'I'd hate to flip out': Wheelchair users angry at 'bumpy' pavements and missing dropped kerbs

Isobel Williams in a leather jacket and blue trousers in her wheelchair next to a 'roll on' sign on the wall
-Credit: (Image: Isobel Williams)

Wheelchair users have said navigating the pavements in London is more than difficult than ever, with missing dropped kerbs, uneven surfaces, and obstructions caused by dockless bikes, rubbish bags and parked cars.

Music publicist Isobel Williams, 35, from Stroud Green, said: “I would describe navigating the streets of London like a computer game. It’s like you turn another corner, ‘oh there’s another obstacle!’, then if you can’t beat the obstacle, you’ve got to go all the way back to the beginning of the level and start again.

“The state of the pavements is, I would say, very bumpy, lots of loose paving stones. I have to be very focused on dodging bumps and potholes. If I’m on a street I’m not familiar with, it’s tricky, especially if it’s not well-lit late at night. It’s quite scary to be honest. I’d hate to flip out of my wheelchair. That would be not fun for everybody involved.

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Isobel Williams in her wheelchair going along an uneven London pavement
Isobel Williams says loose pavement stones are one of the many challenges faced by wheelchair users -Credit:Isobel Williams

“Then, there’s smaller things that could easily be resolved if people were a little bit more aware. Quite often, bin bags might be blocking the pavement, especially in central London where the pavements might be narrower and there are a lot of restaurants like Brick Lane and Soho. I’ve had many cases where my friends have had to kick rubbish bags out the way.”

Ms Williams added that even in situations where wheelchair users have been accounted for, these provisions can quickly be rendered useless. She said: “If there are road works, maybe that means that the dropped kerb is out of action so perhaps they’ve put a temporary ramp to help disabled people get down the kerb, but then maybe somebody’s removed that because it was in the way.

“It’s definitely challenging and it’s really hard to know how much time to allow for when I’m trying to get somewhere because you can’t factor in these ridiculous challenges.”

'I never venture here alone as I always end up needing help'

Disability activist Katie Pennick, 28, echoed this, saying: “Typically, quieter residential streets can have pavements with extremely uneven surfaces, missing dropped kerbs, and tree roots obstructing the way.” She reiterated that narrow, uneven pavements, missing dropped kerbs, and abandoned dockless bikes are all ongoing issues, especially in Shoreditch, saying, “I never venture here alone as I always end up needing help.”

Iain Marshall, 32, an analyst for Dementia UK who also runs the Twitter page Accessible Streets London , has been campaigning for better wheelchair accessibility for over five years. He identifies on-street accessibility issues in London wards, before sending off a report to the relevant councillors and following up to see what, if any, progress they make. To date, he has covered 30 wards across eight different London boroughs and identified a total of 416 accessibility issues.

Electric vehicle charging points along East Arbour Street
Iain Marshall fears the rise in use of electric cars will lead to even more issues, with charging points (seen here on East Arbour Street) adding an extra obstacle to wheelchair users -Credit:Iain Marshall

He said: “Once you start looking into this, it’s unbelievable how bad our streets really are and even the bare basics such as dropped kerbs are missing. I started the page as I wanted to highlight these issues and hold local authorities to account. Campaigning on accessibility issues shouldn’t be left to those it impacts the most.”

He added that the increasing popularity of electric cars is likely to pose further difficulties for wheelchair users as “unfortunately many local authorities are placing the infrastructure for charging stations on the pavement, narrowing what little space we provide for pedestrians further”.

Currently, Mr Marshall has identified several problematic areas, particularly across Tower Hamlets. These include missing dropped kerbs on Barnet Grove/Columbia Road, Wade’s Place/Shirbutt Road and at the entrance to Bethnal Green Gardens from Malcolm Place, and an electric charging station on the pavement on East Arbour Street.

The missing dropped kerb at the entrance to Bethnal Green Gardens from Malcolm Place
The missing dropped kerb at the entrance to Bethnal Green Gardens from Malcolm Place, makes it incredibly difficult for a wheelchair user -Credit:Iain Marshall

He acknowledged that squeezed finances are making life difficult for local councils, but urged them to prioritise disabled accessibility, saying: “When I’ve contacted some councils concerning issues like the lack of dropped kerbs, I have been informed that they have no budget to resolve the issues which to me implies that they don’t view accessibility of our streets as an important issue.”

'Where businesses fail to take duty of care or cause obstructions on the street, enforcement action will be taken'

In response to complaints about Soho’s pavements, a Westminster City Council spokesperson said: "The safety of residents and visitors to the city is the council’s top priority. The council’s City Inspectors deliver a 24/7 service across Westminster to identify safety risks and ensure our streets are kept clean, safe, and accessible.

“The law requires all businesses to exercise a duty of care over their waste, to ensure it is kept safely and removed in a responsible way. Where businesses fail to exercise their duty of care or cause obstructions on the street, the council will take enforcement action.

“In addition to our 24/7 service we also have a dedicated officer for Soho who educates businesses and enforces against waste offences in the area. We receive regular complaints about dockless e-bikes blocking pavements, particular in areas with narrow streets like Soho.

"The council is working to tackle this issue with dedicated parking bays and monitoring of hotspot locations, but dockless bikes companies must also play their part in enforcing against bad parking."

Tower Hamlets Council did not respond to an approach for comment.

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