I feel very comfortable using the public transport in London, and generally have no problems getting around on it. I always plan my journeys as best I can, and feel confident travelling around the city by myself, because I find the public transport in London to be very accessible.
There is a Transport for London Accessibility Page giving lots of information to help you access public transport in the city. It’s well worth looking through everything there, even if you think you’re very familiar with the transport system, because you may well discover something you didn’t know about. There’s a recent article about accessibility that TfL have published as well.
But there is still lots of room for improvement, so TfL are constantly making efforts to improve accessibility, within the limits of funding and other resources available to them. And with that in mind, they held their Access All Areas event at ExCel London in March, to highlight the current accessibility options and services that are available, and to share future developments. It’s a great opportunity to hear from decision makers and engineers, and get to know a variety of organisations.
So I decided to go along and check it out, because it sounded very interesting. Plus it was free to attend, and just a short bus ride from my house. So in this post I want to show you some of the things I discovered there. I hope you enjoy reading about it.
Note: I am not sponsored by TfL or any of the other organisations mentioned here, and have received no incentives to mention them. I just want to tell you about what I saw at the event, and make you aware of things you might find useful. So all opinions are my own.
For my first stop at the event, I went to say hello to my friends at London Vision. There I got to meet Rosalind, who I worked with during the month for my Disabled Access Day guest post on their site. I was also invited to give one of the reasons that I find London’s transport so accessible, so it could be written on a board for me to hold up in a photo. And one of the most helpful aspects for me are the audio announcements on the Tube trains and buses. It’s a simple idea, but it makes things a lot easier and gives me a lot of independence and confidence when traveling around. So it’s well worth highlighting.
The RNIB were also sharing the stall with them, and were promoting their Helpline, Connect Community and Shop, among other things. And Guide Dogs were there too. So it was a nice little corner of the exhibition for visually impaired people to find out about these organisations in one place. A lot of other items at the exhibition were also relevant to people with sight loss though.
AccessAble provides very detailed access guides for tens of thousands of places across the UK, which you can access via their website, iOS app & Android app. They cover all sorts of places, including food and drink venues, hotels, tourist attractions, museums, theatres, cinemas, shops, sports facilities, toilets, train stations, hospitals, universities and more.
Every place is assessed in depth by a trained professional from AccessAble, and then re-assessed on a regular basis to keep the details up to date. And it’s completely free to use. So if you’re disabled it’s well worth trying the website and app to see what you think. You can also suggest places for them to review as well if you find anything missing. I haven’t actually used their service myself yet, but I intend to do so, and may do a review of it when the time comes. In the meantime, however, I recommend reading Emma’s post on Rock For Disability for her thoughts on it.
I already knew about this service, but was pleased to see it being promoted here. It’s wonderful that you can just turn up at the ticket barriers on the Tube now and get assistance there and then. I’ve not had to take advantage of it myself, but I’ve observed more severely visually impaired friends using it, with staff taking them down to the trains, and radioing ahead for them to be met by a colleague at their destination. And if there isn’t a member of staff at the gate line, then you can use a nearby help point to speak to someone and ask for a member of staff to come to you, which I’ve done on one occasion for a friend.
Although I’ve not used assistance to get on a train, it’s worth noting that I have occasionally had to approach railway staff (from TFL and National Rail) for other reasons, and they’ve always been helpful. Just recently, for instance, a serious incident at Waterloo caused major disruption that lasted into the rush hour, and the crowd control measures meant my girlfriend and I couldn’t find the exit we needed. So we asked a lady for help and, rather than just give directions, she very kindly escorted us to a lift, took us down to the lower level and walked us to the exit we needed. So I made sure to express my thanks on Twitter afterwards. It’s easy to complain when things go wrong, but it’s important to acknowledge good experiences too. Indeed, a big thank you to all the hard-working staff on the network for all the work you do every day!
I travelled on this cable car for the first time last year, and it has lovely views. Unlike the Tube and buses, I can’t use my Freedom Pass to get a free ride on it, but I can still use it to get a concessionary discount. However, on this occasion, every attendee at the show was granted a free ride. So I, along with my friends James and Keith who I’d met up with during the event, took advantage of the offer after we left ExCel London.
Compared to last year, my ride this time was in the opposite direction, and was also notable because it had an audio commentary playing over the speakers, telling you about some of the sights and history of the area. We didn’t listen to it, as we were busy chatting and taking photos together, but it’s nice to know the commentary’s there. One day I should take a ride and listen to it properly, as the little bits I did hear sounded interesting.
Taxis & Assistance Dogs
During the show I picked up the March-April 2019 issue of OnRoute, the magazine for taxi and private hire drivers. While it’s therefore not particularly relevant or interesting to me in general, there is an interesting article about assistance dogs in there.
It discusses how ‘equality days’ are held every so often, effectively sting operations where a team go out with a visually impaired person and their assistance dog to see if taxi drivers will take them. A member of the team rings a taxi operator to make a booking, then one of them waits with the visually impaired person as their companion. If the taxi driver pulls up and takes the dog, a secret signal is sent to the rest of the team, and the taxi company is called and congratulated. If, however, the taxi driver refuses, or spots the dog and drives past without stopping, then they are asked to pull over, and both the driver and taxi company can face prosecution.
There have been 10 equality days so far, resulting in 52 convictions (a 95% success rate out of 55 prosecutions), resulting in £48,621 of penalties and fines received. So it’s good to hear that they’re tackling this issue. If you’d like to understand more about why it’s an important issue to deal with, I discussed it during my first month as a blogger a few years ago, and I also recommend watching Fashioneyesta’s video for a guide dog owner’s view on the subject.
Access For All is a scheme that aims to provide fully accessible, obstacle-free routes between train station entrances and all of their platforms. According to the leaflet I picked up, 323 stations have been made accessible to all since 2006, with a combined investment of £491.7 million, and a further £300 million of funding to improve access at 73 more stations has been granted as part of the Inclusive Transport Strategy, as reported by BBC News this week.
Back On Track is an initiative for residents of Newham and Tower Hamlets who have mental health conditions. Specially trained ambassadors give support and guidance to help them use the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) with comfort and confidence, so they can get out and about more and be part of their community.
In relation to river travel, Woolwich Ferry, MBNA Thames Clippers & London River Services were all represented here. I haven’t been on any boats since moving to London, surprisingly, so it would be nice to try them out at some point, when the weather’s nice. The Freedom Pass will get me 50% off the Clippers, which is good, and possibly discounts elsewhere too.
There are a lot of nice river tours you can do as well, from companies like Bateaux Dining Cruises, City Cruises & Viscount Cruises, and there’s a London Eye River Cruise. You can also go on speedboat rides with Thames Jets, Thames Ribs & Thames Rockets. And last year I discovered Jason’s Canal Trips, which sound interesting. So there are a lot of fun sailing opportunities out there.
Aurrigo were showcasing PodZero, an automated driverless pod that can be used to shuttle people between transport hubs and nearby destinations. You would simply request a pod using an app on your phone. They had one of their pods at the show, which I sat in, and it seemed quite comfortable. They’re also wheelchair accessible and, according to their leaflet, incorporate features to help visually impaired passengers. They’re currently conducting trials (most recently with Blind Veterans UK), so it’ll be interesting to see how they develop in the future.
The TfL Journey Planner also had a display here. I didn’t check it out as I already know about this feature of the website, and I personally tend to use Citymapper on my phone anyway. But it is very useful for many people, and not everyone knows about it, so it was good to see it being publicised.
There were also stands for the various different forms of rail transport – Undeground, Overground, DLR, TfL Rail, Network Rail & Trams. And there were buses and taxis, there which we would get into and explore, as we were told how they were making them more accessible and energy-efficient. One bus was a double-decker bus, which we’re obviously very familiar with, and the other was a single-decker electric bus by Go-Ahead Group.
One of the taxis was from LEVC Electric Taxis, whose site includes a page detailing the accessibility of their cabs. Dynamo Electric Taxis were demonstrating one of their vehicles at the show too. And talking of accessible taxis and private hire vehicles, I know that Dial-a-Ride, Taxicard, Community Transport & Assisted Transport were all represented at the show too, and are worth looking into if you’re disabled. And while we’re on the subject of benefits, don’t forget the Freedom Pass if you’re a disabled London resident. As someone who uses one regularly, it’s really helped me to become very independent in the city.
PEARL stands for Person-Environment-Activity Research Laboratory, and it’s a massive space where they can create life-size streets, town squares, railway stations, etc for research purposes. This allows them to test new ideas and designs by watching how people respond and interact with the environment.
At this show they were demonstrating a potential way of helping visually impaired people to use buses. Every bus route already has a number, so by assigning a unique note to each digit from 0-9, a tune can be played at the bus stop when the bus is approaching. And then, by giving every single bus stop a unique 5-digit code as well, the tune for each stop can play on the bus as it approaches.
From trying out their experiment at the event, it was very easy to memorise the tunes for the bus and bus stop I needed, and then recall them later during the virtual journey we were watching on screen. So it did work. And having a computer play a tune from a set of notes is probably easier than recording lots of speech. But if you don’t know the number or tune for the bus or stop you want, it’s not going to be that useful – though if there’s an app on your phone you can use to find out, that would be useful.
Personally, however, I much prefer the spoken announcements, because I find it more informative and reassuring to hear actual place names spoken, especially when I’m in an unfamiliar location. But this idea could be useful for others I’m sure, so it’ll be interesting to see if it progresses further.
Other Research & Consultations
TfL Consultations are keen for people to have their say on upcoming plans, so their website is worth keeping an eye on to see if there’s anything that may affect you. They can make the information available in alternative formats. Their plans include the Mayor’s Transport Strategy, getting Londoners to walk and cycle more, making the roads safer, and making all transport easier to use in general. If you have more immediate enquiries or help requirements, then TfL’s Help & Contacts page is a good place to start..
My London Journeys is a feedback community made up of disabled people, run by a company called Future Thinking on behalf of TfL. I saw their presentation workshop at the event, where they discussed some of the issues that people have raised. You can email them if you’d like to join the community.
The Research Institute for Disabled Consumers (RIDC) are a UK-wide consumer panel, made up of a huge community of disabled people, who take part in surveys, interviews, focus groups, mystery shopping, product testing, etc. So do join the panel if you want to get involved. You fill in an initial survey with some basic details to register, then you’re sent a more detailed survey which digs deeper to find out more about you, to ensure they only send you research opportunities of relevance and interest to you..
London TravelWatch is the independent statutory watchdog for transport users in and around the city. At the show they gave out a leaflet with their 10 key polices to help keep London moving, looking at all forms of transport in the city, including a commitment to accessibility for everyone. I also noticed that pavement obstructions have been one key area of action for them recently, with the City of London promising to clear its streets of advertising boards, which is great because hazards like those are a real nuisance.
This scheme by TfL also deals with unwanted obstructions, by taking action against businesses who clutter up the pavements (as noted here, here and here for example). Through this operation, TfL tries to ensure that businesses don’t leave signs on the pavement and have licenses for things like tables and chairs, which must still be paced sensibly. So far Operation Clearway has made 231 deployments, sent 1,485 warning letters, issued 785 Fixed Penalty Notices and prosecuted 58 businesses.
Unfortunately, Operation Clearway is limited to roads maintained by TfL (marked by red lines), though that’s certainly better than nothing. To report an obstruction on one of these roads, contact TfL Customer Service on 0343 222 1234 (option 5). Obstructions on borough roads (marked by yellow lines) must be reported to the relevant local authority instead.
- Transport For All – An organisation that provides information and advice for disabled transport users in London.
- Wayfindr – This is an audio navigation system that has been in development, and many of my visually impaired followers will have heard of it. Bluetooth beacons placed around stations and other environments, in conjunction with an app on the user’s phone, can be used to guide people with sight loss so they know where to go. It’s not been rolled out across the Tube network yet, but they are working towards that goal, with more testing planned. Getting funding is a big issue, naturally.
- Steps Into Work – A year-long scheme giving people with learning disabilities and autism the opportunity to gain skills and work experience.
- Livability – A charity that aims to tackle social isolation by connecting disabled people with their communities. They do this through disability services, community projects, training and support.
- Ideas Ltd – A company that makes accessible customer counters for ticket offices, receptions, customer information points, retail, etc, and have been working with Network Rail on a design to use in their station.
- Signit – An app that can be used by transport staff to help them communicate with deaf and hard of hearing people. The member of staff can choose from various phrases, which brings up a video clip of a BSL interpreter on the phone screen.
There were plenty of other exhibitors of course, but I didn’t get around to all of them. I saw all the ones I was most interested in though.
Auditorium Panel Sessions
Finally, there were various panel sessions going on during the day. I didn’t go to them, because you have to book a seat when registering online for your free ticket to the event, and they filled up very quickly. But if you’d like to watch them, they are all available on Periscope:
- Welcome, opening remarks and transport innovation
- Healthy Streets for everyone
- Every Journey Matters – unlocking London’s culture, jobs and opportunities
- Working towards an inclusive transport network
All in all, I enjoyed looking around the show, because I learnt some new things, met up with some friends and enjoyed talking to many of the exhibitors, plus I got a free cable car ride out of it. So it’ll be worth keeping an eye out for this event in future years if you have any interest in the accessibility of transport in London. And I hope that access across the transport network continues to improve.
This wasn’t the only disability exhibition I went to in March though, because I also attended the Naidex show in Birmingham for the second year running. Stay tuned for my next post all about that!