This is how hosting the paralympics can help make cities more accessible

Some of Britain's paralympians wave to the crowds during the London 2012 victory parade. Image: Getty.

In September 2016, 4,350 Paralympic athletes will arrive in Rio de Janeiro to compete for medals across 23 different sports. The games in Rio have a lot to live up to. London’s 2012 Paralympics proved to be a magnet for sponsorship, and competitors have said that the crowds – and their enthusiasm – were unparalleled.

But there’s another respect in which the 2012 games set the standard for future Paralympic tournaments: it made the host city itself more accessible.

In order to secure their bid for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games, organisers had to make two key promises to do with transport. One was to make public transport a key part of their sustainability agenda. The other was to make London 2012 more accessible than any previous games. London 2012 was planned as a public transport-driven games, and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) took action to maximise its usage.

The challenges

To live up to their promises, the committee had to overcome a number of challenges. Parts of London’s transport system had to undergo a radical overhaul. The commitments also had major implications for venue design, equipment and even the workforce of the games. And because the idea of “legacy” was central to all of the preparations for the games, the solutions put in place needed to work over the long term – not just the main event.

When LOCOG started its work, disabled people’s confidence in using the public transport network was very low, so there was a need to change people’s perceptions through advertising. The demand from disabled people to attend the Paralympics was higher than expected, but organisers did not know what sort of mix of disabled spectators they needed to plan for. For example, while they knew that many groups of wheelchair users would be arriving, they did not know how many would be using electric wheelchairs, manual wheelchairs or scooters – each of which has different requirements for travel.

Finally, the transport system needed to be flexible enough to accommodate the extra short-term influx and diverse needs of disabled people, and revert back to more “standard” operations after the event. For a transport system first developed in the mid-1800s, these were no small demands.

Queensway tube station, circa 1900. Image: Pigsonthewing/Wikimedia Commons.

The London Underground – commonly known as “the tube” – was the first underground rail network in the world. At some points, the tracks are almost 60m below ground.

Modernising such a system involves working around complex arrangements of existing infrastructure. For example, adding a two-lift shaft to Green Park station in central London in time for the games required engineers to build a straight path between pedestrian tunnels, escalators, stairwells and the platforms themselves – not to mention finding the least disruptive times to carry out the developments and space to store the construction equipment.

Such logistics meant that it was impossible for LOCOG to create new accessible entrances into all of the stations. Nevertheless, the organising committee worked with Transport for London, the city’s transport authority, to adapt the public transport system and improve accessibility.

The changes

Evidence such as wheelchair ticket sales, pre-booked journeys and increased lift usage suggests that many more people with disabilities were using public transport throughout the games. Tactile paving and protective walls at the platform edges made the system safer for the visually impaired. And 66 of London’s 270 functioning tube stations were fitted with step-free access (the overground DLR system was already fully accessible).

In many stations – particularly on the Piccadilly line – the issue was the height difference or the gap between the platform and the carriage floor. Changing the position of the platforms would have been disruptive and costly. So instead, platform ramps were installed across four stops on the Piccadilly line, while manual ramps were provided at 16 strategic stations, to make it easier for wheelchair users to get on and off the train.

These ramps not only benefited disabled people but could be used by the wider community, including parents with pushchairs and tourists with suitcases. They were left in place after the games as part of LOCOG’s legacy commitment – and, since then, they have been added to 28 more stations.

Of course, there’s still much to be done before London can be a truly accessible city – a fact highlighted by Paralympian Hannah Cockroft, who challenged London mayor Boris Johnson to spend a day navigating the tube in a wheelchair (he declined). And there are concerns that the momentum toward further improvements is waning.

But London 2012 still marked a major leap forward in disabled access to public transport. Through a combination of controlled traffic management, communication with Londoners and collaboration with industry partners, LOCOG was able to develop practical and efficient transport solutions. These did more than fulfil the transport requirements for the Olympic and Paralympic Games: they also left a legacy value for Londoners to enjoy, and set a new standard in games-time transport.

Now, Rio is taking the challenge to heart, by launching projects to improve accessibility in the city ahead of the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Indeed, British experts have been actively involved in helping to transfer the learning from London 2012 to improve accessibility for Rio 2016.

Rio has a golden opportunity to seize this legacy opportunity and set even better standards. Let the games begin.

David Bamford is professor of operations management at the University of Huddersfield.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


As EU funding is lost, “levelling up” needs investment, not just rhetoric

Oh, well. Image: Getty.

Regional inequality was the foundation of Boris Johnson’s election victory and has since become one of the main focuses of his government. However, the enthusiasm of ministers championing the “levelling up” agenda rings hollow when compared with their inertia in preparing a UK replacement for European structural funding. 

Local government, already bearing the brunt of severe funding cuts, relies on European funding to support projects that boost growth in struggling local economies and help people build skills and find secure work. Now that the UK has withdrawn its EU membership, councils’ concerns over how EU funds will be replaced from 2021 are becoming more pronounced.

Johnson’s government has committed to create a domestic structural funding programme, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), to replace the European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF). However, other than pledging that UKSPF will “reduce inequalities between communities”, it has offered few details on how funds will be allocated. A public consultation on UKSPF promised by May’s government in 2018 has yet to materialise.

The government’s continued silence on UKSPF is generating a growing sense of unease among councils, especially after the failure of successive governments to prioritise investment in regional development. Indeed, inequalities within the UK have been allowed to grow so much that the UK’s poorest region by EU standards (West Wales & the Valleys) has a GDP of 68 per cent of the average EU GDP, while the UK’s richest region (Inner London) has a GDP of 614 per cent of the EU average – an intra-national disparity that is unique in Europe. If the UK had remained a member of the EU, its number of ‘less developed’ regions in need of most structural funding support would have increased from two to five in 2021-27: South Yorkshire, Tees Valley & Durham and Lincolnshire joining Cornwall & Isles of Scilly and West Wales & the Valley. Ministers have not given guarantees that any region, whether ‘less developed’ or otherwise, will obtain the same amount of funding under UKSPF to which they would have been entitled under ESIF.

The government is reportedly contemplating changing the Treasury’s fiscal rules so public spending favours programmes that reduce regional inequalities as well as provide value for money, but this alone will not rebalance the economy. A shared prosperity fund like UKSPF has the potential to be the master key that unlocks inclusive growth throughout the country, particularly if it involves less bureaucracy than ESIF and aligns funding more effectively with the priorities of local people. 

In NLGN’s Community Commissioning report, we recommended that this funding should be devolved to communities directly to decide local priorities for the investment. By enabling community ownership of design and administration, the UK government would create an innovative domestic structural funding scheme that promotes inclusion in its process as well as its outcomes.

NLGN’s latest report, Cultivating Local Inclusive Growth: In Practice, highlights the range of policy levers and resources that councils can use to promote inclusive growth in their area. It demonstrates that, through collaboration with communities and cross-sector partners, councils are already doing sterling work to enhance economic and social inclusion. Their efforts could be further enhanced with a fund that learns lessons from ESIF’s successes and flaws: a UKSPF that is easier to access, designed and delivered by local communities, properly funded, and specifically targeted at promoting social and economic inclusion in regions that need it most. “Getting Brexit done” was meant to free up the government’s time to focus once more on pressing domestic priorities. “Getting inclusive growth done” should be at the top of any new to-do list.

Charlotte Morgan is senior researcher at the New Local Government Network.