London Underground lags behind American metro systems for lift access

Mind the gap sign with speeding train in London underground.

London is arguably one of the most progressive and forward-thinking cities in the world. It’s a melting pot of diversity, where society is inclusive of all communities and minorities. You’d therefore assume that the British capital’s transport system would be accommodating to those in wheelchairs. Yet, completely at odds with the character of the city, the London Underground system is bereft of disabled access lifts and ramps, with only 71 of the 270 tube stations having fully step-free accessibility. This makes it extremely difficult for those with physical disabilities to navigate London.

Yet, across the pond, there are a number of US cities with entirely accessible metro systems that put London to shame. How have these American cities become so wheelchair friendly and, conversely, why is London so averse to installing lifts to help those in society who need it the most?

LA and Washington’s accessible metro systems do America proud

The fact that both Los Angeles and Washington have fully accessible metro systems owes much to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Passing into law in 1990, the act prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including schools, jobs, and crucially, transportation. Whilst many metro systems across the US are still yet to fully comply with the legislation (New York plans to increase the number of accessible stations from 117 to 144 out of 472 by 2020), the ADA has been instrumental in both LA and Washington’s wheelchair friendly metro systems.

Los Angeles

All six of LA’s metro lines and all 93 stations are fully accessible to those in wheelchairs, after being opened the same year the ADA came into effect. Each station has an elevator, as well as a ramp and a walkway from the street to the platform, and the public can keep abreast of elevator breakdowns through social media. The city’s rail and bus system is ranked as the third most comprehensive across US.

Washington

Despite predating the ADA, and being the third busiest subway system in America behind New York and Chicago, Washington’s metro is one of the most accessible worldwide. All 91 stations and trains are wheelchair friendly, and each one has an elevator and directional signs indicating where they are. There are also gap reducers between the cars and the platform, priority seating for those with disabilities and emergency intercoms with instructions in Braille. Washington’s rail and bus system is ranked fourth for the most comprehensive transport systems in the US.

London’s Underground leaves a lot to be desired

We have already looked at the underwhelming figures for the London Underground’s lack of step-free accessibility. This becomes even more disappointing when you consider that only 50 out of 270 stations offer wheelchairs users unassisted access to trains. Alan Benson, chair of the not-for-profit organisation Transport for All, told The Guardian last year that “with avoidable lift closures due to staff shortages and repairs that often take up to six months, even those stations that are accessible become unusable.”

Thankfully for wheelchair users in London, there are moves being made to address this unfortunate situation, with the Equality Act 2010—like the ADA—requiring that disabled people are not discriminated against in the UK. It was announced in January that 13 more tube stations will be made step free by Spring 2022, with a record £200m being invested in bringing step-free access to 40% of London Underground stations. A huge part of this revolves around a new lift contract signed by the city’s Mayor Sadiq Khan; this will deliver the same standards of wheelchair lifts but for less cost and a quicker installation time. The contract will slash the costs of installing lifts by 70% and reduce the overall installation time by 40%.

A separate initiative introduced in 2018 should also help those who are physically disabled to find accessible tube stations. Google Maps launched a new feature that will help wheelchair users locate step-free stations in London, providing a filter that allows users to choose a ‘wheelchair accessible’ option. Rio Akasaka, Google Maps’ product manager, told the Evening Standard that “everyone should be able to discover the world and navigate their city.” Transport for All also commented that the move was a big step forward.

It is evident that there is a lot more to be done before the London Underground can be on par with its American counterparts in terms of accessibility. Fortunately, there are significant moves being made towards achieving this, and hopefully it won’t be too long before the London Underground is entirely wheelchair friendly.