To most people, the disembodied voice intoning "mind the gap" at London Tube stations is a charming little eccentricity that regular users tune out. During my attempts to use the Underground since becoming a wheelchair user after a cycling accident, that voice has induced a very different reaction: "Oh God oh God oh God please let me get off before those damned doors cut me in half."
Welcome to London: the 2012 Paralympic City. Athletes competing in a competition that is all about equality and beating the odds might like to have a wander around what is still one of the world's great cities. So might their families. Disabled supporters certainly will.
They could easily find that task more challenging than competing in the events if they, or perhaps their federations, aren't able splash out on exorbitant taxi fares. Buses don't really cut it for anything other than short journeys, given the Capital's congested roads.
For all its flaws, the Tube is still a surprisingly effective and comprehensive mass transport system – if you happen to be able-bodied. Regular users might complain about breakdowns, weekend line closures, rush-hour overcrowding and stultifying heat in the summer. But how many other British cities can boast stations every few hundred metres in the central zone that enable you to hop on and hop off at a cornucopia of world-class attractions?
For wheelchair users it is a rather different story. The Tube was the world's first metro system, with its first station opening in 1863, decades before women got the vote and two years before the abolition of slavery in the United States. Disability rights and access were not high on the political agenda at that time and this remained the case during the network's gradual expansion.
As I discovered, it's not just gaps that can be genuinely quite frightening to negotiate when you are in a wheelchair. There are sometimes also drops between train and platform that can lead to an unpleasant and jarring thump if you aren't prepared for them (I wasn't). Even stations with lifts from platform to ticket hall often have steps to negotiate to get up to ground level.
According to Transport for London, there are 63 stations with step-free access, with two more to be added before the Games. That sounds marvellous, but only a handful of them are in Zone One, such as Westminster, Green Park, Euston and King's Cross St Pancras. If you're heading east you'll be able to use Liverpool Street – but not if your journey is westbound.
It's also extraordinarily difficult to change from line to line, which often involves yet more steps and escalators. I'm "lucky" enough to be able to manage short distances on crutches. As such, I almost gained a whole new ability (flying) when foolishly attempting to use an escalator with them despite an offer of help from a saintly female passenger who'd managed to get her disabled nephew up one in his wheelchair.
That came about thanks to making a hash of reading TfL's disabled access map – a confusing array of different coloured blobs and code letters based on just how many steps and bumps one might have to negotiate at various accessible or semi-accessible stations. The trouble is that all of the lines are not always accessible at "accessible" stations. At Shepherd's Bush, where I nearly did my Superman impression, only the Overground station is wheelchair-friendly. If I found that mistake easy enough to make, I can only imagine how confusing a visitor, unfamiliar with the Tube and the language, might find it.
Paralympians and their supporters at least have the consolation of the sporting stations, which are actually quite good. Wembley, for example, has lifts. There's even one from the station down to the Wembley, sorry, the Olympic Way. Stratford, the main Olympic station, isn't the easiest to navigate but does at least have lifts and full step-free access. Events at the ExCel Centre further east are covered by the modern, access-friendly Docklands Light Railway.
Ian Macrae, the editor of the magazine Disability Now, thinks TfL is not doing enough. He is himself visually impaired and says that the Tube has been improved for people like him over the years with, for example, the introduction of audio announcements at stations and various other aids. However, when it comes to those with mobility problems, the alterations required are more expensive.
"When budgets start to be cut, making things accessible can be the first thing that goes out of the window," he says. "As always, it boils down to money. But regardless of the Paralympics, if you're talking about London being a city that treats its citizens and its visitors equally, they ought to do more. They have done a number of things to help, the cheaper things. If they are to observe the spirit of the Paralympics, which is one of greater equality, then they really ought to be trying to make London more accessible as a whole."
Wayne Trevor, London Underground's accessibility and inclusion manager, insists that the network is committed to improving the situation, with work to provide access at "key stations" such as Blackfriars, Farringdon, Victoria, Tottenham Court Road, Bond Street and Liverpool Street planned or ongoing. He says the Underground is also replacing and refurbishing its train fleet, which is "an important element in increasing accessibility".
Trevor adds: "Investment for step-free access schemes on the Tube is being targeted at the stations where they can deliver the greatest benefit for the largest number of customers. In addition, all of London's 8,500 buses are fully low-floor accessible, that's around 700 routes covering the entire Greater London area. All of London's 21,000 black cabs have wheelchair ramps. All stations and trains on the Docklands Light Railway network are fully accessible and all new London Overground stations are step-free."
The economic situation hasn't helped: in 2009 TfL was forced to announce a revised business plan due to the pressures on its finances resulting from the economic downturn and the impact of the collapse of Metronet. The latter had been handling the disastrous public-private partnership for modernising the Tube, foisted upon it by Gordon Brown while he was Chancellor. It added up to the deferral of projects, including step-free access at six stations – Amersham, Osterley, Greenford, West Kensington, Ladbroke Grove and Newbury Park.
So it's money that matters. And more isn't going to released anytime soon, although with an ageing population likely to result in ever more wheelchair users, that might change. Older people vote in disproportionate numbers.
There are various other transport schemes available. But they require a certain amount of nous to find out about and then a fair degree of form-filling and other bureaucracy. As for TfL's point that buses are disability-friendly these days, the same, sadly, can't always be said for their drivers.
I understand that resources aren't unlimited and retro-fitting ancient stations isn't cheap. But surely it isn't beyond the wit of man to think of cheaper ways than installing £10m lift systems to improve accessibility.
Because nothing can replicate the Tube as a means of getting around the Capital. Regular able-bodied users who have to use it every day might curse it. I certainly did. But having moved from able-bodied to disabled, I find I really miss it. Losing it feels rather like, well, having part of your legs removed.Reuse content