Flash Says…

Posts Tagged ‘stratford

The Olympics is over, but the venues are being transformed ready for the Paralympics in a couple of weeks. The Olympics was undoubtedly a success from a sporting perspective, but how was it for those of us who live within a mile or two of the venue?

The good:

  • Our high streets have been improved. In Leytonstone the High Road was redone which meant pavements repaired, new street trees, ramps at the entrance to every side turning making a smooth path as you walk down the main road, and basically the whole street scene looks better and is nicer and easier to walk or drive along. In Leyton businesses had new shop fronts and a lick of paint so the whole street looks smarter. And in Stratford itself there was “Operation hide the concrete shopping centre from the 60s” as colourful shapes appeared in front of the more ugly buildings. I doubt any of this work would have happened so soon or so comprehensively if it was not done to make the area look attractive for the Olympic visitors.
  • There were local events inspired by this being Olympic year. As a choir member, I’ve never known so many opportunities to sing! I’ve performed at a music festival in Waltham Forest, at a council run Christmas “Winter Wonderland” and even in the Olympic Park itself, singing opera in the media centre. Many of these opportunities involved singing with local school children, in the vein of “inspiring a generation”.
  • There were some free tickets available to local people. For example Waltham Forest council gave away tickets to over 60s. I’ve also heard of free tickets for some local schoolchildren.

And good things about the Olympics themselves – as well as being a wonderful event, the army were charming and friendly while undertaking security checks, the volunteers were happy and helpful, and free travelcards were sent with every ticket, a great idea. It all made a good impression of London, and hopefully showed that East London is a great place to be.

The bad:

  • The army put a missile on a tower block near my house! This was ostensibly to shoot down a hijacked plane if terrorists should try to attack the Olympic venues in that way. As a pacifist, I find this kind of thing frightening and unnecessary. I don’t want to see the army in my neighbourhood streets.
  • Parking – every residential street has had a permit parking zone imposed upon them. Although residents can register for a free permit, it’s only for the specific area in which you live. And although people in my neighbourhood have largely got to grips with this, when the bays for these parking zones were created, some of my neighbours were given parking tickets if their car was in the way. Apparently the council put notices on cars and through letterboxes, but not everyone received one.
  • Police with machine guns at stations and near the Olympic Park. This might not be a surprise to people from other countries, but in the UK our policemen don’t routinely carry guns, nor do members of the public, so it is always a small shock to my system when I see one.
  • The Leyton “Olympia Market”, set up to provide food to passing Olympic visitors, has been a complete flop. None of the designated walking routes to the Olympics went past it! The traders have lost thousands of pounds as a result.
  • The cost and difficulty of getting tickets. I was desperate to see some of the sport on my doorstep, and I’ve already detailed my Olympic ticket marathon in an earlier article.

It was also difficult to get to Stratford: as a wheelchair user I can’t get on the tube at my local station. I have to get a minicab to Stratford to begin my journey – Olympics or not! However, police were forbidding any vehicles from stopping to set down, even when I explained I am a wheelchair user. So we couldn’t stop at my usual place and instead I had to be dropped some distance from the station. You’d think a drop off point for disabled people would have been made available.

But some things haven’t been nearly as bad as expected. The traffic was terrible on day 1 of the restrictions, but Transport for London reacted and made changes so that it was manageable thereafter. Even when there were queues going down the High Road, these were clearly not local drivers, because the rat runs were clear and I could quickly get around the queues via back roads.

On balance, I’d say the Olympics has been good for the area. Improvements to the area will remain long after the Games has finished. The Olympic Park itself should become a lovely place to visit, and the Athletes’ Village will provide new homes in due course. We just have to brace ourselves a little longer, while the Paralympics takes place.

What do you think? Do you live near an Olympic venue? Have your experiences been good or bad? I’d love to hear your views.

This week, Transport for All announced an investigation into the accessibility of London’s transport network. The results should be enlightening, if my recent experience is anything to go by.

Last week I went out with Peter White, the presenter of Radio 4’s ‘You and Yours’, to see if disabled access on London Transport is improving as the Olympic and Paralympic Games grow nearer. It’s a journey we’ve made several times, from Heathrow to Stratford, as if we were arriving tourists. Peter is blind, and I was in my wheelchair, so between us we were able to identify any stumbling blocks.

We started out on the Heathrow Express, a wonderful train which has a sill outside the door, minimising the gap between train and platform – I could wheel straight on and off. Is this the only train in Britain where I don’t need to call for a ramp? I hope it’s a sign of things to come.

On arrival at Paddington, we needed guidance for which way to travel. Although this was the fourth trip I’d undertaken with Peter, we’d used a different route every time.  On this occasion I’d been to Transport for London’s website, and used their journey planner. I’d selected “I can’t use stairs” “I can’t use escalators” and “I need wheelchair accessible vehicles”; the route offered was a bus from Paddington to Kings Cross, then onto the tube taking the Hammersmith and City line to Mile End, with a final change onto the Central line bringing us to Stratford. Armed with this information, we boarded a bus to Kings Cross.

Flash Bristow and Peter White Journey planner screenshotFlash and Peter, and a Journey Planner screenshot

London buses are fairly easy to access – you press a button and the driver will put out the ramp for you. I boarded safely, some tourists moved their luggage from the wheelchair bay, and off we went. At one stop I was shouted at by a woman who wanted to bring a baby buggy on board but refused to fold it – unfortunately there isn’t room to share and wheelchairs have priority. The journey passed well, with regular announcements from the “talking buses” system letting Peter know where we were. Incidentally if you think “Talking buses” are a good idea and you’d like to see them across the UK, do ask your MP to sign Early Day Motion 12.

At Kings Cross, we made our way to the Underground. The station is a bit of a maze but the signage was good and we worked out which lifts we needed to take, however the lifts did not announce all the destinations so Peter was confused as to whether we were in the right ones!

It was at this point that we hit upon the first, and major, hurdle. The arriving train had a floor six inches above the platform. I am lucky – I can get out of my wheelchair, lift it onto the train, and get back in, but it is painful, and many people will not be able to do this. I would not count this train as a “wheelchair accessible vehicle”!

In fact, I always check the gap height on the Direct Enquiries website, but would a visitor know to do this? London Underground Inclusion Manager Chris Upfold had been travelling with us, and pointed out that when I used their journey planner, under the mobility options is a link “For station access details click here” which I have never noticed. Well, at that point I am looking for which options to select, and promptly tick them, waiting for the journey planner’s recommendations. Even if I had seen the link there is no way to select “I can only use stations with a gap of under 2 inches between the train and the platform” – so how would I have been able to generate a route which truly did meet my needs? The step up to the train was a problem again when interchanging at Mile End, and on arrival at Stratford.

There are other ways of finding out about wheelchair access on the Underground, as there is a special “Step free guide”. This is a regular tube map, where step-free stations (i.e. those with no steps between platform and exit, or at interchange) are indicated by a green, amber or red letter A, B or C. This relates to the vertical and horizontal gaps between train and platform. Firstly, a traffic light system is not much use if you are colourblind! The small print does tell you the gap in millimetres, but it is VERY small print. The only way this would be legible to someone with visual impairment is if they can magnify it, as the physical printed map really does give eyestrain. Online, the map is only presented as a PDF (which is inaccessible to some adaptive software) so a text guide would have been useful. See how confusing it is for yourself on TfL’s website.

The regular map tube map features wheelchair symbols at step free stations, but what do they mean? I’d assume they indicate that I can access the tube at those stations in a wheelchair, when in reality I would find the gap between train and platform prohibitive and realise I was stuck.

It is clear that there is still some way to go to improve access to the Underground, but perhaps the focus of this work should be upon providing a single coherent system through which I can plan a route and receive all the information that I need. Until that time, disabled visitors will continue to struggle in from A to B – via a red coloured C? – in London.

Flash’s feature is due to be broadcast on You and Yours on Wednesday 9 June (12-1pm, Radio 4 and online).