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.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.