Here’s what it’s like using London transport in a wheelchair and without working hands

The author on the tube. Image: Pete Apps.

One night in December 2016, I left my flat in Southwark. For the first time since breaking my neck a decade earlier, I wanted to take the underground by myself. I intended to get myself and wheelchair to Stratford, go to the cinema alone – again, for the first time since the injury – and get back home without support.

It worked almost without a hitch. I got another passenger to press the lift buttons to get me into Southwark station from the street, and a staff member to help me to the platform. Having once been paralased from the shoulders down, my left arm is now somewhat functional – although the hand is not. Most stations have large enough buttons for me to press, but Southwark, for some reason, remains almost the sole exception.

Nonetheless – I got to Stratford on my own, watched my film, made it back to SE1. Then I found a pub, where some students got me drunk, accidentally broke my wheelchair, and kindly phoned my live in carers to retrieve me from a dancefloor.

Since then, I have been among the most disabled users to ride the London transport system alone. It’s impossible to understate what such greater independence really means. After a decade of largely only being able to go out accompanied by PAs or other people, I now have access to London much more like a normal human being. It’s been beyond life-changing.

It makes me feel very lucky – and think that I should do more to protect the rights and opportunities and access. With that in mind, here’s what I think London – and Britain – gets right and wrong when it comes to disability and transport. 

Taxis, cars and the Motability scheme

Leased with mixture of my own money and benefits, my Motability wheelchair-accessible vehicle (WAV) is a lifeline – the only way I can get to most activities out of London, from visiting family to hospital appointments and service in the Army Reserve.

Because my spinal cord was broken so high, I don’t have enough movement to be able to drive myself – although for slightly less disabled people, remarkable adjustments are available. Motability provides more than 600,000 cars, mobility vehicles and scooters – although the financial structures it uses do so, an opaque blend of a charity and company owned by Britain’s biggest banks, were criticised heavily last year by the National Audit Office.

Clearly Motability’s activities – which have seen multimillion bonuses to directors, plus the holding of even larger sums as company reserves – could use some broader scrutiny. The vehicle, though, remains invaluable – particularly as the insurance that comes with it allows any qualified driver, vital given my ever-changing group of PAs.

Within London, however, its use has always been a challenge – not least because of the difficulties of parking. Before I was this independent, I needed someone with me, and it was often impossible to use the vehicle without taking two people – one to drive and park and the other to go with me.

The alternative was using taxis. As well as being expensive, however, black cabs are insufficiently high to take my bulky electric wheelchair. So I was dependent on a smaller manual chair, with someone else to push. It’s how I got through years of my newly paralysed journalistic career, but I’m very glad I have other options now.


Buses

Aside from very occasional use with PAs, I only really began to brave the bus network last year. Before that, I was put off by the challenges of memorising routes, worries over how I would let the driver know I wanted a particular stop, and nightmare tales from other wheelchair users.

On the latter front, my experience suggests the introduction of a recorded announcement every time a wheelchair boards instructing other passengers – including those with buggies – to vacate the disabled space has reduced abuse from other passengers. I’m very aware, however, that others have had unpleasant that still deter them from using public transport.

Buses often remain the slowest option – but they are almost always the most reliable for a wheelchair user. That said, there’s only one space per bus – so if someone else is using it, you’re waiting for the next one. It also means that if you have a friend or partner also in a wheelchair, you must take successive buses. Unless you live in Reading, the only place I’ve heard of that has a double space per vehicle.

London Underground

The backbone of London’s transport is the tube. The first line, between Paddington and Farringdon, opened in 1863, followed by South Kensington to Westminster five years later. Neither journey is yet particularly accessible – Paddington offers lift access to lines in only one direction, and South Kensington will not get such facilities at all until the early 2020s.

When I was first injured in 2006, only the new stretch of the Jubilee line – from Westminster to Stratford – was really accessible. Olympic related rebuilds improved that, creating functional lift-equipped transfer hubs at Kings Cross, Green Park and London Bridge. Unfortunately, then mayor Boris Johnson cancelled multiple such adaptions elsewhere on 2010, throwing away £64m already invested.

Only lately have improvements got back on track, first through new trains on the District line which allow step free access, albeit with a very varied gap between the train and the platform. The Victoria Line has also dramatically improved, adding platform humps that allow flat access at most stations. The provision of actual lifts to the surface remains patchy. On the parts I use, Brixton, Vauxhall, Victoria, Green Park, Kings Cross all have them; Oxford Circus, Warren Street and Euston do not.

These improvements are often very new – Vauxhall only became accessible in 2017, the year before I moved here. But alongside adaptions on other lines, they mean a meaningfully accessible underground transport network exists in London in a way it did not even five years ago.

London now compares favourably to many other global cities – check out this map of Paris, in which almost the entire central network disappears when you ask it to highlight wheelchair access. Irritatingly, though, TfL treats the introduction of accessibility and new stations like a national secret – its map of the accessible underground is both misleading and invariably out of date.

A privately produced map now does a better job. It’s the creation of scientist and transport campaigner Tomas Rey-Hastie following travels with his wheelchair user husband. It shows the dramatic improvement of recent years – although I suspect it will be another decade or two before the system really works.

One quick point on lift buttons – as well as sometimes being of varying size, it is striking that stations in rich areas often have larger lifts or buttons on both sides. Those in poorer areas, such as Brixton, do not – a real pain if, like me, you only have one working arm. On entering a lift, it’s vital I check which side the button is before the doors close – otherwise I’m stuck until someone else arrives. Luckily, it turns out staff really do check them every hour.

Docklands Light Railway, Trams, and so forth

One of the things Tomas’s map really showcases is how better served those parts of London are that have either the DLR or southern London tram network. The latter is a recent addition, while the former really broke new ground in terms of access when it was built in the 1980s.

With my very limited hand movement, it’s a major frustration that the DLR invariably has old-style smaller lift buttons that I cannot press – particularly as its stations are unstaffed.

It’s worth pointing out, of course, that other disabilities have very different needs. A survey by the charity Guide Dogs last month, for example, showed that a third of visually impaired transport users said they had been left on a platform by a train, with almost half saying increasingly overstretched staff lacked the skills to help them. They must find the sometimes deserted DLR stations a particular challenge.

Trains

What Tomas’s map also shows is the challenges of those parts of London dependent on the rail network. Many stations any do not have any access at all. Even those that don’t often require the booking of wheelchair assistance and a ramp, which often fails to actually turn up. 

What that means for a wheelchair user is predictable and distressing – arriving at one’s destination to find oneself trapped on the train, dependent either on passers-by to help, or forced to stay on the train to its destination. In August this year, former Paralympic gold medalist Sophie Christiansen documented what that meant. The operator, South Western Railway, apologised and said it would investigate. The same thing happened again the following week.

There are ways around such problems – operator Greater Anglia has just introduced trains that offer flat access boarding on some rural routes, while Cardiff and Liverpool now offer similar across their suburban networks.

As on the London Underground, introducing platform humps to avoid the need for a ramp along a small section of the platform offers one solution – something now on offer on the Heathrow Express and central London portion of the Thameslink service. But they cannot be used on lines that also take freight – one reason why the outer portions of Crossrail will still need ramps when that line is finally open.

That new trains continue to enter service with such limited access is a huge frustration – and has helped spark what looks to be a major campaign amongst disabled users for better representation across the planning and procurement process. That has to be the right way forward – and will benefit not just the disabled community, but others such as those with pushchairs.

For myself, I’m just grateful to have regained the chance to access transport independently. I never thought I would.

Peter Apps is the executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century, and global affairs commentator for Reuters. He tweets @Pete_Apps.

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.