How learning to navigate London on crutches revealed a new side to the city

The world’s tallest man, Sultan Kosen, on a trip to London in 2009. Image: Getty.

When I was in primary school, crutches were not mobility aids but an interesting new toy to be borrowed at lunch time while their sedentary owner rested on a bench alone. I used to think swinging through the air on your arms looked “fun”. To children, in the context of a concrete playground, perhaps it is.  

A severe sprain recently left me completely without the use of my right leg. As a generally sprightly 20-something, usually able to go wherever I wanted easily and quickly, learning to navigate London on one leg was both exhausting and fascinating.

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Let me set the scene. It is midnight on Sunday. Two or three people are consistently tumbling into the Royal Free Hospital reception. One lies sideways across the slimy vinyl chairs as an elderly lady is ushered quickly through the system by tired nurses who somehow maintain a bedside manner.

I am not an urgent case and so I wait as the hours drag by and people run in and out of the bathroom to vomit, watching the numbers tail off until people are slowly dripping in and out of reception.

Some of these Londoners have clearly never been to an NHS hospital before. Instead of arriving armed with a large bottle of water, two books, a sheet of painkillers, and a phone charger – not to mention large measures of patience – people sporadically and loudly abuse the junior night-shift staff for their hours-long waits at the remnants of our publicly-funded health institutions.

Headache-rousing arguments at 3:00am, tired triage nurses, receptionists whose bored responses to being threatened suggest they have to deal with this shit every day. Security are called frequently and burly men arrive to repeat “sorry, you can’t talk to our staff like this.”

Some patients leave before they are even treated, surely a testament to the urgency with which their injuries actually needed to be dealt.

A creepy man, aged at least 50, shuffles past my room to stare at me every two minutes. It is probably envy, I tell myself, as I actually have a room. I actually have somebody seeing me. At six in the morning, a 20-something junior doctor teaches me how to use my crutches. Shoulder width apart, don’t use them going downstairs, how are you getting home?

Crutches are hard, it transpires. My palms are red and bruised, my shoulders stiff. The hospital taxi driver charges me an extra 50p to stop at a cash machine for the inconvenience of paying him. Two months in, I’m sure I’ll have developed buff abs, arms and shoulders, while my legs will have become completely asymmetric.

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Aside from learning just how infuriating its inhabitants find long hospital waiting hours, my perception of the capital has shifted exponentially in the past week. My path is now defined by questions I had never previously considered. Which tube stations have stairs? At home I can happily slide down the carpeted stairs on my butt, but on the tube it’s time consuming, inconvenient for others and frankly gross.

This means all tube stations without disabled access are now out of bounds. Even bus journeys are difficult; getting between stops takes so long that I am forced to allow for an extra two-hours of travel time.

What’s more, I find everybody sits in the reduced mobility seats, whether or not they need them.

One mobile-looking man in his early 40s stares at me from his reduced mobility seat, and doesn’t move. Another in his 70s, who is actually physically disabled, refuses to move his bag from the seat next to him; although for this it’s hard to feel too annoyed – bending down to pick up a bag is hard when you don’t have full mobility. A comparatively healthy woman gives me her seat a little way up. I feel bad because she is twice my age. 


As my strength increases I start “walking” more. Traffic lights are not green for more than 15 seconds. By the time the countdown reaches its closing seconds I am only a third of the way across. I panic.

The pavements are uneven and slippery when it rains, which makes life even slower because I do not want to fall and injure myself further. I have to wait at the middle part of the crossing to ensure it’s safe for me to cross the second half. It takes between three times and six times as long to get anywhere if I don’t want to pay for taxis every day.

But people actually talk to you. It’s like having a dog, only without the endorphins from being loved and depended on.

“I broke my leg 20 years ago. We didn’t have backpacks then – you’re almost lucky! You can carry everything yourself.” “Can I get the door? You must be tired!”

Sure, having reduced mobility sucks, but you make far more connections with traditionally hostile London strangers. A woman in a red car named Zoe offers me a ride, seeing me struggling not to slide on the still-damp streets. We talk about her children jovially for the five-minute journey. 

In another leg (hah!) of my journey, I have to stop every 15 seconds to shake my arms and hands. But then I become more optimistic. The busy inconsiderate hordes of commuters and kids on skateboards used to seem threatening, carrying me station-wards in their undertow. But instead of swamping me, they let me pause to rest, they circumnavigate, they ask if they can help, they appreciate my position. However, their consideration appears location-dependent; while passengers at Waterloo are friendly, for some inexplicable reason, nobody gives a shit about you at Victoria. Gatwick Express, perhaps?

Eventually I build enough strength to take the stairs: a crutch on one side, handrail on the other. London is still sorely underequipped for people with limited mobility, and it must be unrelentingly worse for those in wheelchairs or without my new physical strength.

But the refreshing compassion of its public restores the buzzing, faceless city’s humanity and, at times, certainly compensates for the physical hardships, and lack of facilities and funding that make you despair. The people make the city.

 
 
 
 

Podcast: Flying high

There! Up in the sky! Image: Getty.

Two interviews this week, which are both about the future of our cities but are otherwise unrelated except for allowing me to come up with a sort of pun on the word “high”.

First up: drones, the remote-operated buzzy flying things that recently managed to shut down several of London’s airports. The innovation charity NESTA has produced a report looking at what drones will do for our society, how we need to regulate them, and what role local government is likely to play in that. I spoke to the report’s author Kathy Notstine about all those things and asked: is it worth it?

In the back half, I talk to Skylines regular Paul Swinney of the Centre for Cities about the future of the high street – that, for non British listeners, is what towns generally call their central retail area (the name is roughly analogous to “Main Street”). Paul tells me how cities can regenerate their high streets in the age of Amazon.

Next Tuesday, incidentally, I’ll be recording the second live edition of Skylines at the New Local Government Network’s annual conference in London. If you’re a local government professional, why not pop along?

The episode itself is below. You can subscribe to the podcast on AcastiTunes, or RSS. Enjoy.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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