You might think there's already a step-free tube map - i.e. the standard map covered with big blue wheelchair blobs. But no, that's just a ghastly simplification, a mere summary of the underground nightmare which faces disabled Londoners. The big blue blobs reveal only whether it's possible to get from the street to the platform, and there's a lot more to getting around than that. Which means that the new step-free map is rather complicated. OK, let's be honest, it's incredibly complicated. Deep breath.
Here's a snippet of the map taken from my patch of East London, just to show you how it works. Looks like one of those atomic models your chemistry teacher used to have, doesn't it? Admit it, you're baffled already. So let's start with a simple bit. Mile End station, the perfect cross-platform interchange between the Central, District and Hammersmith & City lines. That's what the coloured rings show - three colours in each so this is a three-line step-free interchange. But you can't escape to the street, not in a wheelchair, so the rings are empty. If there's step-free access to the street then the map shows a filled-in coloured blob. As an example see Bow Church or Pudding Mill Lane, both of them DLR stations with a lift to permit entry and exit. OK so far?
But why are the blobs different colours? Ah, that's to explain how you cross the gap between the platform and the train. Some gaps are too wide, and some gaps are too high, and you'll not be wheeling aboard the train if that breach is too great. The colours warn you about vertical height (green means up to 2 inches, amber up to 5 inches, and red up to a foot) and the letters warn you about horizontal chasm (A means no more than 3½ inches, B no more than 7 and C no more than 10). Bow Church's green A means that the gap's a doddle to cross, whereas Stratford's red C suggests a hoverchair might be needed to climb aboard. Quick test for you - can you instantly say what the two blobs at West Ham mean? No, I thought not. This stuff really takes a lot of unravelling.
And there's more. An exclamation mark beside a station name, such as that at Stratford, hints that there's important information you need to know written on the back of the map. You can access that via this pdf, but I hope your eyesight's up to scratch because there's a phenomenal amount of information on here. Normally we bemoan TfL for dumbing down and over-simplification, but not here. This is incredibly elaborate, allowing affected citizens to undertake detailed route planning appropriate to their needs. The disabled will not be patronised, not any more, not here.
The map only shows stations where either step-free interchange or exit are possible. All the other stations, and there are a lot, are greyed out so that you can ignore them. See above at Bow Road or Bromley-by-Bow, for example, both pointless destinations in a wheelchair. Or consider the situation here at Bank/Monument. The Central and Northern lines sweep through without stopping, and there's no point even considering the Waterloo & City because you'd not get in or out at either end. Check out the complete map and you'll see how Zone 1 is virtually devoid of decent access, with lines threading through like disconnected spaghetti. What the map's really showing is how appalling step-free access is, especially in central London, and how you'd probably be better off in a taxi.
In case this is all too much to take in, TfL have kindly provided details of an example journey down the side of the map. It's from Sudbury Town to Borough - not a simple journey even for the able bodied - but ridiculously tough for those in a wheelchair. Here's a brief summary (and you can confirm this as the optimum route using advanced options in TfL's Journey Planner).
» Enter Sudbury Town (via the Station Approach entrance, not Orchard Gate) » Take the Piccadilly line (big step up, medium gap) to Green Park (big step down) » Via lifts and along a 220m passage to get on Jubilee line (big step up) to London Bridge (small step down) » Via lifts and via street (410m in total) to get on Northern line (level access) » Ride southbound through Borough station to Clapham North (big step down) and cross the platform (big step up) » Return northbound to Borough (big step down) and exit via lift to street
I don't know about you, but all that seems a heck of a lot of effort just to make a single independent journey. Four trains, five lifts, seven steps and a long trek through the streets of SE1, these aren't the hallmarks of an inclusive 21st century society. But then much of our tube network is either Victorian or Edwardian, pre-dating accessibility legislation by at least a century, so it's a miracle there's any step-free access down there at all. Thank goodness Londoners have several other public transport options, completely absent from this map, which mean things aren't quite as grim as they appear. Richmond to Willesden Junction may look nightmarish by tube but it's tons easier on the Overground, omitted here. There's no sign either of Croydon's tram network (which is fully accessible throughout), nor even a hint that you might prefer to take the bus (ditto).
So all hail the new step-free tube map. It's over-complex. It requires an above-average IQ to use. It's completely useless to the colour-blind. It reveals 90% of the network as an inaccessible sham. But it's great that those with limited mobility now have all the information they need to decide whether to give cross-London tube travel a try or not. And, now that this map exists, do you think TfL might finally remove those ugly blue blobs from the mainstream tube diagram? Yeah, I know, fat chance. We're not quite there yet.