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.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.