01 May 2012

♫...I'm going underground, (going underground)...♫ #BADD2012

Ken Livingstone’s approach to public transport in London changed my life.

I was eleven when I went to Disneyworld: A compulsory right-of-passage for every disabled child in the developed world. It was the first time I’d ever left the UK, so to say I was excited would be an understatement.

On our first morning there we took a cab from the hotel to the theme park. In the pickup/drop off zone, before entering the gates of Disneyworld itself, I saw the most incredible thing I’d ever seen in my life thus far: A wheelchair accessible bus.

I had never travelled by bus. I’d never seen such a thing as an accessible bus. It hadn’t even occurred to me that they might exist. The fact that mobility impaired people could use public transport in Orlando genuinely rocked my world. Of all the delights that Disney has to offer a child; nothing made me scream “Mum! Dad! Nan! Look at that!” quite as loudly as that bus. It was just a bus; such a mundane mode of transport to the majority of people. But to me it represented such freedom and inclusion that I couldn’t quite believe my eyes.

I lived in a miserable little Essex village at the time. About once a day you could get a bus to the nearest small town and I think you could occasionally get a bus to Cambridge. When I say “you could”; that obviously didn’t include me. The village did have a train station, but unsurprisingly that wasn’t wheelchair accessible.

I was trapped in a village where I had no friends. The local high school was (surprise surprise) not wheelchair accessible so I had to be taxied to a school near Cambridge. This meant all my friends lived about 20 miles from me. Like every 11 year old I wanted to go shopping on Saturdays with my peers; I never could. This was why catching sight of an accessible bus meant everything to me. It held the optimism of a world that I could be a part of.

It was 10 whole years later that I travelled by bus for the first time; and that was in America too. The summer before going to university I decided to spend a month backpacking around the US. My first port of call was Los Angeles and on my first day I caught the 156 from North Hollywood down to Santa Monica Boulevard where I changed onto the 4 down to the beachfront in Santa Monica. So momentous it was that I’ll probably remember the numbers of those buses well into old age; long after I’ve become unable to recall my own name.

Now I travel by bus all the time I’d recognise that journey for what it is: Slow, boring, hot, and full of people that smell terrible. But at the time in August 2000 I felt so free and included. I think you probably need to have been excluded from bus travel for 21 years to realise how liberating it is to be able to catch one for the first time.

A month later I moved to London (well, Uxbridge, but it’s within Greater London) to go to university. The U3 and U4 routes going from the Brunel campus to Uxbridge town centre were accessible, but that was it. I couldn’t get the 207 to Ealing or the 607 to Shepherd’s Bush. Of course, being able to travel by bus was still so new to me that I was bloomin’ grateful for the couple of routes I could use.

The picture was far worse in Central London. When I first moved to inside the M25 there were no accessible buses in the centre of town, the majority of routes around the West End were those nightmare Routemasters. During the day, anyway: Most companies put accessible buses on their night bus routes and it always struck me as slightly bizarre that London transport was only properly accessible between midnight and 5am; like disabled people are the new vampires.

Thanks to the Mayor at the time - Livingstone - inaccessible buses were gradually phased out over the next 5 years. London waved farewell to its last inaccessible buses, the Routemasters running on route 159, in December 2005. In 2012 inaccessible buses still make up the majority of bus company stock around the country. Every time I venture out of the confines of London I find myself grateful to Ken for London’s 100% accessible bus network.

Sadly since he was replaced by BoJo in 2008 we’ve seen London’s most accessible vehicles – the Bendy Buses – taken off the road. Many prefer double deckers for taking up less road space, but London’s wheelchair users miss those Mercedes Citaros dearly. Even with the fact that on the early models the wheelchair ramp would jam if the driver tried retracting it while the bus was still ‘kneeling’. I was once the reason for the breaking-down of three consecutive 453s outside Old Kent Road Tesco’s…

I was also 21 the first time I travelled on The Tube. Most non-disabled people probably think it sounds bizarre to be having all these public transport-related firsts in your twenties. Just like the buses; I also got my first taste of travelling on underground trains in Los Angeles. Unlike our Tube the Red Line there is fully accessible. Even if a little scary because I’d seen Volcano and I kept expecting the train to fill with lava.

Ken may have abolished the inaccessible bus, but despite his good work the majority of tube stations remain inaccessible. Oh to live in LA. And not just for the weather.

In 2006 Livingstone’s administration promised that one third of London’s tube stations would be accessible by 2013. You can’t begin to imagine how much this thrilled me. At the time my nearest accessible tube stations were Westminster, Waterloo or Caledonian Road. All a bus ride from where I’d set up home in Camden. So I never used the tube. The prospect of being able to use one in every 3 tube stations meant I could get to most places in London by getting the tube to a station or two away from my destination and pushing in my wheelchair the rest of the way. I could make it across London in almost the same time frame as someone without a mobility impairment whereas it takes 2 to 3 times as long to make a parallel journey by bus.

Livingstone didn’t retain his seat in 2008 though. Johnson quietly cancelled access upgrades throwing away £20 million of taxpayer's money in the process. What you can’t really put a figure on is all the disabled people who can’t move freely around the city: How many people can’t go for jobs because the return journey to work would be in excess of 4 hours by bus when it’s a 1.5 hour return journey for a non-disabled person by tube? How much tourism revenue does London lose out on because there are no accessible stations in the West End? What about the emotional and social costs for people who are isolated in the suburbs?

If anyone's thinking of commenting with "but he had to cancel the upgrades! We ran out of money!" You can save your little fingers the trouble: Johnson managed to find the cash to fund his pet projects. He spent £1.4m per vehicle on the new Routemasters. A standard double decker is £190,000. It wasn't that he couldn't afford the upgrades on the Tube; he just doesn't care about access.

I am completely opposed to the cuts to benefits and public services. Most people of a similar inclination to me are also opposed to the Olympics and feel it’s unacceptable for the taxpayer to be spending billions on a fortnight long party when disabled people are being told that they’re no longer allowed to use the toilet in the night.

I don’t want anything to do with the games. I’m planning on spending a fortnight barricaded in my flat with a stockpile of food and DVD box sets. But I will never begrudge the games coming to town because the only tube access upgrades Johnson didn’t cancel were the ones essential to the Olympic strategy. The games leave behind a legacy of improved access to the tube and I will forever be grateful for that.

Transport for All published this table assessing the accessible transport plans of the 4 leading Mayoral candidates. Great progress towards a fully inclusive transport network was made under Livingstone; we then saw regression under Johnson. If we want to start progressing again, we need Johnson out of office. He doesn’t propose to meet a single one of Transport for All’s targets.

This isn’t just an issue for those who are currently disabled. Around one in 5 people have some kind of impairment. The figures are skewed by age as the majority of older people have some kind of age-related condition. If you want the tube to be fully accessible by the time your mobility begins declining then you need to vote for improved access to the tube now. Even if you’re convinced that you’re so healthy that you will still be running marathons when you’re 101; there’s a good chance that at some point in your life you’ll break your ankle playing football and be on crutches for 6 weeks. Just bear that probability in mind if you're thinking of voting Johnson because "he's a right laugh!"

I can’t stand the Labour party in its current state. They’re the ones who kick-started the horrific welfare reform by introducing Employment and Support Allowance in 2008. I have no confidence in the current Labour party leadership: I wouldn't trust Ed Miliband to run a proverbial in a brewery, never mind a country. Labour have moved too far to the right for my liking, though sadly I have to concede that out of all the main parties; they are the lesser of three evils. If a General Election were called tomorrow I’d vote Green without hesitation.

It saddens me that Ken rejoined Labour after serving his first term as London Mayor as an independent candidate. I would feel much happier putting my mark next to his name if he weren’t affiliated with a party I have no love for.

But put my mark next to his name I shall. Like I said at the start: His transport policies changed my life. At least now my second nearest tube station is accessible, even if the closest one to my home isn’t.

The post is something of a "two birds with one stone" job. Today is Blogging Against Disablism Day and London goes to the polls on Thursday. I think the word "disablism" does what it says on the tin and clearly a transport system which has wheelchair access at less than one in three stations is a transport system that discriminates against disabled people. So combining the 2 I'm blogging to appeal to Londoners to vote for a candidate that'll make the public transport system a little less disablist.

A couple of weeks ago I got a "Back Boris" taxi receipt. If he hadn't cancelled tube access upgrades I wouldn't have needed a cab.