Wheelchair access at Green Park is money well spent

There is an article in the current issue of The Spectator by Andrew Gilligan, attacking a project to make Green Park station, an important London Underground interchange, wheelchair accessible or, in London Transport jargon, to provide ‘step-free’ access from the street to the platforms. Currently, very little of London’s rail network is wheelchair-accessible; there is the eastern section of the Jubilee line, the entire Docklands Light Railway and the entire Tramlink, but beyond that, it’s a few stations here and there, not including the stations serving most of the main line terminals. Andrew Gilligan thinks providing access at Green Park is a huge waste of money. I disagree.

To start with, there is currently not one station in the West End which is wheelchair accessible. Green Park is admittedly on the fringes of the West End, but it’s within reasonable distance of Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Street, and serves three lines, so it is a strategic location. Anyone coming from south London can take a bus (and nearly all London buses are accessible now, when the space set aside for wheelchairs is not taken up by a pushchair) to Brixton station and get off at Green Park. It extends the accessible part of the Jubilee Line to the West End and also fills a gap for the Piccadilly Line, on which there are several accessible stations on the open west London section, including Earl’s Court, Hammersmith, Acton Town, Sudbury Town, Hillingdon, Uxbridge, Hounslow East and West and all the Heathrow stations.

One reason why he thinks the whole idea of “step-free access” is pointless is that, to get onto the tubes, you have to go up “a step — insurmountable to wheelchairs”. Well, perhaps, unless the wheelchair user is in a group, or can find any helpful member of the public to give him or her a hand, or unless staff have been trained to get wheelchairs onto the trains. But some wheelchair users can actually tip their chairs back and move them forward, so as to mount kerbs and small steps. You can see it demonstrated in this video. Whether this woman could get on a Tube with that technique I’m not sure.

Another reason is that only 3,500 disabled people supposedly live in the City of Westminster, the borough in which Green Park sits. Well, hello Andrew, Green Park is actually in central London, and people want to go to the centre of town for reasons other than living there. Most of the City of Westminster is served by Tube stations other than Green Park (the borough also includes a large chunk of suburbia), and besides Westminster (a long walk from Green Park, although convenient for Trafalgar Square) no other station in the City of Westminster is accessible. It would probably be cheaper to provide all the disabled people in inner and outer Westminster with cars (and by the way, many of the more severely disabled will require vans, not cars) than to make all the stations accessible, but it would certainly not be cheaper to do this for all the disabled people in London who might want to visit the West End than to make one strategic station accessible.

On the second page of the article, he makes what might be a valid point about the state of the Dial-a-Ride scheme, which is underfunded and bound by allegedly stupid rules, such as a six-mile limit (which would preclude any journey from an outer suburban location to central London) and which has been known to prohibit passengers’ spouses from travelling with them. Well, perhaps Transport for London might provide transport for people who can’t use the buses to get from their houses to the nearest commercial centre, which might not be central London but, say, Enfield or Kingston, but providing a chauffer-driven van to take every wheelchair user who ever wants to go from New Malden or Orpington to the West End is not economical. Making buses, and some strategic stations and all new lines, accessible is. Besides, vans can only take so many people, particularly if they have had seats removed to make way for lifts, ramps or multiple wheelchairs, and if a wheelchair user wants to join a large party on a trip to the theatre, it makes more sense for them to take the same mode of transport as everyone else rather than get separated from them, even if they all have to take a slightly longer way round.

On page 3, he argues that the Tube is in any case “a service which, even for the able-bodied, is an exercise in low-level misery”. However, that’s only when it breaks down, which is often but not on most journeys. Yes, getting stuck in the tunnel is frustrating, but so is getting stuck in a jam on a bus whose driver won’t open the door even when there’s no prospect of any movement and the stop is within sight. Even so, a person in a wheelchair might prefer to get stuck in a tunnel with his or her friends than get separated from them. He cites Richard Parry, “acting head of the Underground”, as saying that it’s an “Olympic” commitment but ultimately admitting that Green Park’s value is symbolic. However, it’s not. It’s an important route into the West End for people with disabilities. That’s real value.

Andrew Gilligan writes for the Evening Standard, a paper which was notorious for its attacks on the Livingstone administration on the Greater London Council in the 1980s. It used to be said that you couldn’t get money out of the GLC unless you ticked the right ‘minority’ boxes. The Spectator these days is the unabashed voice of privilege — white privilege, class privilege, whatever — and one can almost hear the Tory gents scoffing over this article in their gentlemen’s clubs about how this scheme will make it so much easier for all the one-legged, blind, quadriplegic black lesbians to get around, particularly when the next accessible stop on the Victoria Line south of Green Park happens to be Brixton.

Of course, any able-bodied person can make a supremely rational case about how making Green Park accessible will do nothing for the disabled, much as many a white man has argued that affirmative action harms black people, but they don’t do their argument any favours when they display this kind of ignorance about the skills disabled people have, besides the misrepresentation of the geography of the area. Does he still live in London, or has he done a Richard Littlejohn and relocated to Florida? We should be told.

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