Saturday, 8 June 2013

The meaning of accessible

Last Summer, when London was hosting the Olympics, transport and accessibility to transport in the capital was a hot topic. A fair bit of work was done on the Underground network (especially at stations close to venues) to make it more accessible.

Because I get driven to work, I had lost track somewhat of public transport, until I started working 3 days a week and had more time to get out and about. 

Here's the thing. Whilst the network may be technically accessible it isn't necessarily practically accessible - this is just some tales from my corner of London.

Buses are great. They stop all over the place; mostly with shelters that have benches to sit on whilst you wait. If you are in the wheelchair there is a special blue button on the outside of the bus to alert the driver to put the ramp down and the same inside when you want to get off. Even if you're using crutches most of the buses have the ability to 'kneel' so that they are at kerb height, and other users will generally offer a seat to allow you to sit. The trouble comes (as it often does) with the wheelie-walker. Mine is four wheeled, with a seat and a back bar. It isn't a wheelchair though, you can't push someone around whilst they sit on it. It isn't a mobile bus seat either, the breaks will hold it in place; but now with the extra weight of a person.
So, you are waiting for the bus (assuming that the bus hasn't driven off, because why would someone with obvious walking difficulties be approaching a bus stop at speed and waving). The bus arrives and hopefully kneels or a friendly bystander helps you get the walker on the bus. Assuming that it isn't one of the 25% where the poles and seats make it to narrow to access the wheelchair space from the front you make your way to that area. All going well you park up and sit down before the bus moves off.
But wait, the space isn't empty; there is a buggy in the way. Best outcome the buggy owner will try and shuffle so you can park up. Worst outcome they sit and stare at you and wait for you to try and fold/manhandle the walker into the far spot (obviously the buggy must sit right next to the owner. The fact that you clearly aren't able bodied and the bus has started moving is no reason for the buggy owner to exert themselves.
Worst case scenario, two buggies are taking the entire space. You aren't a wheelchair, so why should anyone try and fold the buggy; they were there first, after all. Again the fact that they are able bodied and you aren't is no reason that you shouldn't try and fold/move the buggy... even if the bus is moving off.
Even if all goes well, you may find by arrival that the walker is boxed in. Here we go again.
These are nowhere near isolated incidents. I'm a big bus user (4 routes pass the top of my street) and if I'm going out for more than a brief trip I always take the walker. I think that about 90% of journeys see me encountering some sort of problems.

Stations are easy to get to, there is usually a bus stop right outside. Given the above I'm quite often losing patience by the time I reach the station having dealt with the bus crowd. Here is what to expect from my local railway (SouthEastern).
Charlton station is reasonably accessible. If you are arriving from the London direction there is a gentle slope which will deposit you opposite the bus stop; although if I'm going home, unless I want to jay-walk I then have to walk up the hill to the crossing and back down again. After a long day out this is often the final straw! If you are going towards London there is a lift down to the platform. Providing it is working, two occasions in the last six months I have found it out of order. This means you  have to leave the station and walk down the hill of Delafield Road to gain level access through the car park.
Woolwich Arsenal station is proudly accessible - they should try it with weights tied to their legs and see how it feels. The signs tell you that from the footbridge through the gates there are 27 steps to platform level. I asked the staff where the lift was, and was directed to the adjacent DLR. Out of the station, down the ramp, into the DLR and then a good old walk to the lift. There is a second footbridge you see. No problem now, lift down to station level (we'll ignore the five minutes walk to get there).
Greenwich station, depends where you are headed. First bear in mind it is nowhere near the town centre. If you want to go there then get the DLR to Cutty Sark. Arriving from Charlton/Woolwich there is a level exit. Anything else you need to get to the DLR where the lifts are; 5 minutes walk back up the street (this includes getting to the opposite platform for a return journey).
Lewisham station, don't get me started. Impossible. No directions, confused staff; up and down hills and ended up dropping the walker down a short flight of steps to get to the lift level as I'd lost the will to wander around any further.
The other problem with trains is disparity of access heights and gaps between platform and train. You really have to rely on the kindness of strangers (which seems to abound on mainline rail) to help you on and off with the walker.
I have never taken the wheelchair on the train, and I can't remember the last time I went with crutches either.

So proudly accessible with its little wheelchair logos on the stations. Have you ever noticed though those little logos come in two colours - white means step free access from platform to street (fine for crutches and the walker) and blue is step free access from train to platform (pretty essential for a wheelchair). The first time I took the wheelchair on the tube we started at North Greenwich (blue logo) but there was actually about an inch difference (upwards) in level going to Wembley Park (white logo) the train is about six inches below the platform. Since then alterations have been made so if you get on in the right carriage there is level access. The labels from the Olympics at the new stations with platform edge doors have been replaced with permanent signs.
How about getting out though? The walker (and actually worse the crutches) and I have had reason to leave at Green Park. There are lifts... but they aren't anywhere near each other.Walking and walking. On one occasion on the way back to kindly station staff escorted me as they were so worried that I looked so tired I might fall down in the foot tunnels.

So, what have we learned. Lifts are all very nice; so are designated spaces and signs. But if people won't yield the space or help, if you have to walk for five or ten minutes to the lift... well that isn't accessible. If you are exhausted just from using the transport, that isn't accessible. Don't get me wrong, it's better than it was, but it isn't the solution. And I'm willing to bet, I live in London; I've probably got it better than most.