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30 August 2007

No place for tradition

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

By James Medhurst

The London Underground is the oldest in the world but this also means that it is the most outdated and other cities learn from its mistakes.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.

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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.

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