Step Free Tube Challenge

Yesterday, to mark International Day of Disabled People, Jon Hastie and I, supported by a team of… well, a few, set about visiting every step free tube station on the London Underground. Our quest was inspired by The Tube Challenge, partly to show just what is possible for disabled people travelling in London but also to highlight the restrictions and the fact that only 78 stations have step free access. You can read about, and sponsor, our effort at stepfreetubechallenge.co.uk.

Spoiler Alert, we succeeded, and did manage to visit every one of them although it was closer to failing than I expected. I really thought towards the end that I’d run out of time, and we certainly made mistakes along the way.

I wanted to capture some thoughts while the experience is still fresh, some might say raw, in my mind. These are in no particular order.

  • It was fun… ish. 11 hours 18 minutes is a long time to spend on the London Underground but having a purpose, a focus makes it pass quickly. So quickly I didn’t get time to do all the social media I wanted to. You can see a timeline of highlights here.
  • Make a plan, and stick to it. Every time I varied I screwed up. Thanks most to Tomas for the route, and Jon for picking up my Caledonian Road cock-up.
  • Having said that, the unexpected happens and the environment is not perfect, for anyone. Be prepared to be flexible and adapt.
  • Greenford station has an innovative new incline lift. It hasn’t always been reliable but it has got better. It is very clever.
  • The Underground, especially the deep tube when crowded is hot and unpleasant. Travelling in December meant my feet were cold all day, but I could breathe and put a scarf on.
  • I was really nervous of Oxford Circus and how busy it would be. As I got delayed and realised I’d arrive at rush our my apprehension increased. In the end it was full, very full, but with help from a TfL staff member and a bit of patience there were no real issues.
  • With one exception the assistance staff during the day were all great. The exception was at Oxford Circus where he didn’t get the ramp despite being asked and insisted on holding on to me. This ‘handsy’ invasion of my personal space made it both uncomfortable and difficult to steer. It’s no excuse but his actions were motivated by a misplaced desire to help.
  • I’m naturally an independent person, but this escapade wouldn’t have succeeded without the combined efforts of a great team. Have a good team and trust them. They know who they were.
  • Stanmore is technically a step free station, but it’s dreadful. The route is long, steep, with an uneven surface and dreadfully signposted. Without someone with me I wouldn’t have succeeded.
  • Heathrow is warren of platforms, lifts, travelators and corridors. The (heavily armed) Police Officer I asked for directions got it badly wrong. Don’t go to Heathrow without being prepared.
  • The best comment of the day from a staff member was “Oh, you’re the ones doing that thing”. The internal TfL staff comms clearly worked.
  • The Bakerloo is the line from hell. So bouncy that my wheels actually left the floor.
  • Step free is in eye of beholder. Some of those steps and gaps are pretty big. The entrance to TfL Rail and Heathrow Express trains are a very dodgy combination of 2 steps and a gap. Sometimes I need speed, and sometimes care to board a train. Getting that wrong could get very messy indeed. Know your chair, have a plan and stick to it.
  • Buses are the glue that fills the gap. They’re essential for both this challenge and in daily life. They were also the source of both Jon and my biggest slip ups. Caveat Emptor.
  • Make sure you have no plans for the day after the attempt.

Will we do it again? We’ve proved it can be done which was our first objective. I think we can do better than 21 hours and 23 minutes. I do have a number in mind, but I’m keeping it to myself for now. Can we resist the urge to do better.

Want to know more? You provide the audience and I’ll bring the slides.

 

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My one question to candidates.

The public backlash against plastic, supported by Government policy and legislation, has lead to the widespread withdrawal of position-able, plastic drinking straws, despite straws making up only 0.025% of pollution worldwide, less in the UK. There is no evidence to support Government statistics citing straws as a significant problem. (https://www.channel4.com/news/factcheck/factcheck-no-evidence-for-governments-plastic-straw-claims)

Rigid alternatives made from paper, metal, wheat and other materials are not suitable, practical substitutes. Despite reassurance to the contrary plastic straws are not available through alternative channels such as chemists. Bars and restaurants are not making them available on demand. Disabled people are finding themselves unable to drink and eat in sufficient quantities to maintain their health, both out and about and increasingly in their own homes.

What steps will you take to address this emerging crisis, reverse the straw ban and educate the public about the effects of this harmful policy?

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#DisabilityPower100 Apparently I’m influential

As this blog is published I’m at the House of Lords, Extinction Rebellion protests permitting, at the launch of this years Shaw Trust Disability Powerlist 100.

I’m honoured to be included on this years list.

It is often said that the direction of ones life can turn on one moment, but how often can you identify that moment? I can.

In May 2012 I had never done any campaigning or activism, was clueless about the Social Model of Disability and knew few disabled people, or at least so I thought.

The weather was improving as spring ended and the London Olympics were approaching. I was waiting in the sunshine for a train at Strawberry Hill, an unmanned station, late one morning. The train arrived, the guard failed to see me and the train left without me. I was livid. This wasn’t unusual but my next act was, and is the snowball that started the avalanche. I grabbed my phone and tweeted about the incident with the hashtag #NoGoBritain. (You can find my continuing twitter ramblings here)

This single act lead to me disappearing down the rabbit hole of disability rights and opportunities that I couldn’t previously have imagined. TV interviews were followed by meetings that opened my eyes. I started blogging about my journeys, blogs which you can still find here and remain just as relevant today.

I was introduced to Transport for All and Ruils shortly afterwards, both organisations that have become important to me. I have learned about the Social Model of Disability which has completely changed by approach to equality and inclusion. I have had the opportunity to collaborate with people and on projects that will change peoples experience for years to come. Next time you see a ramp used on a London bus think of me, the design was changed because of my feedback.

But most of all I’ve met some of the most amazing and committed people who continue to support and educate me every day, people who I am proud to call friends and colleagues. It is only because of each and every one of these individuals that I find myself on this years Powerlist.

I am grateful to them all.

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Dirty Secrets of the Underground

On a particularly damp day I headed out to meet Callum from Whatshotlondon. This is what we got up to.

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My Speech at Today’s Inclusive Transport Parliamentary Reception

I’m Chair of Transport for All and here today as the co-Chair of the Inclusive Transport Stakeholder Group.

So, this is my maiden speech in Parliament which, to be honest, is the closest I want to get to being an MP. The whole news cycle is obsessed with Brexit, and our MPs are being criticized for failing to achieve it or indeed anything else. But as we’ve heard this is very far from the truth.

The Inclusive Transport Strategy comes at the end of a period of huge change. The past 30 years has seen Disabled and Older People fight against Government and Transport providers for their right to access public transport. This fight has, in the past, met with resistance but this has now largely changed. We’re pushing at an open door. Everyone accepts that accessibility, that inclusivity benefits all passengers and society at large.

As a direct result of this fight we have accessible buses. Traveling by train no longer means in the guard’s van. Decades of pressure means that today the industry is being much more proactive. Across the country, in all modes, there are great examples of good practice, some of whom are represented here today.

Yet we still have inconsistency. Every day there continue to be individual stories of the challenge disabled people face when trying to use public transport. On last night’s news we heard of one wheelchair user being refused access to a bus. Last weekend a guide dog user was refused access to a taxi, for the 4th time this year, despite the provisions in the Equality Act being enacted. These incidents remain disappointingly common.

This is the landscape that the Inclusive Transport Strategy is in.

For the first time the Strategy sets out  a consistent approach across modes. It sets expectations for both passengers and providers. It makes clear that Disabled People themselves should be involved in the design and delivery of services. It provides the mechanisms to monitor progress towards its goals, a key function of the Strategy Group.

Out of this strategy will come solid action plans from Government, from sectors and from individual operators. The strategy will mean that these plans are aligned. It will mean that passengers know what to expect and can hold service providers to account. It will mean that good practice is more easily identified and can be shared. Accessibility should not be considered some element of competitive advantage. These good practice initiatives must not be some guarded secret but must be widely adopted.

The strategy represents a line in the sand. A point from which accessibility and inclusion will be embedded in decision making just like Health & Safety.  Change may not come quickly. After all some of our infrastructure is Victorian. But there is much that can be done quickly and cost effectively. In fact I was in conversation with some London Bus Operators recently. Their assessment of what was possible far exceeded my expectations. This is really encouraging for a time when worry free, hassle free transport is normalized for Disabled People.

 

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My Access all Areas address

Welcome to Access All Areas 2019. My name is Alan Benson. I’m Chair of Transport for All. We’re the only charity campaigning exclusively on disabled and older people’s right to travel.

Get the shameless plug in early. Please do visit our stand while you’re here.

Anyway, we spend a lot of time working with TfL. It’s our role, using our experience, to help TfL improve their services. We also hold their feet to the fire when needed.

It’s as this critical friend that I’ve been asked to speak to you today.

I think there’s some nervous TfL staff here. I haven’t shared with them what I’m about to say. They don’t know if I’ll be the Critical or the Friend. If I’m not around later you know why.

So, I’ve got five minutes and about two hours’ worth of material. Here goes.

We know that access to public transport is vital. Vital for Physical Health. For mental health. For access to work. For access to social and cultural opportunities. Public transport is vital for disabled and older people to contribute to society. But most importantly we know that access to public transport is our right. We also know it’s not easy.

In the last week I missed a train because of slow assistance. I’ve missed buses because the wheelchair space was full. I’ve been stuck at Bank when the lift broke. Yes, I broke it. Apologies to anyone affected.

But, in that same week I’ve been to Stratford, Southwark, Camden, Docklands,  Greenwich, Lambeth, Westminster, Hammersmith, Richmond and the City. All on public transport run or managed by TfL.

This is only possible because of changes in the last 30 years. Changes in law, changes in approach and changes in attitudes. The Olympics in particular felt like a watershed. Since then, I think the pace has slowed. We must keep that pace up.

To prepare for today I asked around. What was the number one thing TfL has done to improve access recently. Some answers were unsurprising. Introducing new trains that have made many more stations level access, the taxi replacement policy was mentioned,  and of course the Please Offer Me A Seat badge. This has changed lives and gone global.

My choice is the Training Programme for Managers. Disabled people, many of whom are here today, are teaching the people who commission and run the services just what impact their choices have. The results are transformative, both now and for the future. No one else in the British transport sector is doing this.

Looking ahead we are already seeing the impact of  The Mayors Transport Strategy. Newly Step Free stations, with more to come. The goal to reduce excess journey times is really welcome. The Healthy Streets agenda will benefit everyone, but our voice must be heard.  The environment created must be accessible and inclusive, particularly for those with sight impairments.

But budgets are tight. Increasingly so. It’s crucial that Access programmes do not suffer.

I want to close with two thoughts two messages for you to take away.

The first is aimed at every disabled and older person here today, at every disabled and older traveller in London, indeed across the country.

Don’t give up. Things can seem bleak. When it’s cold, when it’s raining and you’ve not been able to get on that bus for whatever reason.

Don’t give up. We are where we are today because, to quote Newton, we stand on the shoulders of giants. We are those shoulders for those that come after us.

But mostly don’t give up because you have rights, the right to live the life you want to, and when your journey does go wrong tell TfL. They do listen.

My second message is to everyone, passenger and operator alike. It’s a clarion call to be disruptive. To challenge the status quo. “It’s always been done like this” is not good enough.

We need new ideas. Like the Please Offer Me a Seat badge. Like the “Look Up” campaign.

We need to turn conventional thinking on its head. If you can’t raise the platform then lower the train like Greater Anglia are doing.

Today is an opportunity to pass your ideas to TfL. Use it. After today talk to TfL directly,  or use TfAs helpline. We’ll pass the ideas on.

Thank you for listening. Enjoy your day.

 

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Travels and Travails

I took the amazing David ‘Ziggy’ Green, @SaHreports, out for a trip on public transport and he used the experience to produce this excellent cartoon for Private Eye.

 

disabled access private eye large web

 

For those that can’t see it there are five scenes with me explaining the different challenges of travelling in London.

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