When it comes to accessible transport, London has a good story to tell. Despite having the world’s oldest metro system, huge progress has been made in opening up our Underground and trains to Londoners with limited mobility.
Every Docklands Light Railway station is step-free, as are 58 on the London Overground network and 78 on the Underground – the latter up from 66 three years ago. Soon enough, they will be joined by Crossrail’s 41 new or refurbished step-free stations, creating a myriad of new journey possibilities for people with physical disabilities.
On the buses too, London leads the way with the entire fleet low-floor and wheelchair accessible. All this progress has been made in the context of the government withdrawing its £700 million annual operating grant to Transport for London, leaving it as the only major transport network in the world without central government subsidy.
But the reality is that despite the considerable efforts of recent years, the capital’s transport system can still be a forbidding place for many disabled people. This is despite Sadiq Khan’s welcome commitment of an additional £200 million to help make the network more accessible. Though many more step-free stations – from Amersham to Wimbledon Park – are in the pipeline, even by 2022 just 40 per cent of Underground stations will be step-free.
When you consider that only 11 of the Central line’s 49 stations permit passage without steps from street level to platform, you begin to appreciate the scale of the challenge disabled Londoners face. It also brings into sharp focus the difference Crossrail will make, and how many journeys are at present simply off-limits without recourse to an expensive black cab.
While much of our focus on the issue of accessibility is rightly placed on expanding access to the system for those with impaired sight and mobility, it’s important also to consider the needs of people with other disabilities – many of which are hidden from view.
Londoners with a disability of some kind number 1.2 million, and there are a myriad of different needs to consider. How, for instance, do we present signage in a way that’s easy to read for dyslexics? How do we design buses so that they meet the needs not just of those in wheelchairs, but also those with buggies, assistance dogs or mobility walkers – and in such a way that they still accommodate the needs of travellers with luggage or shopping? And what more can be done to make our city more navigable – at street and on board – across the digital, physical, visual and aural channels available?
Plenty of examples of design-led accessibility innovation can be found aboard the new Class 710 trains, which are finally being rolled out on the Gospel Oak to Barking line (with the Overground’s West Anglia routes to follow later in the year). Wider doors allow easier boarding for all. Information is delivered not just through audio announcements, but through LCD screens which update in real time. And straps and rails for standing passengers have been located further from the seats than on the Class 378s (the predominant stock on Overground services), allowing people of different heights to stand more easily across a larger part of the train.
These new trains are a testament to how design can deliver significant accessibility improvements to passengers with diverse needs, even in the high-intensity environment in which London Overground operates.
In the context of all these big, and often costly changes being rolled out across our transport network, it’s important to remember too the difference that the small things can make.
The hugely successful Baby on Board badges have been followed up with the “please offer me a seat” scheme, in recognition of the fact that many physical disabilities are less visible. TfL’s long-established Dial-a-Ride service may not get much attention, but it continues to provide a lifeline to those Londoners who rely on it. Tactile paving, crossing countdowns and rotating cones help meet the needs of people with a variety of disabilities – and many of those without, too. And the Mayor’s commitment to making London a dementia-friendly city with a dementia-friendly transport network is truly something to be celebrated.
Finally, it’s important to remember the role we, as passengers, can play. By looking out for our fellow Londoners, we can help make everyone’s journey – and our own – safer, happier and more accessible.
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