Public Transport and Disability – the technology helping me get around
Public transport is all around us, particularly where I live in London. I’ve been thinking about how accessible it is for me with my visual impairment, and how much it has changed as I’ve grown up. I’ve been reading a couple of articles on the subject and decided to give my take on disability access on London’s transport network.
Mobility on the Tube
Assistance on the Tube lines is great, and actually it’s the one thing that allows me to travel independently. I book assistance online, or sometimes just turn up and go for an unexpected journey and I always use my cane. One of the station staff guides me down to the platform, makes sure I’m on the right train, and then ensures that somebody meets me at the other end, whether that person is a friend or another member of staff. I’ve always found staff members to be incredibly helpful and accommodating of my disability and this has helped me to grow my confidence in terms of mobility.
Mainline stations are very big and often busy, so they can be a little harder to get around. They’re manageable though, because I’m often travelling via the Underground and so a member of staff helps me. Even if not, a member of the mainline station staff is easy to find. I either do this by finding the information desk or by asking a member of the public. Reading display boards has always been tricky for me. It’s annoying that there aren’t more of these at a height I can walk up to and get as close as I need to see the train times, rather than high above my head, but access to information in other ways has got so much better over the past ten years or so. I can check my journey online which is really helpful and check the times to trains – I do this before I leave the house or my University accommodation. Also, many of the signs, in London Underground stations especially, are lit up in bright colours like fluorescent yellow or orange, meaning that I can sometimes read them which makes a massive difference. Luckily, I find travel just as easy in other places, such as from my University to Manchester using the Virgin trains services.
I’ve always used the handrails on the Tube, maybe a little bit more than most, because they help me work out where I am on the train sometimes. I’ve been reading a “gripping” article about the Tubes and how handrails could be improved. The article says that bacteria and germs can build up on them because they are used by so many different people. There is a solution to this – by using antimicrobial material, meaning that it actively works to kill off bacteria – however, this would mean switching to copper handrails on the TFL network, something which they would be reluctant to do. This is partly because of the cost of copper compared to the current aluminium handrails. Another big reason is appearance. TFL aim to make handrails easy to see as well as complying with safety standards, and if they were copper, I and many other people would not be able to see them as well. This is because copper is only acts as an anti-microbial surface when it is not painted and so this means that, in order to comply with disability and safety regulations, this material isn’t suitable. The colours are particularly important to me because of my vision. Aluminium costs a lot less than copper to install and to look after, and as long as it is cleaned by staff regularly, is perfectly safe. The great news here is that TFL chose to place disability and access needs, as well as health and safety concerns, above a minimal increase is hygiene, which I think makes sense.
While I would love for the handrails on the Tube to be cleaner, I’d also like it if there were a few more on Tubes for people to hold onto. I find the poles on Tubes annoying – especially those which are high up – because I often cannot see to reach them and this is frustrating when there isn’t a seat, or there is only one stop to go on my journey and there’s no point sitting down anyway! It would also help if there were some sort of texture on the handrails – at the moment they are only smooth, and texture would possibly help those people who struggle with movement or dexterity.
I’ve always had a Freedom Pass which gives me free travel on London’s Tubes, buses and Overground services, due to my disability. It works in the same way as an Oyster card, the only difference is that I don’t have to load money onto mine! An Oyster Card or Freedom Pass is great for someone with a disability for a few reasons. For example, if like me, someone has limited vision, you don’t have to hunt around for a ticket or check that you have the right train time for your journey. Also, you don’t have to deal with counting out money – coins have always been a difficulty for me – as the system works electronically.
It’s also great for those who have limited movement, or are wheelchair users. I remember when you used to have to put the ticket in the slot and it came out at the other end. You pulled it to make the barrier open. This was always hard for me as I couldn’t see, so I can only imagine how difficult that must be for someone with limited mobility. They’re also great for people with learning or neurological disabilities – if the person struggles with their memory or understanding, then someone else can put money onto their Oyster Card for them. It really is a brilliant system!
When I travel outside of London, or from my University to London, I obviously cannot use my Freedom Pass. However, I’ve found staff to be very friendly and helpful and if I book my tickets early, plan in advance and phone up to book assistance then my journey runs as smoothly as for anyone else.
The voice activated system that tells you when the next stop is going to be and what it is is literally the reason why I and many others can access the Tube. Without that security, I wouldn’t travel on it because I can’t see the Tube maps or the station names as the Tube pulls in.
Sometimes (much to my annoyance!) the drivers turn off the announcements and I have to work out how many stops there are either by counting form memory, or by asking another passenger, which can be a little awkward at times! It would be good if the announcements were always running, but nine times out of ten, they either are, or when they are not working, the driver calls out the stations over the system.
Annoyingly where I go to University, the buses do not announce the stops AT ALL. This means that I never use them because I’m too anxious of missing my stop. In London, if I have to, I can just about manage, but in the area where I am at University, buses are a total no go unless I’m travelling with a friend or someone in my family.The technology is clearly there so why don’t they just install it and make sure the drivers can’t turn it off?!
The only changes I’d like to see to London’s transport is for the announcements to be a fixture of London’s buses – it is a bit of a game of chance to see whether the bus I get on has announcements on it or not. More often than not, the buses don’t. Again, I end up asking the driver, who often doesn’t know themselves, and the relying on another passenger to tell me when to get off, which is frustrating for both myself and the other person. I often spend the whole journey feeling particularly anxious, and so I now try to avoid using the bus unless I’m with a friend.
I’ve also noticed that there are sometimes not enough spaces on buses either for disabled people or for wheelchair users. Often there are only one or two wheelchair accessible spaces or priority seats and sometimes this isn’t enough. It would be good to see more New Routemasters as these were designed to be fully accessible.
Accessibility throughout London’s transport system is improving all the time, and TFL seem to be focused on continuing this. Hopefully with more input from disabled customers, staff and disability charities we can get London’s transport system fully accessible to everyone.
Tags: Disability Access
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