LONDON: I love exploring this magnificent city. London has more history, life, and cake than I could possibly consume in my six month visit from the States. With such a wealth of adventure in my new backyard, I’m encouraged to turn every day into a new destination and every site into a story for sharing. As keen as I am to take advantage of this tourist haven, the feeling of inevitable dread I face when a bus driver deliberately leaves me behind really sours my experiences.
On average, I take between two and four busses every day around central London, but roughly 10% of them won’t allow me on board, a shockingly high rate for an otherwise pragmatic and friendly place.
Before swimming across the Atlantic, San Francisco, California was my home. A city surrounded by water and full of hills might not be the best choice for a girl in a wheelchair, yet I lived there comfortably for seven years without once rolling into the bay. In fact, I explored the entire city without peril using the fully accessible public trolleys, buses, and underground of MUNI. Of course, no system is perfect, and everyone I knew had their own MUNI horror story, but passenger discrimination and faulty disabled equipment were more of a nuisance than a daily hurdle. Moving to London has made me realize the immense challenges both cities have needed to overcome for disabled access.
SIMILAR COMMITMENTS TO IMPROVEMENT
“The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) is committed to providing exceptional transportation services that meet or exceed the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. SFMTA provides transportation via bus, light rail, historic streetcar, cable car and paratransit to seniors and people with disabilities who live in or are visiting San Francisco.” – SFMTA
“Transport for London has invested a great deal of money in improving accessibility on and around the transport network in London. “We have the biggest wheelchair accessible bus network in the world, all 8,000 buses in our fleet are modern, low-fleet and wheelchair accessible.” – the Operations
Director of London Buses, Mike Weston.
Both agencies have the same goals towards 100% accessibility but London has the added challenge of adding step-free access to the oldest underground system in the world.
BUS LIFTS THAT ACCOMMODATE EVERYONE
The London buses all have ramps, but they are only able to deploy at the curb resulting in obstructions and steep inclines. San Francisco busses are equipped with platform lifts so manual wheelchairs do not struggle to climb aboard and smaller-wheeled chairs won’t bottom out. There are a few models of busses on some lines in San Francisco that have electronic ramps, but they are also capable of extending to street level.
NO GAP TO MIND
The underground and streetcar systems all have less than a two-inch gap between the extended lip to the door and the platform. This also comes without a height difference from the platform to the train. A seamless transition is a safety essential to all chair users, especially those with smaller wheels.
PRIORITY GIVEN TO DISABLED RIDERS
I often have to argue for my right to use the wheelchair space when occupied by riders with baby strollers. The confusion and wheelchair abandonment this causes is avoided in San Francisco with the following rule ensuring maximum usage of bus space to all passengers: “If a baby stroller is allowed on board, the child must be removed from the stroller and the stroller must be folded up while it is on the vehicle.”
When I do manage to nestle into a wheelchair reserved space, I am often sandwiched between prams that are literally larger than my chair, yet I have never seen a driver refuse a parent boarding over an issue of buggy size. There are many parallels between the difficulty parent riders face and that of wheelchair users, but I find that consistency of rule enforcement from the drivers really helps everyone.
ALL WHEELCHAIRS MUST BE ACCOMMODATED
In San Francisco, there is no distinction between a scooter, a wheelchair, or even a walker, and all must be allowed to board. In London, the bus drivers have been told not to allow the larger variety of scooters on board which has lead to confusion over what defines a ‘large’ scooter over the smaller varieties. I use a small travel scooter and many bus drivers don’t bother to stop if they see me waiting for the bus. In order to combat this problem, TFL has released a new diagram in the Big Red Book (the rule book for all London drivers) that should help clarify the policy above the note: “Compact mobility scooters may fit.” Until the book replaces the term “may” with something a little more confident, I will continue to be nervous that the next bus driver ‘may not’ want to take a chance on me.
I am so lucky and grateful to be a guest here in the UK, and I hope when I bring my children to visit in the future, they won’t have to worry as I do now about touring the best of London.
It is a fine balance to preserving the inheritance of this city while making it available to all, a challenge London planners continue to tackle daily. The progress London has made in both technology and design for the disabled since passing the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 is truly impressive. If improvement efforts are continued at this rate, London will remain the best host to all who find Britain’s charms as irresistible as I have.
Transport for All represents older and disabled transport users. They campaign for an accessible transport system in London.