Going the Extra Mile

The London Underground network is the third longest – and 11th busiest – metro system in the worldi. It’s also the busiest commuter city in Europeii and up to 5 million passengers travel its 11 lines every day.

While all this can equate to a crowded, uncomfortable commute, things get even worse when you add lack of accessibility to the equation. Only 77iii out of 270 stations are fully accessible for wheelchair users. So what does that mean for commuters who need a wheelchair to get around?

We tested five popular commuter routes in London to find out.

The London Underground network is the third longest – and 11th busiest – metro system in the worldi. While this can equate to a crowded, uncomfortable commute, things get worse when you add lack of accessibility to the equation. Only 77ii out of 270 stations are fully accessible for wheelchair users.

So what does that mean for commuters use a wheelchair? We tested five commuter routes in London to find out.

Press to start

From Liverpool Street to King’s Cross

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“I use TFL’s own resources and a few other apps to plan my journey. I need to cross-check them all because my journey won’t be accurate otherwise,” says Sarah*, who lives in East London.

Sarah’s commuter journey would take her from Liverpool Street station to King’s Cross station on a busy Monday morning. According to the TFL journey planner, it should take an able-bodied passenger a mere nine minutes to complete this journey.

For a wheelchair user like Sarah, who has muscular dystrophy and uses an electronic wheelchair, the journey time increases by a massive 289%. Using TFL’s ‘fully step-free access’ option, she finds out that her journey will take 35 minutes to complete.

And, unlike able-bodied passengers who have the choice of the Hammersmith and City line, the Circle line or the Metropolitan line, Sarah would need to rely solely on one bus: the 205 from outside Liverpool Street station.

Dealing with London’s buses

“Fortunately, today, I was able to board the first bus that arrived at my stop. It doesn’t happen often, but I do get occasions – maybe once a month – where I’m unable to board the first bus because it’s too busy and the other passengers don’t make space in the wheelchair area.

“Several things can go wrong when I’m travelling by bus,” says Sarah. “Sometimes the ramp that’s required for me to get on the bus might not be working or the driver might not even know how to activate the ramp. It sounds ridiculous, but sometimes the driver might even ask me for guidance on how to activate it!”

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Difficulties for a wheelchair user

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Today’s journey, however, went relatively smoothly. Despite a fairly packed bus, Sarah was able to get on without any issues. “I’m quite an anxious person,” she adds, “so when I see that the train or bus I’m trying to get on is busy, I do start getting worried. I’ll start thinking: ‘I hope there is room for me’ or ‘I hope I can manage’. But, hey, I always do!”

At the end of her journey, the driver released the ramp and allowed other passengers to get off. Before Sarah could get off herself, though, the driver closed the doors on her without checking to see if she had alighted. It took a few minutes of getting the driver’s attention before she could finally finish her journey.

Sarah’s journey took an astounding 517% longer compared to an able-bodied passenger who, starting and ending at the same points at the same time, managed to complete their journey in just six minutes (three minutes less than TFL’s estimate!).

London pales in comparison to other European cities

“The transport systems in other countries are much better,” explains Sarah. “In London, you have to rely on staff to call in to stations to arrange ramps for you, and this can take at least 10-15 minutes. But in Milan, Berlin and New York, you’re so relaxed! All you have to do is get on the carriage behind the driver and you know they’ll be there to help you get on or off. It’s much more streamlined.

“And, if I’m in the middle of a journey in London and find my destination station is closed that day, or that the lifts aren’t working, it can be very difficult to re-plan the journey because so many stations are still not accessible.

“So much needs to be done in London,” says Sarah, “to make commuting easier for people like me.”

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From Victoria to Oxford Circus

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“For a developed country, London is the least accessible city in the world,” says Karl*, who concedes that maybe Paris might be marginally worse.

Karl has a C5 complete injury and is tetraplegic, requiring an assistant’s help with his day-to-day tasks. Living near Victoria station, he finds his commute from Victoria station to Oxford Circus relatively straightforward.

But, with Oxford Circus station being inaccessible to wheelchair users, even this simpler journey has its issues. Karl has to take a bus from Victoria and then transfer 160 metres to get to his destination near the Oxford Circus/Regent Street junction. In contrast, an able-bodied passenger can simply take the Victoria line for two stops before exiting (via steps) at Oxford Circus station’s Exit 4.

The TFL journey planner suggests that it takes an able-bodied passenger just four minutes to complete this commute. In contrast, passengers using the fully step-free access option on the journey planner are told they’d take four and a half times longer to complete the journey – working out at 22 minutes.

The difficulties of planning a journey

Frustratingly, there aren’t any bus stops near the Oxford Circus/Regent Street junction for Karl to get off at. It takes him an exhausting ten extra minutes, in a manual wheelchair, to get to his destination. What’s even more regrettable is that this unnecessarily difficult journey is one of the simplest we tested.

“But taking this journey via the underground network would’ve been even more complicated,” says Karl. “I usually use Citymapper to plan my journeys,” he adds, “but I tend not to rely on it.” Despite a new ‘step-free route’ being introduced on Citymapper, Karl finds that his own knowledge of London’s transport often trumps the suggestions by apps and planners.

“While the routes do work, they often miss out other options that might be quicker or easier to navigate,” he explains. “Of course, you’d need to travel in London regularly to know how to be more creative with the routes.”

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Mind the gaps on the London bus system

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Despite living relatively close to five underground stations, Karl uses buses for 80-90% of his journeys in London. “Many of the stations near me are not accessible,” he explains, “but buses are unreliable and unpredictable so it can get really difficult. A journey that takes 15 minutes one day could take 45 minutes the next. And I feel like, because buses are ‘technically’ accessible, TFL feel they’ve ticked that box. It doesn’t matter that a wheelchair user takes three times as long to complete a journey.”

Once a bus has arrived, another problem presents itself. “Sometimes bus drivers can be quite rude, ignoring you, driving past or prioritising prams over wheelchairs. This is particularly annoying because the signage on buses is very clear on who gets priority in that space.”

Asia’s transport system is years ahead of London

Karl has travelled across Asia, and felt the transport systems in Tokyo, Singapore and Hong Kong are all superior to London. “Age is not an excuse when it comes to making stations accessible,” he says, pointing out that some parts of Tokyo’s transport system are at least 80 years old.

“The best I’ve ever experienced, though, was in Singapore,” says Karl. “It’s is so easy to use, it’s almost like you can go on their transport system to de-stress! It’s also very clean,” he adds. “So much of London’s transport system is really filthy, which can be a really unpleasant experience when you have a manual wheelchair and things get caught on the wheels.

“I think it’ll be decades before I can just get on the London underground wherever I like. And that’s probably an optimistic estimate.”

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From Wembley Park to Westminster

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“I got injured seven years ago,” says Jennifer. “Today was the first time I’d used public transport since then. I probably won’t use it again.”

Jennifer uses an electric wheelchair and prefers to travel by car around London. She agreed to swap her car for a trip across London’s public transport system, testing a popular commuter journey from Wembley Park to Westminster.

According to the TFL journey planner, an able-bodied passenger can complete this journey in 24 minutes, taking the Metropolitan line to Finchley Road and transferring across the platform to the Jubilee line towards Stratford.

For someone like Jennifer who requires “fully step-free access”, the journey planner suggests it’ll take 71% longer, with the journey lasting a total of 41 minutes... all being well, of course.

Going backwards to go forwards

The TFL journey planner suggested Jennifer should take the same route as able-bodied passengers – the Metropolitan line to Finchley Road and then the Jubilee line. But, the staff at Wembley Park station told her the gap at Finchley Road would be far too high for her wheelchair.

Instead, they recommended going to Kingsbury first, and then changing to the Stratford-bound train that would take her to Westminster. Essentially, this would be easier than attempting to navigate to the right Stratford-bound platform at Wembley Park. She was told a TFL staff member would be waiting at Westminster to set up the ramp she would need to get off the train.

This didn’t happen. She waited near the door for someone to arrive, but there were no staff visible. She needed to continue her journey, so she attempted to get off anyway. Unfortunately, the doors closed during this attempt, and her foot got caught in the door.

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A stranger to the rescue

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Luckily, someone was standing nearby who prised open the door so she could wheel back in. Unable to get out at the station she needed to, and unable to tell the extent of the damage to her foot, Jennifer tells us:

“I was in panic mode at this stage. ‘What do I do?’ I thought. ‘Do I get off at the next stop? Will I need to go all the way to Stratford?’ Having not been on the tube for seven years, I was pretty scared.

“Fortunately, someone said, ‘excuse me’ and I turned to find the kind gentleman who helped me with the door. He was a very nice man called Mark, who told me he was a TFL Systems Engineer and off-duty at the time. He very kindly offered to help me. As soon as I saw him, I just relaxed.

“He helped me get off and accompanied me all the way out of the station. I had to take three lifts to get out, and it was difficult to find them. When you’re low down, it’s not easy to see the signs way above your head.”

The bottom line

In total, it took Jennifer 1 hour and 15 minutes to complete a journey that was only supposed to take 41 minutes.

And, once she got to Westminster station, she found that not all the exits were step-free either. By this point, she also needed to empty her drainage bag, but found there was no flush in the accessible toilets, no soap for washing, no working hand-dryer, nor – crucially – a cord to raise the alarm if she needed to.

“I wouldn’t like to do any of this again,” she sighs.

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From Arsenal to Angel

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“My journeys usually go alright, but it’s only because I plan things so meticulously,” says Raquel from North London.

Raquel always uses her car for her commute but agreed to test out London’s transport system for the journey – which takes her from Arsenal to Angel.

According to the TFL journey planner, it would take an able-bodied commuter only 13 minutes to make the journey, going from Arsenal station to King’s Cross station via the Piccadilly line and changing to the Northern line to Angel from there.

In contrast, the journey time for a wheelchair user like Raquel is 146% longer at 32 minutes and wouldn’t take place within the underground system at all. Because Angel station isn’t wheelchair accessible, Raquel would have to take the 43 bus instead.

Manoeuvring a wheelchair on the roads

To test her commute on public transport, Raquel had to first take a taxi to Arsenal station. “Once the taxi dropped me off,” she tells us, “I then had to push myself to the right bus stop. I use Google Map’s satellite function to determine the state of the pavement I’d need to take. Fortunately, on this occasion, it was relatively even and flat, and there was a slope to help me cross the roads.”

Surprisingly, the full journey took her 23 minutes – nine minutes less than what TFL estimated. And, when we tested the suggested able-bodied route, it took 22 minutes – 9 minutes more than what TFL suggested. In practice, it only took one minute extra for Raquel to finish her commute compared to the able-bodied passenger.

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Manoeuvring a wheelchair on public transport

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“Mercifully, it was a straightforward journey throughout,” says Raquel. “But I usually find buses really hard. Sometimes the bus driver might be too grumpy or negative to even activate the ramp but generally the problem is the ramps themselves. If the bus stops at an awkward place, it can be a struggle wheeling up (especially in a manual wheelchair) and I’ll need to be really careful coming down.

“I only use public transport if I’m 95% certain I can manage it,” adds Raquel. “I do wish I was able to use it more. What really frustrates me is the tube network. None of the stations in central London are wheelchair accessible which makes it really difficult to make plans with friends.”

“Being in a wheelchair limits my experience of London”

“I’ve lost a lot of freedom and independence,” says Raquel. “I need to plan so extensively that I have no ability to be spontaneous. Sometimes what I miss the most isn’t the ability to use my limbs, but that freedom I used to take for granted.

“When London hosted the Olympics in 2012, they made a lot of changes that helped people with accessibility issues. For example, they installed slight concrete inclines on certain parts on the platform that create a raised section to remove the gap between the train and the platform. Of course, you’d need to know it’s there – and how to find it – to be able to use it.

“It’s such a simple thing,” says Raquel, “but it makes a big difference. There’s much more that still needs to be done. TFL are capable of it; they just need creative people thinking about solutions.”

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From Waterloo to Monument

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“I feel really guilty for delaying other peoples’ journeys,” says Sau, “I understand why people get frustrated.”

As a wheelchair user, Sau usually travels by car. But she agreed to tackle one of the busiest commuter routes in London by going from Waterloo station to Monument station via the public transport options available.

It would take her 24 minutes, according to the “step-free access” option on TFL’s journey planner. It tells her to take the Jubilee line to London Bridge, followed by a choice of 8 buses to Monument station.

For the same beginning and end points, an able-bodied passenger would also need to take the Jubilee line to London Bridge, but then remain underground and take the Northern Line to Bank and walk along the underground carriageway to Monument station. The result? An able-bodied passenger would need only 11 minutes to complete the journey.

An uphill struggle

“The transfer between London Bridge station to the bus stop was so tiring because it was all uphill,” says Sau. “I’m a very active wheelchair user, but even I was tempted to stop for a minute to catch my breath.

“While the bus stop itself was fairly quiet, when the bus arrived, the driver parked too far away from the kerb. It meant I couldn’t press the accessibility button on the back door of the bus. So, like I’ve had to do more than once before, I had to shout to the driver to make myself heard.

“Once I was on, I placed myself facing the front of the bus. We’re not really supposed to do this, but I feel nauseous if I face backwards.”

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“I don’t let being in a wheelchair limit me.”

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Amazingly, Sau was able to exactly match the journey time estimated by the TFL journey planner – it took her 24 minutes from start to finish. Once she was out, she found it difficult manoeuvring through the crowds on her way to her final destination. “People don’t tend to see me because I’m below their eye level,” says Sau. “They often trip over me, which can be annoying when it’s already difficult getting from point A to point B.”

While Sau doesn’t take public transport often – and relies on buses or Uber if she’s not taking her car – she has come across some issues. “Whether it’s the ramp not working or needing to speak to the driver several times before they activate the ramp, it can get frustrating travelling by bus,” she says.

Despite these issues, Sau is trying to do as much as possible. “I don’t let accessibility issues limit my experience of London,” she says. “I’m a big foodie and love to try new restaurants, calling ahead to make sure I can access them. Sometimes I might ask my friends (or even waiters!) to carry me in, but I try to be as independent as possible!

“Travelling on public transport can be really different depending what type of wheelchair user you are”, says Sau, stressing that “people are in wheelchairs for different reasons. It’s really important for people to remember that each case is different.”

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Commuting in London is tougher for wheelchair users

While our participants helped us paint a picture of what commuting life is like when you’re in a wheelchair, we wanted to get a broader view of how it compares to non-wheelchair users. So, we asked an able-bodied person to take the same journey – at the same time and starting and ending at the same agreed spot – so we could compare the two.

Comparing journey times and transport methods

In all, the commuter journeys taken via wheelchair took 1 hour and 35 minutes longer compared to the same journeys for an able-bodied person. In total, the wheelchair users took 3 hours and 5 minutes to complete all five journeys while the able-bodied passengers took 1 hour 30 minutes. When looking at the journeys individually, the biggest discrepancy was for the Wembley Park to Westminster journey which took a massive 50 minutes longer for the wheelchair user.

What’s more, while able-bodied passengers were able to carry out their journey with nothing more than a commuting crowd to contend with, wheelchair users had a fair few other obstacles that delayed their journey. This included the confusion of figuring out the right carriage to use, difficulties finding a working lift to help them enter, change at or exit stations and being left unattended on trains due to a lack of visible station staff.

Our methodology:

We deliberately targeted the busiest commuter routes in London for this experiment. These routes were sourced using the Mayor of London’s dataviiii about popular Tube journeys across London. We then noted down the time at which each passenger reached a pre-agreed destination point, and any obstacles or difficulties they came across.

The names of the participants with an asterisk have been changed to preserve anonymity.


i https://www.thoughtco.com/busiest-subways-1435753
ii https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=Statistics_on_commuting_patterns_at_regional_level&oldid=401618#National_commuting_patterns
iii https://tfl.gov.uk/corporate/about-tfl/what-we-do/london-underground/facts-and-figures
iv https://www.thoughtco.com/busiest-subways-1435753
v https://tfl.gov.uk/corporate/about-tfl/what-we-do/london-underground/facts-and-figures
vi https://www.london.gov.uk/your-commute

i https://www.thoughtco.com/busiest-subways-1435753
ii https://tfl.gov.uk/corporate/about-tfl/what-we-do/london-underground/facts-and-figures
iii https://www.london.gov.uk/your-commute