Inaccessible world beyond London

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Inaccessible world | Tentacles of doom

I saw this video this morning, whose author took great pains to get it fit to publish (thanks to the flakiness of the MS Movie Maker program or whatever it’s called), in which he travels in his power-chair to get from a village outside Evesham in Worcestershire into the town. The journey looks short on any map, but requires travelling along pavements which are broken, uneven, too narrow, some of which have bushes growing across them, and finding that there are no ramps where needed, often requiring long detours. There is a bus, but it is not wheelchair-accessible and the bus company say that making them so is not a priority.

The video ought to be seen by everyone, but particularly those of us who live in London who think, like some of our politicians, that the world is accessible now that our buses have been replaced by nice new low-floor ones over the past ten years or so (and some of them have been replaced by even newer ones). Londoners (and particularly the London media and the cab drivers who dominate the radio phone-ins) like to complain about the “bendy buses” that the last mayor imported from Germany, but I recall reading a letter in the Guardian from a reader in south Wales, who said that they would be more than happy to take these buses on as none of the loc.al buses are accessible. In fact, many of the buses found in provincial areas are London’s cast-offs. I remember travelling to sixth form in Croydon (actually, Coulsdon) on early 1980s Leyland Olympian buses, then going away to Aberystwyth and finding that the local Crosville buses were old Leyland Bristols — and midway through, seeing them replaced by the very same Olympians I’d travelled to sixth form on in London. Clearly, London & Country had taken a new delivery. (The routes I was travelling on were London Transport contract routes.) Crosville and London and Country were part of the same group, and around the time I left college, they were all rebranded Arriva.

Although there have been plenty of instances of wheelchair users being refused entry to buses because the driver is full, or because the only wheelchair space is taken up by a pushchair (and pushchairs these days are not easily foldable as they used to be), there are no buses operating entirely within London that cannot, in theory, be used by someone in a wheelchair (inter-city coaches are not all accessible, though). Most of the Underground and overland railway system remains inaccessible, often with one platform served by a ramp and the other with a staircase, but the light railways (in south London and the Docklands) have always been (at least mostly) accessible.

As the author of the video above points out, one of the justifications for withdrawing travel support for people with disabilities is that things are accessible now, but even in London, they are not. Even when you can get on a bus, it usually is not the quickest way of getting anywhere, and there are usually no direct buses from the outer parts of London to the centre, as they have been progressively withdrawn over the years because the journeys took too long and it is easier to maintain reliability over shorter routes (and because they can charge double the fare, or make people buy travelcards). Even if the transport is accessible, many workplaces still are not, and in places where there is good accessibility, housing costs tend to be higher. The problems with missing ramps shown in the video are just as true in some parts of London, and particularly in the outer suburbs (there are some places on the outskirts which seem to pride themselves on “rural” features such as unpaved or heavily rutted roads, for example, such as Biggin Hill).

It does appear that London has been set up as a showpiece; it’s good PR for the country to make the only city with a multi-million population look fairly good for wheeled access, and doubtless it makes London a more attractive proposition for the infirm rich from abroad, but in making all of the capital’s buses wheelchair accessible (in theory), rather than just a large proportion, they seem to have forgotten most of the rest of the country.

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