Unicorns

1/5/2015

Richmond – Earls Court – Green Park – Langham Place – Return

WordPress was kind enough to inform me yesterday that I started writing here exactly one year ago. I wasn’t going to mention this anniversary, choosing instead to just let it slide by, but then something happened today.

Over the last year I’ve made slightly fewer than 80 journeys that have been recorded here. Each one has been unique in it’s own very special way, but there has been a very consistent theme. Almost every one has had at least one visit from The Fuckup Fairy. Some have gone so badly that she came to stay and put her feet well and truly under the table. It’s somehow fitting therefore that the journey I take on the one year anniversary of this occasionally coherent stream of consciousness turns out to be a Unicorn, that rare and mythical thing so seldom seen, a journey without incident. That of course doesn’t mean that it wasn’t worthy of note.

I won’t bore you with a blow by blow account, suffice to say the Ramp Wranglers at Richmond and Earls Court performed admirably and I still marvel at being able to use the Piccadilly Line step free without assistance.

Deserving of special mention is the bus driver on the first leg of my trip. The bus pulled up nearly empty, save for 3 unfolded pushchairs. This is a perfect storm of potential conflict and exactly the situation that has lead to the current legal wranglings about priority in the wheelchair space on buses. Popular opinion, and truth be told the experience for many, is that this can rapidly escalate to conflict with the driver, parent and wheelie all bashing heads to defend their strongly held position, so that everybody emerges with a bad experience and at least one person is left languishing by the side of the road. My experience this time was radically different. The driver spoke calmly and courteously to the parents, who moved their buggies so I could get into the wheelchair space, and he then gave everyone time to fit themselves around each other so that we all got to travel. It really is possible if everyone just compromises a little.

The walk through London between Green Park and Langham Place was, as always, a dilemma of choice. It’s fair to say that all the major thoroughfares in our capital have reasonably wheelchair friendly pathways, that is to say drop kerbs (if a little steep) at junctions and a liberal sprinkling of pedestrian crossings across major traffic flows. They also have people, and lots of them. They have business folk and locals confident enough in their route that they’ll walk purposefully along holding a conversation on their phone, or texting, aloof from their surroundings like a proper Londoner is supposed to be. They have tourists, meandering casually, often arm in arm, or lost and trying ineffectively to orientate themselves on an AtoZ gripped tightly in their hands like their lives depended on it, blissfully unaware of anything going on around them. Then there’s the shoppers, people for whom instant gratification involves the shortest route between two tills, a route that can be instantly altered by the gravitational pull of a creatively staged shop window display. All of these people represent a shifting sand of constantly changing obstacles for a wheelchair user who can’t sidestep or turn on a sixpence to avoid a sudden stopper, or dance round someone as they drift unexpectedly across the pavement squeezing you into an ever decreasing gap between them and a wall or lamppost. This conflict is only ever going to end one way, in contact, often painful, shocking and unexpected contact. I’m alright Jack, I’m sitting in my own personal safety cage. The same can’t be said for the bemused teenager with the now painful and bruised ankle who managed to pull off a look that was simultaneously confused, angry and apologetic. No mean feat.

The alternative to main streets is to use the road less travelled, the more sparsely inhabited side streets. But this choice is not without consequences. For no reason I can fathom London streets have some of the highest kerbs in the world, and on these side-streets lack of footfall means investment often hasn’t been made in drop kerbs. The frustration of having to retrace your steps when you reach a corner that you can’t cross is huge. I can show you whole blocks with just one drop. What is the point in being able to get onto the pavement if you can’t get off again? I won’t even start my rant on the subject of uneven, extreme cambered and unexpectedly narrowing pavements. The only solution is to wheel along the road, which of course brings it’s own set of pitfalls and challenges.

So I leave you with this thought. Next time you find yourself plodding the pavement, be aware of your surroundings and watch out for wheelchairs, it really is for your own good.

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About Alan

I'm an Economist, Geek, Campaigner & wheelchair user who's been using all forms of public transport for 20+ years.
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