a station with lifts, swap platforms and then come back in - not much help if you want to travel in a group as you either go it alone or drag the whole group out of their way. For us, we no longer need to use a pushchair and so didn't have the grief of staggering down the steps carrying one.

Fortunately, with Crossrail coming on stream in around 2018/19, our station will be getting "step free access to street level" (or "lifts") - not bad really, it will have only taken nearly 25 years since modern disability legislation came into force! But out of the 37 Crossrail stations, only 29 will have step free access. What about the other 8? None of these stations are underground and so there is no technical challenge (bridges over the tracks with stairs and lifts to each platform). [photo from National Rail Enquries - Manor Park, will not be getting a Crossrail lift] Not bad Crossrail, but no gold star. Of course, there is still the massive gap and step between the train and the platform and so there will still be people who cannot access the service. 

Then we have the Underground. Now, this is a huge and in many cases very old system. The idea of an accessible train network didn't cross the minds of the Victorians and those subsequently expanding the system. It was not until the Jubilee Line Extension was conceived that did anyone seriously think about accessibility and the new stations were made step free from train to platform and platform to street (lifts). That is not to say other stations aren't accessible, but there are whole areas which are not accessible. TfL has produced a (slightly complicated) map for tube accessibility, but the "boldly to go" blog has a simpler map which shows how far the system has to go in reality to be properly accessible rather than shades of accessible.

The problem with the Underground is that making all stations step free (train to platform and platform to street) is a massive technical challenge and will be hugely costly. Some stations would need to be effectively rebuilt so the platforms are at a different level or are straightened out. Many tunnels are only just large enough for the trains and so there is no space to relay tracks slightly higher or lower. It is going to take decades for the system to be fully accessible.

Buses next! We are pretty well-served in London as our buses are new, frequent (even in Outer-London) and more often than not, they get you where you need to go. The other feature that I don't think many people realise is that apart from a handful of old Routemasters (for the tourists) London's bus fleet is made up of low floor buses, which means that with the right treatment on the kerb edge, passengers of all mobility can access them [photo from TfL Bus Stop Design Guidance, 2006]

The trouble is the kerb side is controlled by the 33 boroughs and Transport for London (major routes). It is all very well having a low floor bus, but if the vehicle cannot get close to the kerb (and a kerb of the right height), then the bus stop is not accessible. TfL has guidance for bus stop design (yes I am a geek), but it is not mandatory and each borough can deal with the issue in their own way. The provision of accessible bus stops across London is therefore highly variable. 

One of the big issues is that because everyone is fighting for kerb side space in London (for parking and loading), the second you propose parking controls so buses can access a stop, you have a riot on your hands from residents and shopkeepers who will lose parking space outside of their premises (I have done enough bus stop accessibility consultations to last a lifetime!). The other problem is that even with an accessible stop, many bus drivers seem incapable of actually stopping close into the kerb which makes it harder to sell the idea to politicians who feel that as much parking as possible is the aim for a transport system!

The last component in the Christmas trip is the bits of the day when we were on foot. This has important accessibility implications as the walking routes need to be large enough to cope with the number of users, fairly flat, no puddles or trips, clear and when people wish to cross the road, facilities need to be step free. I could write a book on this subject, but again, the provision is highly variable. Many areas around the centre of London (Westminster, Camden, Southwark, etc) are very walkable thanks to the millions of pounds spent there on the streets over the last several decades.

But there are a lot of problems. Advertising boards seem to be breeding and are always in the way, especially in busy areas. Around Westminster there is an easy game of "spot the government building" to be had; whereby these buildings are surrounded by bollards and walls designed to keep the blast from truck bombs away from the buildings (but don't protect those on the street!) - non government buildings are conspicuous by a lack of bollards. These bollards and walls are the tips of are structural icebergs - there are huge foundations under the footway surface which will stop a lorry (just don't crash into one on a motorbike eh?). 

The trouble is, these bollards are placed right in the middle of pedestrian crossings and at a height to make male eyes water, are very tight for people using buggies and wheelchairs; and they ruin the look of the street. [photo from Google Streetview - Horseferry Road, outside the Department for Transport!]. I realise the need for "security", but why can't the buildings be hardened or something less intrusive and anti-accessibility be used? Dropped kerbs flush with the road surface are also lacking all over London and indeed, Newham has recently had its backside smacked for not following national guidance on tactile paving surface to help blind and partially-sighted people.

So what is the point of this rambling blog? Well, I am coming at this from somebody who is able-bodied and relatively fit, so the trip into London was no major hassle. A couple of years ago, we would have had to think a bit more about our route as we would have had a pushchair to contend with. Our planning would have minimised the amount of bags to carry, possibly used a Jubilee Line station in central London (for the lift) and had a couple of buses go by because they couldn't take another pushchair (actually, that happened a lot). But, in the future, I will not be quite as fit or hot on my feet and so how will I cope then? Will I find it difficult to use stairs (the family knees are not a good sign)? What if I am using a wheelchair, or a stick or my eyesight fails?

Many people wrongly assume that accessible transport is all about wheelchairs (a politician's stock understanding) - certainly I often have to explain who may need a little assistance to access a highway network, often at no additional cost to a scheme - just good design. London has some very accessible transport and streets, but it has a lot of terrible provision and how many people cope with it on a daily basis is beyond me.

For me, an accessible transport system should be seamless - for example, a group getting on a train might have a person using a wheelchair with them, but they should all be able to travel together and got off at the station of their choice. A partially-sighted person using a pedestrian crossing around Westminster should not have to avoid bollards placed right in their way, people travelling with small children should not have to carry a pushchair down the steps to the Tube. There shouldn't need to be people "planning" their journey around a substandard network, they should be able to turn up and just use it, no matter their circumstances. 

So, perhaps London is not in the Dark Ages, but there is a hell of a way to go to get into the light that should be the 21st Century.

UPDATE 4-1-13

Well, we had a little trip to Docklands & Greenwich today and so I thought I would mention the Docklands Light Railway which is completely accessible (street to platform and platform to train) and worthy of a mention. I think the DLR should be expanded even further, it is a really good service.

Photo showing truly step-free access between train and platform at Crossharbour.

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