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.

 
 
 
 

What it's been like living in one of the few places that never locked down

People enjoy sunny weather in Tantolunden park in Stockholm on May 30, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)

While most of the Western world was confined to their homes for the better part of two months this spring, my friends and I in Stockholm continued hanging out. In stark contrast to most other places, we went to restaurants (occasionally, outside when possible), to one another’s houses (in our yards when possible), and even sent our kids to school. As the rest of the world opens up again, not much will change in Stockholm.

As an American expat living in the Swedish capital, I was initially angry at Sweden’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In my home country, early outbreaks in locations such as Seattle, New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area led to strict rules that were soon mirrored in many other states and cities. The Swedish strategy, meanwhile, boiled down mostly to recommendations: If possible, work from home; avoid unnecessary travel within the country; engage in social distancing; and if you’re above 70, stay home. I felt that, in the face of a global pandemic, a country known for its generous welfare policies – that took such good care of its citizens – wasn’t doing its part to protect us.

My friends and I are mostly expats with young families who, early on, pulled our children out of school against official policy. (Schools here only closed for those 16 and over.) We eagerly waited to hear what further action our current country would take. Surely a country known for its progressive social policies would take fast, decisive action to protect its citizens?

The regulations that were put into place in Sweden amounted to restricting public gatherings to no more than 50 people (reduced from 500, which concert halls skirted by restricting entry to 499), limiting restaurants to table service only, and no visiting retirement homes. People here did take the work-from-home guidelines to heart – no one I knew was going in to work. But bars and restaurants were full. My Instagram feed was a highlight reel of acquaintances clinking champagne flutes at the city’s major clubs and restaurants.

After the first few weeks, I slowly started meeting up with friends again. I sent my kids back to school, where they intentionally spent most of the day outdoors and drop-offs were restricted to outside only (parents weren’t allowed to enter the building). I was careful to take precautions like bringing hand sanitizer to playgrounds and wiping my hands after opening and closing the gate to school. Hardly anyone wore masks to the grocery shop or inside stores – the few times I’ve seen people wearing them I’ve done a double take. One busy Friday night in late April at the local supermarket there was a line out the door and someone regulating the number of customers allowed inside at the same time. I took a photo and sent it to my family in the US saying “Sweden finally catching up with the rest of the world!” (I haven’t seen entry to that store being regulated since.)

When I spoke to Swedish friends about the strategy many agreed with the relaxed approach, mentioning that other countries’ draconian measures would be unnecessary in Sweden. A recent poll showed that just 11% of people in Sweden felt they did not trust state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who is leading the strategy. In this country, the onus was placed on citizens themselves to follow recommendations. It's about personal judgement and individual responsibility within a framework that rested on mutual trust, rather than top-down control. Swedes’ high level of interpersonal trust and trust in authority was often cited in the press as the characteristic enabling the relaxed Swedish strategy in tackling the virus, as opposed to social distancing becoming a matter of surveillance and policing like in Spain or Italy, where any nonessential socializing was forbidden.

In early May, Sweden's ambassador to the US Karin Ulrika Olofsdotter said in an interview with the Washington Post that some media outlets made it look “like everyone in Sweden is out drinking and partying,” she said. “That is not the case.” But that was certainly how it felt to me. According to research by Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser in 2016, in countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, more than 60% of respondents in the World Value Survey think that people can be trusted. And in the other extreme, in countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru, less than 10% think that this is the case.


Of course, many places in the US also took a similarly relaxed approach to tackling the pandemic, with conservative lawmakers and anti-lockdown activists citing Sweden as taking the right approach. Sweden, rarely finding cheerleaders among conservative US circles, suddenly stood as an example to follow. But since then, places such as Arizona, Texas and Florida have all seen significant spikes in cases following reopenings and are being deemed the new epicentres of the virus – while Sweden’s numbers have stabilised. According to some reports, the death toll in Sweden is one of the highest in the world per capita, but the total number of Swedish deaths remains at just above 5,000, compared to over 120,000 in the US, over 43,000 in the UK, over 28,000 in Spain and over 34,000 in Italy. The mortality rate in Sweden and the number of new intensive care cases in the country declined in the last week and contagion rates here are now “stable” according to the WHO.

Although it didn’t always feel like it at the time, Sweden issued clear guidance from the beginning, with the expectation that people would choose to follow it. It certainly was my experience that everyone I knew stopped going into the office and started working from home. William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, attributed Sweden’s slowing of the virus to implementing guidance early on. “Sweden’s policy is unusual in that it took a much less stringent approach to preventing transmission," he says, "but interestingly it implemented those measures at a very early stage in the pandemic, before large amounts of community spread had occurred.”

Now I go outside and all too often realise I’ve left my hand sanitiser at home. I even met a friend for lunch outdoors at a busy cafe one particularly sunny day, and another indoors one Friday night for dinner. In May I had a birthday bash in my garden with a dozen or so friends and we ended up at the local bar. I always felt guilty after, as if I’d done something wrong that I couldn’t tell my family in Baltimore about. When I watched international news or spoke to family back home I would feel a certain cognitive dissonance between my own seemingly low-risk reality and what I knew to be happening in the rest of the world. My family in the US calls me skeptically questioning why I’ve had people over in my garden, or been out to eat. I can’t explain the lack of logic that permits an entire city’s citizens to operate life as normal in the midst of a global pandemic. But Stockholm has become a bubble of exactly this.

Being relatively young and healthy, I’m not so worried about getting sick. Even though young and healthy people have gotten seriously ill, there haven’t been any reported cases at my kids’ or any of my friends’ kids’ schools. Nobody I know in Stockholm knows has gotten sick, allowing me to feel a certain distance from it. But my husband’s parents are in their mid-70s and weren’t able to see their grandchildren for two months save for a few visits to their hallway, where we wave and blow kisses to them standing at the door.

I’ve been grateful – but also felt a sense of guilt for – my freedom here. When there are no hard and fast rules about how to act, it’s easy to constantly question yourself: Is it really okay to be outside, sitting at this full cafe? Is it okay to invite a few friends over for a birthday? Is it okay to send my kids to school? These questions have surely gone through minds around the world in the past several weeks, and now it’s clear that that behaviour had dire consequences in some cities and not others.

While Swedish social media at times suggests an endless friend-filled party at summer homes and popular hangouts, the reality here is a balancing act between personal judgement and the freedom to continue life as normal. Self-regulation is what it comes down to in Sweden, anyway.

Elysha Krupp is a writer and editor currently living in Stockholm.