London's tube map is getting uglier. A plague of blue splodges is spreading steadily across the map, slowly destroying the elegance of Harry Beck's original design. To blame is Transport for London's crusade to make the underground network as accessible as possible. Every station accessible without using stairs or escalators must now be marked on the map by a small wheelchair symbol inside a dark blue circle. There aren't many accessible tube stations, still only about 50 out of 275, but the overall effect is still highly offputting. Most tube lines aren't blue, so big blue blobs just look wrong. The 100%-accessible Docklands Light Railway (another 37 blobs) has become a tentacled beast in the south east corner of the map and is now visually highly distracting. And the four lines which meet at Waterloo have recently been realigned on the map in a particularly ugly way, merely so that the distinction can be made between accessible and inaccessible interchanges. It's not looking good.
Don't get me wrong, tube station accessibility is a very good thing. It's not the Victorians' fault that they built all of central London's tube stations without due regard for 21st century accessibility legislation. It's just incredibly expensive to add lifts everywhere, especially underground, so it's not surprising that progress in opening up the network is slow. But do we really need a big blue spot to show where the special lifts are? Normal tube interchanges are still marked by empty black circles, which are far less obtrusive. And interchanges with National Rail stations are marked by a discreet red BR symbol, which is just as useful but not as blatant. Why can't we have something similar for accessibility?
Conspicuous as they are, the blue blobs don't tell the whole story. From the map a wheelchair user might assume that they could ride from Heathrow to Stratford by changing at Holborn. But no, the interchange at Holborn is a stepped and escalatored nightmare, to be avoided at all costs. Instead they should make the journey by changing at Barons Court and then Mile End, but that's not obvious from the map either. And not all the blue blob stations are truly accessible. Take Uxbridge, for example. You can wheel a wheelchair from the station entrance to the platforms, no problem, but you might find getting onto a train rather harder. It's more than 8 inches up from the platform if you want to board a Metropolitan line train, and about 6 inches down if you want to board a Piccadilly line train. The Uxbridge blob represents impossibility, not accessibility.
There is a tube map with all this additional information about changing lines and platform heights - it's called the Tube access guide and you can download it from here. It's complicated and it's inelegant, but it does the job. Why can't TfL give out copies of this map to travellers with wheelchairs, pushchairs and other mobility impairments, without inflicting their semi-useless blue blobs on the rest of us. The ordinary tube map is visually complicated enough as it is - there's no need to make it even less accessible.