Why London's subway system leaves so many disabled people without a ride

London isn't the only major city grappling with how to make public transportation more accessible.

One rider said he can only use 50 of London's 270 stations

London journalist Ellis Palmer requires a wheelchair to get around, which means riding the subway isn't always possible. (Noah Richardson/CBC)

Every year, more than 1.3 billion passengers ride one of London's iconic red and white subway trains. The London Underground, or "the tube," is among the busiest light-rapid transit systems in the world, helping people criss-cross the sprawling British capital with relative ease.

While many rely on the tube for its convenience and speed, for commuters like Ellis Palmer using the train means confronting several unavoidable hurdles.

The 23-year-old journalist requires a wheelchair to get around, which means riding the tube isn't always an option.

"You need to live near an accessible station so you're able to get on and off and get around on a daily basis," Palmer said.

He said there are only 50 stations in London, out of a total of 270, that he is able to use. "That means there's whole neighbourhoods of London that I just cannot get around."

He explained that his daily commute involves using several elevators to travel throughout tube stations. He also regularly has to ask other passengers to help him tilt his wheelchair back so he can get on and off the train.

"It really is difficult to get around. It makes you dependent as a disabled person, on other people, which is the last thing you want to be," Palmer said.

Passengers get off a Night Tube train service at Oxford Circus station in London. (Paul Hackett/Reuters)

Established in 1863, the London Underground is not only one of the oldest metro systems in the world, it's also one of the least accessible. Just 73 of its tube stations have some degree of what's called step-free access, which allows a person with a mobility issue to get from a station's entrance to the platform without needing to take the stairs or an escalator.

London isn't the only major city grappling with how to make public transportation more accessible. New York and Paris, which also have very old subway systems, have had trouble accommodating disabled people on their metro networks, too.

Big challenges

Palmer isn't alone in his struggle to travel barrier-free. Greater London has a disabled population of 1.2 million, and according to the office of the mayor of London, disabled Londoners make one-third fewer trips on public transport than others.

As the city's population continues to age, there will be an even greater need for accessible and reliable transit.

A spokesperson for Transport for London, the city's transit authority, said it is working to improve accessibility across the network, based on feedback from disabled passengers.

Caroline Sheridan, the renewals and enhancements director for the London Underground, said the agency is spending more than $300 million Cdn over the next several years on accessibility improvements. (Noah Richardson/CBC)

"I can't imagine how difficult it must be, actually, to have a disability and try and navigate the transport network. It's something that we take very seriously," said Caroline Sheridan, the renewals and enhancements director for the London Underground.

Sheridan said TFL is spending more than $300 million Cdn over the next several years on accessibility improvements such as installing elevators in stations and looking at ramp solutions for passengers using wheelchairs or scooters.

According to Sheridan, when the multibillion-dollar cross-rail project known as the Elizabeth Line opens next fall, all 41 of its stations will be step-free. (She added that London's bus and riverboat networks are already 100 per cent accessible.)

Sheridan acknowledged more work needs to be done to improve public transportation for everyone, but that it isn't as simple as it sounds.

"In an aged, old Victorian infrastructure; the challenges in a huge network to make every station step-free … are high," she said.

How does London compare?

While London's lack of accessible tube stations is problematic, the city is not the worst in the world.

The Paris Metro, which opened in 1900, has only nine accessible stations out of a total of 309. In New York City's system, opened in 1904, 117 of 472 stations are accessible.

Created in 1904, the New York subway system still poses challenges for disabled people. (The Associated Press)

Los Angeles and Washington, on the other hand, both have 100 per cent accessible systems. The Washington metro, which began service in 1976, is significantly smaller than the London Underground. The L.A. metro opened in 1990, after the Americans with Disabilities Act took effect, which required all new public transportation systems to be fully accessible.

The situation in Canada is improving, but isn't perfect. According to the Toronto Transit Commission, its entire fleet of subway trains is accessible and more than half of its 75 stations can accommodate wheelchairs and scooters. The Montreal Metro, meanwhile, only has 13 accessible stations out of 68, but hopes to triple that number by 2023.

While disability advocates in London continue to speak out about the need to improve accessibility in metro stations, one passenger is trying to draw attention to the struggles disabled people face once they actually make it onto a subway car.

Earlier this summer, Corry Shaw launched the "Look Up" campaign in an effort to encourage her fellow tube passengers to be more courteous to travellers with disabilities.

"When I'm on the tube, oftentimes people are so engrossed in their phones or their books or their papers that they don't look up and notice that I'm there with walking aids," she said.

"I figured that a lot of the time it's not people being actively rude — it's just that they're not looking up and noticing."

Shaw, who struggles with mobility issues and chronic pain, wrote an online petition lobbying TFL to play messages on trains encouraging commuters to "look up" and offer a seat to passengers in need. The petition gained considerable local media attention, and TFL says it's begun rolling out "look up" messaging on trains and in tube stations.

London's Underground is the oldest subway system in the world. ( Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

As part of its ongoing transportation strategy, it's also set a goal of making 40 per cent of tube stations accessible by 2022.

While Shaw is encouraged by the steps being taken, she said more needs to be done.

"The only acceptable number for accessible stations is 100 per cent. And 100 per cent accessible to everyone regardless of the disability," she said.

"For the system not to be easy-to-use and accessible for everyone is not OK."


Noah Richardson

Associate producer

Noah Richardson has worked for CBC News in London, England, and on Prince Edward Island. He is a recent Carleton University journalism graduate. Follow him on Twitter @nrichardsoncbc.