1. Transport
September 4, 2019updated 23 Mar 2023 12:16pm

Here’s what it’s like using London transport in a wheelchair and without working hands

By Peter Apps

One night in December 2016, I left my flat in Southwark. For the first time since breaking my neck a decade earlier, I wanted to take the underground by myself. I intended to get myself and wheelchair to Stratford, go to the cinema alone – again, for the first time since the injury – and get back home without support.

It worked almost without a hitch. I got another passenger to press the lift buttons to get me into Southwark station from the street, and a staff member to help me to the platform. Having once been paralased from the shoulders down, my left arm is now somewhat functional – although the hand is not. Most stations have large enough buttons for me to press, but Southwark, for some reason, remains almost the sole exception.

Nonetheless – I got to Stratford on my own, watched my film, made it back to SE1. Then I found a pub, where some students got me drunk, accidentally broke my wheelchair, and kindly phoned my live in carers to retrieve me from a dancefloor.

Since then, I have been among the most disabled users to ride the London transport system alone. It’s impossible to understate what such greater independence really means. After a decade of largely only being able to go out accompanied by PAs or other people, I now have access to London much more like a normal human being. It’s been beyond life-changing.

It makes me feel very lucky – and think that I should do more to protect the rights and opportunities and access. With that in mind, here’s what I think London – and Britain – gets right and wrong when it comes to disability and transport. 

Taxis, cars and the Motability scheme

Leased with mixture of my own money and benefits, my Motability wheelchair-accessible vehicle (WAV) is a lifeline – the only way I can get to most activities out of London, from visiting family to hospital appointments and service in the Army Reserve.

Content from our partners
The key role of heat network integration in creating one of London’s most sustainable buildings
The role of green bonds in financing the urban energy transition
The need to grow London's EV infrastructure at speed and scale

Because my spinal cord was broken so high, I don’t have enough movement to be able to drive myself – although for slightly less disabled people, remarkable adjustments are available. Motability provides more than 600,000 cars, mobility vehicles and scooters – although the financial structures it uses do so, an opaque blend of a charity and company owned by Britain’s biggest banks, were criticised heavily last year by the National Audit Office.

Clearly Motability’s activities – which have seen multimillion bonuses to directors, plus the holding of even larger sums as company reserves – could use some broader scrutiny. The vehicle, though, remains invaluable – particularly as the insurance that comes with it allows any qualified driver, vital given my ever-changing group of PAs.

Within London, however, its use has always been a challenge – not least because of the difficulties of parking. Before I was this independent, I needed someone with me, and it was often impossible to use the vehicle without taking two people – one to drive and park and the other to go with me.

The alternative was using taxis. As well as being expensive, however, black cabs are insufficiently high to take my bulky electric wheelchair. So I was dependent on a smaller manual chair, with someone else to push. It’s how I got through years of my newly paralysed journalistic career, but I’m very glad I have other options now.


Aside from very occasional use with PAs, I only really began to brave the bus network last year. Before that, I was put off by the challenges of memorising routes, worries over how I would let the driver know I wanted a particular stop, and nightmare tales from other wheelchair users.

On the latter front, my experience suggests the introduction of a recorded announcement every time a wheelchair boards instructing other passengers – including those with buggies – to vacate the disabled space has reduced abuse from other passengers. I’m very aware, however, that others have had unpleasant that still deter them from using public transport.

Buses often remain the slowest option – but they are almost always the most reliable for a wheelchair user. That said, there’s only one space per bus – so if someone else is using it, you’re waiting for the next one. It also means that if you have a friend or partner also in a wheelchair, you must take successive buses. Unless you live in Reading, the only place I’ve heard of that has a double space per vehicle.

London Underground

The backbone of London’s transport is the tube. The first line, between Paddington and Farringdon, opened in 1863, followed by South Kensington to Westminster five years later. Neither journey is yet particularly accessible – Paddington offers lift access to lines in only one direction, and South Kensington will not get such facilities at all until the early 2020s.

When I was first injured in 2006, only the new stretch of the Jubilee line – from Westminster to Stratford – was really accessible. Olympic related rebuilds improved that, creating functional lift-equipped transfer hubs at Kings Cross, Green Park and London Bridge. Unfortunately, then mayor Boris Johnson cancelled multiple such adaptions elsewhere on 2010, throwing away £64m already invested.

Only lately have improvements got back on track, first through new trains on the District line which allow step free access, albeit with a very varied gap between the train and the platform. The Victoria Line has also dramatically improved, adding platform humps that allow flat access at most stations. The provision of actual lifts to the surface remains patchy. On the parts I use, Brixton, Vauxhall, Victoria, Green Park, Kings Cross all have them; Oxford Circus, Warren Street and Euston do not.

These improvements are often very new – Vauxhall only became accessible in 2017, the year before I moved here. But alongside adaptions on other lines, they mean a meaningfully accessible underground transport network exists in London in a way it did not even five years ago.

London now compares favourably to many other global cities – check out this map of Paris, in which almost the entire central network disappears when you ask it to highlight wheelchair access. Irritatingly, though, TfL treats the introduction of accessibility and new stations like a national secret – its map of the accessible underground is both misleading and invariably out of date.

A privately produced map now does a better job. It’s the creation of scientist and transport campaigner Tomas Rey-Hastie following travels with his wheelchair user husband. It shows the dramatic improvement of recent years – although I suspect it will be another decade or two before the system really works.

One quick point on lift buttons – as well as sometimes being of varying size, it is striking that stations in rich areas often have larger lifts or buttons on both sides. Those in poorer areas, such as Brixton, do not – a real pain if, like me, you only have one working arm. On entering a lift, it’s vital I check which side the button is before the doors close – otherwise I’m stuck until someone else arrives. Luckily, it turns out staff really do check them every hour.

Docklands Light Railway, Trams, and so forth

One of the things Tomas’s map really showcases is how better served those parts of London are that have either the DLR or southern London tram network. The latter is a recent addition, while the former really broke new ground in terms of access when it was built in the 1980s.

With my very limited hand movement, it’s a major frustration that the DLR invariably has old-style smaller lift buttons that I cannot press – particularly as its stations are unstaffed.

It’s worth pointing out, of course, that other disabilities have very different needs. A survey by the charity Guide Dogs last month, for example, showed that a third of visually impaired transport users said they had been left on a platform by a train, with almost half saying increasingly overstretched staff lacked the skills to help them. They must find the sometimes deserted DLR stations a particular challenge.


What Tomas’s map also shows is the challenges of those parts of London dependent on the rail network. Many stations any do not have any access at all. Even those that don’t often require the booking of wheelchair assistance and a ramp, which often fails to actually turn up. 

What that means for a wheelchair user is predictable and distressing – arriving at one’s destination to find oneself trapped on the train, dependent either on passers-by to help, or forced to stay on the train to its destination. In August this year, former Paralympic gold medalist Sophie Christiansen documented what that meant. The operator, South Western Railway, apologised and said it would investigate. The same thing happened again the following week.

There are ways around such problems – operator Greater Anglia has just introduced trains that offer flat access boarding on some rural routes, while Cardiff and Liverpool now offer similar across their suburban networks.

As on the London Underground, introducing platform humps to avoid the need for a ramp along a small section of the platform offers one solution – something now on offer on the Heathrow Express and central London portion of the Thameslink service. But they cannot be used on lines that also take freight – one reason why the outer portions of Crossrail will still need ramps when that line is finally open.

That new trains continue to enter service with such limited access is a huge frustration – and has helped spark what looks to be a major campaign amongst disabled users for better representation across the planning and procurement process. That has to be the right way forward – and will benefit not just the disabled community, but others such as those with pushchairs.

For myself, I’m just grateful to have regained the chance to access transport independently. I never thought I would.

Peter Apps is the executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century, and global affairs commentator for Reuters. He tweets @Pete_Apps.

This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.
Topics in this article :
Websites in our network