Inclusive Design and the London Underground: it’s not just about providing step-free access 

The Elizabeth Line has been heralded as transforming the accessibility of the transport network with all 41 stations due to offer step-free access from street to platform and staff on hand to provide help and advice from the first to last service. But as Inclusive Design Consultants, we know accessibility is so much more than just about a step-free route. It’s about providing an inclusive environment which provides for the needs and desires of everyone and involves physical, visual, auditory, and cognitive accessibility.  

So, we decided to put the Elizabeth Line to the test.  

The task was simple: to make our way from King’s Cross Underground Station to Canary Wharf, visiting Paddington and Liverpool Street along the way using only step-free routes. Our purpose was to review the inclusive design features at the newly opened Elizabeth Line and contrast that with the design of older London Underground stations, while all the time considering how individuals with different disabilities might experience the journey. 

To help facilitate conversation and encourage critical debate, we asked a number of people to join us including: 

  • representatives of Weston Williamson + Partners (WW+P), responsible for designing the Elizabeth Line stations at Paddington and Woolwich
  • the Inclusivity Lead for HS2
  • the Principal Architect at Network Rail
  • Andy Shipley.

It turned into a day of insight and reflection, helping us all gain a deeper understanding of what inclusive design actually means in reality. 

A not so magical journey from King’s Cross to Paddington 

“You can’t rely on intuition, as a wayfinding strategy” Andrew Shipley

Lift signage on floor

The journey didn’t start well with an out of service lift at King’s Cross and no information about the location of the nearest alternative. 

King’s Cross is the fourth busiest London Underground station, so travelling through the station was somewhat challenging. The use of repeater signs does ensure you quickly know if you are going in the right or wrong direction, but the sheer amount of signage was confusing. We’re also not sure how useful floor signage would be during rush hour as there is a good chance it could be easily missed.

It also highlighted the issue of ensuring signage is put in the right place.  For example, there is no point having signs on a ramp as by the time you’re on the ramp you could be going the wrong way.  

There were also examples on the platform of some signs blocking others.  This is partly because the ceilings are low at King’s Cross, but we couldn’t help feeling that critically looking at the platform and everything on and around it as though you were a passenger would help ensure these problems never arose in the first place. 

The cacophony of noise at King’s Cross Underground station was also overwhelming. What with the drumming of wheeled suitcases; children screaming; and the testing of alarms, it was very loud and somewhat disorientating. Simply softening the acoustics and reviewing the position of the PA systems would help reduce the number of echoes. Also, it would be worth cutting down on the number of announcements and just focusing on those useful to travellers. As one person put it “the rest just ends up as wallpaper”. 

When we finally made it to the lifts, they also raised a number of accessibility questions, such as: 

  • How do you know if you need to go up or down? 
  • How do you know what side the doors open on or whether it’s a through lift? 
  • Why is there a trolley point directly outside the lift doors! Nothing like extra obstacles to make your journey easier!

On the plus side, there was a lift guide outside the lift along with braille information inside, although as Andy mentioned embossed numbering is actually more inclusive as it is understood by more people than just those with visual impairments. 

Bearing up at Paddington Station

“Large historic stations often face challenges as they evolve and expand and would often benefit from periodic wholistic reviews to bring together the inevitable layering of new additions and changing requirements” Nick McGough, Director at WW+P

In deep discussion during the Inclusive tour of London Underground

And on the subject of lifts, the ones from the Hammersmith and Circle Lines up to Paddington Underground Station have been retrofitted which means they are compliant but a bit on the narrow side. This highlights another important issue – it’s easy to design inclusively if you’re building new stations, but retrofitting can be more difficult, very expensive and sometimes not even possible, although we would argue the effort should always be made. 

The lighting at Paddington also drew our attention, but not for the right reasons! While the station is well-lit, the lights aren’t well positioned, as they don’t actually illuminate the signs but rather cause unnecessary shadows and hot spots. This led onto an interesting discussion about the Light Reflectance Value (LRV). 

As well as ensuring a built environment is suitably lit, the LRV helps make a space accessible for those with a visual impairment by ensuring there is enough contrast between things such as steps, handrails, doors, street furniture, walls, and floors.  This helps a user understand the space and the direction of travel. To be fair, this has been well executed at Paddington, although having hand sanitising stations and extra signage dotted around, while understandable, just puts extra obstacles in everyone’s way. 

Signage again was an issue. It wasn’t clear how to get to the Elizabeth Line until we spotted signs on the floors.  Once again, we aren’t sure how helpful they would be when it was really busy. Also using language such as ‘westbound’ is not particularly helpful, especially as the station is the main link to Heathrow airport so lots of people will be arriving in London potentially for the first time!

Happy and Glorious – the Elizabeth Line

“Noise, lighting, temperature and smell – they are all things you have to think about in a transport environment, factors you may not have to consider for other projects.”  Rob Naybour, CEO of WW+P and Project Director for Paddington Crossrail Station

The contrast between the Elizabeth Line Station and the other stations was remarkable. Two lifts next to one another, so if one is out of service, no lengthy journey to find another one; a relaxed environment free of extraneous obstacles and, some would say, unnecessary retail outlets; softly coloured walls which help make the space feel calm and relaxing, and the lack of background noise makes it possible to hold a conversation without shouting. 

Initially, the minimal use of signage was a concern, but it turned out that, as well as helping keep the space uncluttered, it’s to encourage staff to engage with customers. And it worked. On three separate occasions we were asked if we needed any help and then pointed in the right direction. 

We can’t help feeling having staff on hand to assist is a must. Many disabled people won’t travel on the London Underground, as they worry about the logistics, but knowing people will be there to help out will give them the confidence to give it a go and ensures they don’t get left out. 

And the train! With level access from the platform to the trains, it’s easier for wheelchair users to get on, although there is still a little lip which can be disconcerting.  We did wonder if there should be signs providing encouragement for those worried about doing it for the first time! 

The journey on the train itself was a lot smoother than on the other tube trains, but it was also considerably colder on the train and the platform had a distinct smell of new concrete about it! 

But while our initial impressions of the Elizabeth Line were favourable, there were still areas that could do with a bit of work. Once again, the font size on many of the signs is too small; the standardised ticket machines don’t cater for wheelchair users; and the wheelchair stickers on the floor of the platforms aren’t visible until you are more or less on top of them. Also, some of the benches don’t have backs; aren’t at different heights to cater for people with restricted mobility; and some have end armrests making them difficult for wheelchair users to use. 

And then, of course, there is the sheer distance you have to go simply to get from the platform to the lifts, something that is sadly too common across the whole network. Very rarely is the flow between steps vs step-free access the same with most accessible journeys taking considerably longer both in distance and in time. 

Getting the journey flow right with an Incline Lift

“We all spend a lot of time behind computer screens looking at architectural drawings and analysing them, but rarely do we go out and explore the world together, so this morning was a learning experience for everyone. Perhaps we all need to spend more time experiencing things first hand and having open, friendly, yet critical conversations with each other.”  Josh McDonagh, Graduate Inclusive Design Consultant, Proudlock Associates 

Josh leading the Inclusive Tour

However, there are examples of how this could be tackled, most notably at Liverpool Street Station which has an incline lift. These lifts (they are also at Farringdon and Greenford) run alongside the escalators, are cheaper to install and are 50% more efficient than a standard lift as they only use half as much power to run.  But more importantly, they enable people who need to use them to experience the same journey flow as everyone else which is excellent for groups or families travelling together and cuts down on those extra journey times. 

It’s also good you can see out of the lift, as it can be difficult to get the balance right between too much and too little glass. Too much and it can be distressing to agoraphobic users but having a solid lift isn’t good for those with claustrophobia. 

Mirrors in a lift are useful as it allows wheelchair users to reverse out safely, but they can be problematic for people with dementia or body dysmorphia. 

This delicate balancing act highlights another important element of inclusive design – it’s about offering a number of different options to meet the needs and requirements of everyone. 

A peaceful oasis at Canary Wharf

“The Roof Garden at Canary Wharf offers a real escape from all the chaos and commotion of London and really allows you to decompress for a while. London would really benefit from having more spaces like this.” 
Liam Proudlock, Inclusive Design and Access Consultant, Proudlock Associates

Canary Wharf station might have the accolade of being voted the best transport building in the world, but that doesn’t stop it having a couple of highly questionable inclusive design choices. 

The bright yellow lifts are simply too bright especially when you move back onto the darker platforms as your eyes don’t have time to adjust; braille signs are on each platform, but there is no consistency about where they are located; and the induction loop appears in a random position rather than being integrated. 

But what is wonderful about Canary Wharf is the Roof Garden. Full of exotic plants, it is a peaceful oasis away from the hubbub of the city. It’s an example of the importance of incorporating green spaces into urban environments.  Hopefully with the recent publication of ‘Design for the mind- Neurodiversity and the built environment’,  the first design standard for sensory and neurological needs, these types of green spaces will be incorporated into more stations.  

Final thoughts and takeaways 

“New-build station environments can play a pivotal role in raising the bar for inclusive design but best practice is always evolving and revisiting stations together with user groups with differing needs is absolutely invaluable.” Nick McGough, Director at WW+P

Our original purpose was to review the accessibility of the Elizabeth Line and to be fair it’s great to see it does incorporate a number of inclusive design features. Yes, improvements could be made, but when compared to other Underground stations, it’s definitely an example of how some things should be done.   

But the fact improvements are needed despite it being heralded as transforming the accessibility of the transport network highlights a crucial point and key takeaway from today: inclusive design is so much more than just providing a step-free route. It’s about the signage, lighting, noise levels, seating, and also the distances you have to travel. There are many simple adjustments that could be made, which would make the whole experience so much better for everyone. 

Other important points raised were:

  • It’s easy to tick ‘accessibility’ boxes, but it is more difficult to make everything work cohesively together, demonstrated by the longer journeys on the step-free routes
  • The ongoing debate between compliance and inclusive design sees many opt to just meet the standards rather than looking at how they can implement best practice 
  • Inclusive design is about offering different options and trying to treat the smallest possible number of people differently.

Where inclusive design is concerned it’s crucial not to make assumptions about what will and won’t work but to share insights and experiences and think about how things work both from a user and design point of view. Today, proved how useful this is, and we are looking forward to these discussions continuing.