The most, and least, wheelchair accessible cities: a quadriplegic's guide

Dubai: a city with a surprisingly accessible metro. Shame about everything else, really. Image: Getty.

Last week, CityMetric reported on RATP's interactive map of the Paris Metro. It has a button you can press to see where on the network people in wheelchairs can go. It's great.

The only problem is, when you press that button, pretty much the entire network disappears.

If I've learned one thing in the nine years since I broke my neck, it's that the world is not particularly well designed for disabled people. Sometimes the things that stop you doing stuff and getting places (or, indeed, the things that enable you to do them) are very small. Sometimes they are massive.

What they all do, though, is completely redraw the map of the world you can reach.

At the risk of stating the obvious, just how physically disabled you are makes a huge difference to what you can do and where you can do it. Different physical restrictions can mean very different things.

If you are stuck on bed rest – as I have been for very significant portions of the last two years – then that’s it for being in the outside world. You better hope you have a nice view and a good plan for making people come to see you (I founded a think tank).

If you are mobile in a wheelchair, though – and I still am, thank God, at least periodically – then it’s all about the most basic forms of accessibility and logistics. Flat access doors, ramps and lifts all make a huge difference.

For that reason alone, I really like Canary Wharf. For several years the only pedestrian route from my apartment to the main Canary Wharf estate ran across a metal bridge with a lift at one end.

Admittedly, lifts are less reliable than ramps. That bridge looks great: but the lift I use to access it periodically fails, rendering the entire route unusable for me.

On almost every other route in Canary Wharf, however, there is an alternative if the lifts don’t work: usually a longer route involving ramps. I don’t know how many other people even notice, but I think it’s great.

Four wheels good, two legs better

What of longer journeys?

Most taxis in most cities cannot take a passenger who is still sitting in a wheelchair. That means you can only use them if you are physically able to be assisted into the car and set on a regular seat.

That is something lots of disabled people can do. Paraplegics, for example – those who broke their backs, and now have working arms, but not legs – are very skilled at transferring into a car seat. If you can't do that, however, you're screwed.

All this makes London taxis completely incredible. The idea that a truly wheelchair-bound user can flag down a regular city taxi and just get inside is unthinkable almost anywhere else. (Although, they aren't quite tall enough to take some of the largest electric wheelchairs.)

In most countries and cities, getting a wheelchair taxi is hugely challenging. Often, when they are privately owned by specific companies, it's hugely expensive, too. In Washington DC, taxi firms will only take wheelchair bookings within a three-hour window – and won't guarantee turning up at any particular time within that.

In Egypt, a tourist hiring one of the handful of wheelchair accessible minibuses might be looking at close to $1,000 for a day. I've been quoted even higher prices elsewhere. And some countries don't have any wheelchair accessible vehicles at all, outside hospital transports.

The UK offers another advantage, too: British residents with a disability often qualify for a subsidised vehicle under the Motabilty scheme. In my case, that means a converted van and insurance to cover a rotating selection of often foreign carers.

That's great for most travel. But in a city like London, parking is hard to find. Hiring such vehicles overseas is expensive. So that leaves you dependent on public transport.

And that, as we've already seen in Paris, is a very mixed bag indeed.

A tale of five cities

Unsurprisingly, finding myself quadriplegic has significantly reined in my travel compared to the days when I was a globetrotting foreign correspondent. That's been all the more true over the last couple of years when I've been unable to fly, and have been dependent on making my way slowly across oceans on cruise ships.

Some cities are easily traversed in a wheelchair...

I have, however, had the fortune to travel more than I expected. And the world's great cities, I've discovered, are very, very different.

Paris, as we've seen, is a bit of a nightmare: it has a relatively old metro system and only the bits built since the 1970s are accessible. The rest simply have too many stairs to be made reasonably wheelchair friendly at a non-ridiculous cost.

The same is true of vast swathes of the New York metro and London Underground. I'm lucky enough to live in Canary Wharf in London's East End where most of the links – the Jubilee line, Docklands Light Railway, even the Thames Clipper fast ferries and Emirates Cable Car – are relatively new. I can access most of the immediately available public transport links.

That simply isn't true in large swathes of London. If you want to go to, say, Battersea or Chiswick by underground in a wheelchair, the only sensible advice is "don't".

This is particularly problematic because London is such a spread-out city. New York and Paris have the advantage that their centres are relatively compact: you probably won’t need to travel more three or four miles, so in a worst-case scenario, you can simply roll along pavements, or at least take a bus.

...others rather less so.

In London, those options are time-consuming at the very least. Good cycle lanes make a difference. But it still takes, for example, around an hour to get from Canary Wharf to Tower Bridge.

In Washington DC, in contrast, the whole network is wheelchair accessible. There are lifts at every station. A wheelchair-bound person in DC can travel around with the same level of ease as an able-bodied person.


The only other city this turned out to be true in my experience was... Dubai. The Dubai Metro – mainly used by Asian foreign workers as far as I could see – has a lift at every station. And they usually work.

This is slightly undermined by most of the pavements not having dropped curbs. That makes it rather more challenging to get around, particularly if one is using a heavy electric wheelchair.

Dubai has long been somewhat idiosyncratic, of course. Once, while being wheeled around the streets by two of my carers, a Bentley with tinted windows pulled up alongside me. Two rich Emirati young men looked out .

“I just want to say, I’m sorry for your situation,” said one. And with that, they drove off.

If public transport doesn't work, travellers are basically dependent on hoping the city has a handful of London taxis. Nicosia in Cyprus does. I'm told Beijing and Jerusalem do. That's about it.

Which, of course, is one of the reasons I still have a soft spot for that bloody cable car.

Peter Apps is on secondment from Reuters as executive director for the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21). For more details, click here.

He is also the author of "Before Ebola: Despatches from a Deadly Outbreak", which you can buy on Amazon, and he tweets as @pete_apps.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.