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.

 
 
 
 

The risk of ‘cascading’ natural disasters is rising

A man watches wildfires in California, 2013. Image: Getty.

In a warming world, the dangers from natural disasters are changing. In a recent commentary, we identified a number of costly and deadly catastrophes that point to an increase in the risk of “cascading” events – ones that intensify the impacts of natural hazards and turn them into disasters.

Multiple hazardous events are considered cascading when they act as a series of toppling dominoes, such as flooding and landslides that occur after rain over wildfires. Cascading events may begin in small areas but can intensify and spread to influence larger areas.

This rising risk means decision-makers, urban planners and risk analysts, civil engineers like us and other stakeholders need to invest more time and effort in tracking connections between natural hazards, including hurricanes, wildfires, extreme rainfall, snowmelt, debris flow, and drought, under a changing climate.

Cascading disasters

Since 1980 to January 2018, natural disasters caused an inflation-adjusted $1,537.4bn in damages in the United States.

The loss of life in that period – nearly 10,000 deaths – has been mounting as well. The United States has seen more billion-dollar natural disaster events recently than ever before, with climate models projecting an increase in intensity and frequency of these events in the future. In 2017 alone, natural disasters resulted in $306bn losses, setting the costliest disaster year on record.

We decided it was important to better understand cascading and compound disasters because the impacts of climate change can often lead to coupled events instead of isolated ones. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, or UNISDR, claims: “Any disaster entails a potentially compounding process, whereby one event precipitates another.”

For example, deforestation and flooding often occur together. When vegetation is removed, top soil washes away and the earth is incapable of absorbing rainfall. The 2004 Haiti flood that killed more than 800 people and left many missing is an example of this type of cascading event. The citizens of the poverty-stricken country destroyed more than 98 per cent of its forests to provide charcoal for cooking. When Tropical Storm Jeanne hit, there was no way for the soil to absorb the rainfall. To further complicate existing issues, trees excrete water vapor into the air, and so a sparser tree cover often yields less rain. As a result, the water table may drop, making farming, which is the backbone of Haiti’s economy, more challenging.


Rising risk from climate change

Coupled weather events are becoming more common and severe as the earth warms. Droughts and heatwaves are a coupled result of global warming. As droughts lead to dry soils, the surface warms since the sun’s heat cannot be released as evaporation. In the United States, week-long heatwaves that occur simultaneously with periods of drought are twice as likely to happen now as in the 1970s.

Also, the severity of these cascading weather events worsens in a warming world. Drought-stricken areas become more vulnerable to wildfires. And snow and ice are melting earlier, which is altering the timing of runoff. This has a direct relationship with the fact that the fire season across the globe has extended by 20 per cent since the 1980s. Earlier snowmelt increases the chance of low flows in the dry season and can make forests and vegetation more vulnerable to fires.

These links spread further as wildfires occur at elevations never imagined before. As fires destroy the forest canopy on high mountain ranges, the way snow accumulates is altered. Snow melts faster since soot deposited on the snow absorbs heat. Similarly, as drought dust is released, snow melts at a higher rate as has been seen in the Upper Colorado River Basin.

Fluctuations in temperature and other climatic patterns can harm or challenge the already crumbling infrastructure in the United States: the average age of the nation’s dams and levees is over 50 years. The deisgn of these aging systems did not account for the effects of cascading events and changes in the patterns of extreme events due to climate change. What might normally be a minor event can become a major cause for concern such as when an unexpected amount of melt water triggers debris flows over burned land.

There are several other examples of cascading disasters. In July, a deadly wildfire raged through Athens killing 99 people. During the same month on the other side of the world in Mendocino, California, more than 1,800 square kilometers were scorched. For scale, this area is larger than the entire city of Los Angeles.

When landscapes are charred during wildfires, they become more vulnerable to landslides and flooding. In January of this year, a debris flow event in Montecito, California killed 21 people and injured more than 160. Just one month before the landslide, the soil on the town’s steep slopes were destabilised in a wildfire. After a storm brought torrential downpours, a 5-meter high wave of mud, tree branches and boulders swept down the slopes and into people’s homes.

Hurricanes also can trigger cascading hazards over large areas. For example, significant damages to trees and loss of vegetation due to a hurricane increase the chance of landslides and flooding, as reported in Japan in 2004.

Future steps

Most research and practical risk studies focus on estimating the likelihood of different individual extreme events such as hurricanes, floods and droughts. It is often difficult to describe the risk of interconnected events especially when the events are not physically dependent. For example, two physically independent events, such as wildfire and next season’s rainfall, are related only by how fire later raises the chances of landslide and flooding.

As civil engineers, we see a need to be able to better understand the overall severity of these cascading disasters and their impacts on communities and the built environment. The need is more pronounced considering the fact that much of the nation’s critical infrastructure is aged and currently operate under rather marginal conditions.

A first step in solving the problem is gaining a better understanding of how severe these cascading events can be and the relationship each occurrence has with one another. We also need reliable methods for risk assessment. And a universal framework for addressing cascading disasters still needs to be developed.

A global system that can predict the interactions between natural and built environments could save millions of lives and billions of dollars. Most importantly, community outreach and public education must be prioritised, to raise awareness of the potential risks cascading hazards can cause.

The Conversation

Farshid Vahedifard, CEE Advisory Board Endowed Professor and Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Mississippi State University and Amir AghaKouchak, Associate Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering, University of California, Irvine.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.