In my previous post I wrote about how I plan unfamiliar journeys to make it easier for me – using apps like Citymapper and Google Maps to plan routes, and Street View to virtually walk the routes them. So now I want to take about my actual experience of travelling around in London.
I know that some people find it much harder to travel around London due to more severe visual impairments, other mobility issues, anxiety and confidence issues, and so on. And that’s all perfectly understandable. So this won’t be reflective of everyone’s experiences. It’s just my own account of how I’ve personally settled into it and how I got about things. Your experiences may differ significantly depending on your situation.
It’s also worth noting Transport For London’s Accessibility page as well, as that has lots of info on it that people might find useful if they’re travelling in the city.
So with that out of the way, let’s get on to how I find travelling around London. I’ve also made a video to go with both this and my previous post, so you might like to watch that as well.
Some of the people I know back in Devon are surprised that I’m happy getting around London, because they find it very overwhelming whenever they come here, especially given the number of people around and the apparent maze that is the Tube and bus network, not to mention the labyrinth nature of the streets themselves. So if they’re struggling even though they can see well, then the assumption is that it must be impossible for me, as I can’t see as clearly as they can. But actually it’s not like that.
For many people, including visually impaired and disabled people, cities in general can be very stressful, especially a huge one like London. And that’s entirely understandable. London does get very busy, and figuring out the right way to go by Tube or bus is difficult if you’ve never done it before. If you’re accustomed to living in a quiet place, then coming here is a massive change, I totally get that. It does take time to get used to.
But I was already used to it, I had an advantage there. During my childhood I visited London 2 or 3 times a year to see my relatives – usually Easter, summer and Christmas – and I’d go out with the family to visit various places. So I grew up using the Tube and being around the crowds a lot. Apparently when I was very little and first encountered the Tube, I hated it, but that phase quickly passed and I grew to love it.
Plus, when Mum and I relocated here last year, we moved into my Nan’s house – which is where Mum grew up, and where I stayed whenever we visited. So we already know the area and are comfortable using the transport around here. And thus we didn’t have to adjust too much. Yes, it’s a very different lifestyle here in London, and there are things we’ve had to find and refresh our memory about, but it’s not as big a change as it would be for many others.
So the crowds aren’t usually a bother to me, I don’t feel anxious around them. I tend to think of the crowds, especially in the centre of London in places like Oxford Street, as being like a walking train in themselves. You slip into one of the gaps, walk along with everyone else, then slip out again when you’ve reached the destination you want, or if you just want to stand aside to look up directions or something else on your phone. If it’s not particularly easy to spot where I need to be from in amongst the crowd then, sure, I’ll try and stay out of their way a bit. But usually I can spot where I’m going – many shops have recognisable fronts, and if I’ve checked out a place on Street View beforehand then I’ll know what it looks like. So I can usually spot the place I want while I’m walking among a mass of people – not always, sure, but in most cases.
And when I do have to get through a big crowd of people coming towards me, be it on the pavement or when I’m crossing the road or whatever, then I will just push my way through the gaps in between them. Everyone else is doing it that way, because they’re all just as eager as you to get where they want to go, so it usually works out fine. You do have to be a bit more determined and ruthless in busier parts of London than you would in quieter areas, and just push your way through like that.
Walking At Night
As for night time, that can be a bit tricky sometimes, naturally, because I don’t adjust to the dark perfectly well. But I’m always careful then. I could use a cane, and maybe some would argue that I should. but I’ve never felt the need, I’ve always been fine without it so far. I always stick to well-lit roads where there’s reasonable lighting, and there’s traffic and people about. I’ll never go down a dark, quiet street that feels unsafe if I can help it. If that means I have to take a longer walking route to keep to safer, lighter roads, then so be it. And if it’s really not possible to find a route where I feel safe, and I can’t easily get a Tube or bus either, then I’ll gladly get a taxi, it would be worth the expense.
I always walk with purpose as well, i.e. not stumbling around and looking like I’m lost, in case that makes me an easy target for the not-so-nice people out there. Because you do need to be very careful here. I don’t give money to people on the street in general, for instance, unless they’re a performer who I feel has earned it, and I have change handy, or it’s someone who appears to be genuinely homeless. But it’s hard to tell who’s genuine most of the time, given all the unscrupulous individuals who take advantage of tourists and anyone else who’s generous. I’d much rather give any donations to a reputable charity so it can be used to help those really in need in a proper, long-lasting way. And also, around my home Tube station, there are always people who loiter around asking for money, and I don’t want to become known as a generous, easy target for them to watch out for. So I always ignore them. I don’t want to get hassled every time I’m on my way home, so it’s the safest thing to do.
Anyway, I generally know where I’m going in the evenings, because I’ve planned my journey in advance. But things at night do look different and, if there’s a complex street layout, it is possible to get disorientated. But even if I’m not perfectly sure if I’m going the right way, I’ll still walk with purpose so as not to look vulnerable. If I then realise it is the wrong way, I’ll just walk back the way I came until I’m back at a place I recognise and re-assess things. I had to do this on the way back from a theatre recently, for example, and it worked out fine.
And if the route isn’t one that’s been checked out in advance – e.g. this weekend when I was finding my way to the fireworks after the Lord Mayor’s Show – then I’ll use Google Maps or Citymapper and take it a street at a time, usually counting the side roads before I need to stop and check the map again. Google Maps will also vibrate in my pocket when I’m getting close to a point where I need to change direction, which is handy. I could also have it speak to me, but without headphones on me I didn’t bother using that aspect. The streets were all reasonably well-lit and there were plenty of people around anyway, so I felt safe doing that. And I found my way to the fireworks with plenty of time to spare. So I was fine.
And when it comes to obstacles, I am careful to look out for them as best I can, but I also tail other people as well. An innocent form of stalking if you like. There’s pretty much always someone walking ahead of me down the street, so I just follow their lead, because wherever they’re walking is going to be a safe path around any obstacles ahead. I do that in the daytime as well sometimes too. It’s a very handy trick that I tend to do on autopilot a lot of the time. And, indeed, the Aniridia Network highlighted it in one of their blog posts a while back. So thank you to all the kind strangers out there who have helped me without realising it!
Again, for other people, night time travel will be very different, and for some may be best avoided altogether. I’m just fortunate and grateful that my vision is reasonable at the moment, and that I’m used to the crowds and feel comfortable walking in well-lit areas in the evenings. It just comes from visiting London and other cities in the past. But if I were to ever lose a significant amount or all of my sight, then my assessment would be very different. And I would use a cane or a dog or a sighted guide if it became necessary, I have nothing against any of that.
Types Of Transport
I can’t drive because of my visual impairment, and I don’t live with anyone who can drive either. But I did get to try it once. When I was at a school for the visually impaired as a child, we were once taken to a driving school to experience it on their private road, although I don’t really remember it clearly. So I’d love to do something like that again one day. For instance, my friend Bhavini from East London Vision once posted a video about a day out that she had driving a sports car, and that looks really cool. I’d love to do something like that one day, it’s definitely a bucket list activity for me.
But as I’ll never be able to drive on public roads, I have to rely on public transport. Where I used to live in the Westcountry, this was ok, but somewhat limited. Trains to nearby cities like Exeter only used to run once an hour at most and took a while. And I can’t see the Dawlish line lasting forever given that it was completely destroyed a few years ago. Gorgeous though that part of the railway is, I always wished they’d do an inland track, otherwise the South West will always be at risk of being cut off one day. Huge credit to Network Rail for repairing that last collapse as quickly as they did though, as it was an expensive job. Let’s hope it stays in place for a long time.
Buses would run a bit more frequently to more local places, but the journeys were slow and uncomfortable, and journeys further afield were again hourly or less. It was a lot better than nothing, certainly, and an improvement over previous years. But even so, if you were planning to go somewhere special, perhaps to Exeter for shopping, you wouldn’t just have to plan the route, but also the times, so you knew what train or bus you would be coming back on, being careful not to miss the last one if you were staying out late. Services in the evenings in particular could be very limited, which isn’t helpful if you want to stay out with your mates. So it was quite restrictive and awkward sometimes.
In London, of course, the opposite is true. Services are constant and frequent, and there are generally no worries about when you go out or what train or bus to come back on, because there isn’t a last service to miss. Well, there is a crossover point where you get the more limited Night Tube and Night Bus services, and I always avoid those because they are limited and I wouldn’t feel so safe using the transport system that late at night. I would rather pay for a licensed taxi for myself if I were ever out in those hours, or even book somewhere to stay in advance and come back the next morning. But in any case, the Night Bus and Tube services don’t start until after midnight anyway, and I’m never out that late. Pubs tend to kick people out at around 11pm, so I’m able to use regular services then. On the national rail network you do have to be a bit more aware of the timetable, of course. But within London itself, it’s not really an issue.
We’re also ideally placed for catching the Tube or buses where I live. It’s just a 20 minute walk to my nearest Tube station. And there’s a bus stop just a 3 minute walk away from my house which I can use to get to some handy places, particularly an alternative Tube station on a different line, which is very useful if my normal line is closed or severely delayed. So if I need to get somewhere, I can usually do it one way or another. If an alternative route is going to be particularly complicated, then I will give it a miss, and I’ve done that on a few occasions. But generally I can get anywhere I need to. There’s always more than one way to get to places in London, and I love that.
The biggest perk, of course, is free and discounted travel. In the Westcountry I had a concessionary bus pass entitling me to free travel on local bus services anywhere in the country after 9:30am. And I still have my Disabled Persons Railcard, which gets me ⅓ off the cost of national rail travel. I also had a coach card that got me ⅓ off travel on National Express coaches, but it was extremely rare that I ever used that.
Now I’m in London, though, I have a Freedom Pass, instead of a concessionary bus pass. It does still have that function, meaning I can get free travel on local buses services all over the UK after 9:30am. But in London, it entitles me to free travel at any time of the day on pretty much all public transport in the city – Tube, Overground, TFL Rail, Docklands Light Railway, buses, trams, etc. It will even let you travel for free on some National Rail routes up to a certain point, beyond which you would have to purchase an extension ticket to travel further, which is still a big financial saving (and there is a map showing the area covered by the Freedom Pass). There are a few little exemptions and time limitations I think, but the chances of encountering them are very slim.
So it’s very cost-effective to get around. Occasionally I’ll use taxis as well – e.g. if I’m with a friend and they find it easier to travel that way, or if I’m in a place where I feel it’s a lot easier or safer to travel that way. But mostly I use the free public transport.
The London Underground, aka The Tube, is my preferred method of getting around London. Buses are ok and do come in handy sometimes, but the Tube just feels much easier and more comfortable to me. Some visually impaired and disabled people prefer using buses or taxis, and that’s absolutely fine.
But having used the Tube a lot during my life, I just feel at home there – along with the Overground, Docklands Light Railway and TFL Rail that connect with it (the Overground and DLR in particular have very useful connections near to me, in addition to the Tube). And of course we have Crossrail coming soon. I know it’s being called the Elizabeth Line, but I agree with Geoff Marshall that Crossrail sounds better and is more concise, and it’s the name we’ve been used to during its years of construction. So I’ll be calling it Crossrail purely out of habit rather than resistance. It just feels right, it trips off the tongue nicely.
The Tube has improved a lot since I was a kid as well, with more comfortable trains, clearer signage and greater use of audio announcements (which I find really useful, and they’re on the buses too), along with other accessibility improvements and staff assistance. On some lines, the trains also have their destination on the side and on displays inside the carriages, which is great as you don’t have to look at the displays on the platform or try and spot it on the front of the train, though those methods are still handy as well. All those kind of things help massively. The buses also have displays and talking announcements too, which is great. But I still prefer using the Tube in general.
A few months ago I also observed a friend getting the ‘turn up and go’ assistance at the ticket gates (as I’ve never had to use it myself), and I was very impressed with it. They took her all the way to the platform and got her on to the front carriage of the train, and alerted the station she was heading for that she needed help. It was a very friendly and efficient service, and she got back to her hotel easily.
I tend to go through stations on my own though, it’s very rare that I need to ask for help. I can usually find the signage easily enough. It just takes me a few seconds longer than other people, and I have to walk closer to the signs or use my monocular (my little telescope). But even the signs hanging down from the ceilings I can generally read when I get just underneath them, without using my monocular, because of their clear font and contrast. TFL have a whole set of design standards that you can look through. A lot more thought goes into their signs and displays than you might realise.
So I can read the signs, but it might sometimes take me a few seconds longer to find them than the average person – e.g. the direction signs to the Tube line I want to get, and then the signs that point to which direction of travel I want to go in, and then the Way Out signs on the platform at my final destination. I know roughly where the signs will be and what they will look like, but it just takes a couple of seconds longer to locate them initially. If need be, I will step aside and let other people go past me so I’m not blocking their way while I quickly look.
I will also use the trick I explained earlier, in terms of following other people. Because that comes in handy at Tube stations too. For instance, some stations have separate ticket gates for entry and exit purposes, and I can’t always see the green or red lights to know which is which (sometimes they’re very dimly lit). But by following other people who are also entering the station, I can just tail them to the correct gates. And when I arrive at my destination station, I can follow the direction that people are going when they get off the train, because it’s a pretty safe bet that they’re heading for the way out. I will verify this with the signs I see a long the way, and change direction if need be, but to begin with it might be the only information I have to go on, so it’s a start. Pretty quickly I’ll find a sign that confirms which direction I need to go in though. So, again, strangers come in very useful on the Tube as well as outdoors.
Inevitably there have been a few occasions where I haven’t quite got it right. Once or twice I’ve headed for the wrong line, so I’ve had to find signs back to the line that I do want. And I’ve caught a train going in the wrong direction on a couple of occasions. But then all I have to do is get off at the next stop and get the next train back the other way, it’s no big deal. The same goes if I miss the stop I was intending to get off at, if I didn’t hear the audio announcement (which can happen if the train is too noisy to hear it, or I just wasn’t paying attention). So yes, I do make mistakes now and again, but they’re easy to work around.
On the trains themselves, I can get a seat quite often too – not often at the busiest stations or at the busiest times, sure, but as I don’t live in the centre of London, I can often get a seat when I board the Tube at the station near my home. And I often get a seat in Central London too – which may sound surprising, but if you avoid the heaviest peak times, there are usually seats available. But I don’t mind standing up when it’s busy either, squeezing in with everyone else – it may not be comfortable, but the journeys never take that long. However, if a train is so full that trying to squeeze in looks pretty much impossible, then I’ll just let it go and wait for the next one, to be safe.
It’s also worth mentioning that when I take my mother out (who is elderly and blind), the majority of the time we get offered seats by very kind passengers, because it’s clear that I’m guiding her. She doesn’t mind standing up if need be – like me, she’s used to using the Tube and is comfortable with it – but a seat is always welcome nevertheless. And it’s very kind of people to offer them. So, contrary to the stereotypical belief that Londoners are miserable and uncaring, we’ve actually experienced a lot of politeness to be fair. Occasionally people can be over-polite – there was one incident recently where a lady pulled my Mum and I across the road when it was time to cross, even though we were fine on our own. They meant well, I know, but they should have asked rather than just getting involved. But things like that haven’t happened very often to be honest.
Many trains are more comfortable than they used to be too, but not all of course. Being on a stuffy, hot train that doesn’t have air-conditioning, especially when it’s crowded, isn’t pleasant. And it does make you feel like you want to fall asleep if you’re on a warm train for too long – although thankfully that’s never happened to me so far. Famous last words I expect – it’ll probably happen one day. But so far so good!
Still, I will avoid the most crowded times when I can, such as peak rush hour times (that’s where being a homeworker comes in handy!). And I would also never go out alone on major occasions like New Year’s Eve, the London Marathon, Halloween night, the Notting Hill Carnival, etc, because it would be super busy and I wouldn’t feel quite as safe. Likewise, if I know there’s a big football match going on somewhere, I’ll try to avoid that area when people are likely to be arriving or leaving the game. And, as I noted earlier, I would never stay out in the city on my own too late, especially not beyond midnight. In all those cases, I’d want to be with someone else for safety’s sake.
So, all in all, I love the Tube. Just like the city it serves, it’s always alive and bustling, which is what I love about the place, and I tend to get around just fine. I’ve been in London nearly a year now, and haven’t had a significant problem on the Tube network. That’s not to say I never will, but so far it’s been fine. Only once or twice have I had to take a different route to the one I intended, because of unanticipated delays or line closures. And there are only a few occasions where I’ve had to cancel a planned journey before leaving the house, because I knew it would be too hard to get there due to some kind of disruption. But that’s as bad as it’s ever got, and those little glitches are bound to happen. And it’s great that I can find out about them in advance before I leave now, whereas during my childhood it was more a case of trying your luck. If I were a regular rush hour commuter and not a homeworker, I expect I’d have a lot more reason to complain about it. But my experience of the Tube has been a satisfactory one overall.
I also greatly admire the Underground as a feat of engineering and all the work that the staff do to keep it running on a daily basis. I’ve enjoyed watching documentaries about the Tube and Crossrail, seeing what goes on behind the scenes, because they’re so enlightening and fascinating. I even have a Driver’s Eye View DVD for the District Line (the line that serves my local Tube station), which is genuinely more interesting than it sounds, given all the facts you’re told as well as the unique visual perspective.
Also, earlier this year I thoroughly enjoyed playing a treasure hunt game on the Tube with the Thinking Bob social group. I’ve also been ticking off all the stations that I’ve used so far on a copy of the Tube map, so I can see stations and areas I still need to check out. Indeed, another bucket list item I’d like to do is the Tube Challenge, where you spend a day travelling through all the stations on the network. I’d gladly do that as a charity endeavour.
I’m not a trainspotter (though there’s nothing wrong with being one), so I couldn’t tell you about train numbers and stock types and in-depth stuff like that. It’s just that I have a fondness for the Tube, that’s the point I’m making. Other people may hate it, and that’s their opinion, for which there may be very good reasons. It does have its breakdowns, it does have its crowds, it does have its discomforts, and it still has plenty of room for improvement. It’s not perfect, I would never claim that it is. But I still think it’s amazing, and I still like it a lot. It’s the lifeline of London for me, and I feel very fortunate to live in a city where it is so quick and easy to get around most of the time.
And talking about the Tube always makes me think of this clip from Only Fools And Horses…
So that’s an overview of how it feels for me to get around London. Like I say, your experiences of London or other cities may well be very different, it is a very subjective, personal thing. But I love it here, and I’m very comfortable using the transport network and walking among the crowds, so I’m happy.
So I hope you found that interesting. If there’s anything you want me to expand on and talk about further, feel free to comment and ask me about things. And thanks for reading! 🙂
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