No place for tradition

Nostalgia for dated public transport systems does not make them any more accessible for those with d

The London Underground is the oldest in the world but this also means that it is the most outdated and other cities learn from its mistakes. For example, no designer of a modern underground system would dream of having a Circle Line on which a single signal failure is capable of bringing down the whole network. Nor would they forget to install any air conditioning.

However, nowhere is this backwardness more evident than in the failure to make the tube fully accessible. This affects not only wheelchair users but also those with a whole range of impairments affecting their mobility, as well as parents with pushchairs, although I have seen at least one frustrated mum try to push a buggy down an escalator.

The newer parts of the tube now have lifts installed, including the Jubilee Line extension and the Docklands Light Railway. However, these prove of little use to people outside the part of East London which is served by them.

A visit to the Transport for London Journey Planner website gives some idea of the massive difference in travelling time which can be caused. To get from Stratford to Ealing Broadway takes 45 minutes on the Central Line but, while Stratford station is accessible, Ealing Broadway is not, so a wheelchair user is required to take two trains, to Mile End and then to Hammersmith, followed by two buses to Ealing, making the journey at least twice as long.

Similarly, the journey from Tooting Broadway to Brent Cross takes less than an hour on the Northern Line but more than two hours using three buses if it needs to be accessible. There is a slightly quicker route but it requires four buses and four trains, making a remarkably tiresome seven changes in all.

In practice, of course, most disabled people would not even attempt these elaborate ways of getting to their destinations but would simply take a car or a taxi. This is usually more expensive, leaves a larger carbon footprint, and also contributes to a sense of segregation between disabled and non-disabled people.

It used to be much worse. Before the recent introduction of accessible bendy buses, the journeys described above would simply have been impossible except by car. Although a lot of problems remain, Ken Livingstone has vastly improved the situation by his brave support for these buses, with much opposition from traditionalists, not to mention the necessary measure of exempting disabled people from the congestion charge. He even has plans to introduce air conditioning to the tube.

The traditionalist stance is actually quite perplexing. It is doubtful that, however pleasing an ECG machine may be to the eye, patients would eschew the newer model in its favour, regardless of its long use.

In healthcare it seems more obvious that modern technology to promote safety is a must, which should not be governed by the dictates of fashion. In the world of public transport, there is more reluctance to let things go, hence the long debate over the historical relic, not to mention deathtrap, that was the Routemaster bus.

I cannot help but feel that a similar spirit continues to pervade the debate, as if we are somehow proud that the underground looks as though it was the first to be built and has barely been updated since. The problems with disability access are symbolic of a greater ill in society.

As a child, I was very successful in my schoolwork but found it difficult to make friends. I went to Cambridge University but dropped out after a year due to severe depression and spent most of the next year in a therapeutic community, before returning to Cambridge to complete my degree. I first identified myself as autistic in 1999 while I was studying psychology in London but I was not officially diagnosed until 2004 because of a year travelling in Australia and a great deal of NHS bureaucracy. I spent four years working for the BBC as a question writer for the Weakest Link but I am now studying law with the intention of training to be a solicitor. My hobbies include online poker and korfball, and I will be running the London Marathon in 2007. I now have many friends and I am rarely depressed but I remain single.
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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