Fixing the Gap
an investigation into wheelchair users' shaping of London public transport
Public transport in London is a massive infrastructure, with over 400km of underground tracks, a fleet of 8000 buses and a rich, 153-year history that has turned it into a symbol of the English capital. Despite its size, accessibility in this infrastructure has been a source of concern for wheelchair users in London. Based on interpretative analysis of thirty-four in-depth qualitative interviews with wheelchair users and policy-makers, observations of training courses and documentary data on London transport, this research asks, “How do wheelchair users use public transport in London?”
This thesis, which sits at the intersection of science and technology studies (STS) and disability studies, has two main arguments. The first contends that the barriers faced by wheelchair users in transport are the result of infrastructural stabilisation that occurred in a period of social segregation (1850s-1950s). This is discussed by intersecting the history of transport in London, with that of disabled people in British society, followed by interviewees’ accounts of the barriers they encounter in the infrastructure to this day. The second argument holds that, despite segregation, wheelchair users have taken an active role in the process of shaping transport in London. In this role, they have developed inclusion mechanisms on both micro- and macro-scales, through individual problem-solving on the one hand and collective and political activism on the other.
Drawing from STS concepts like the social shaping of technology and infrastructural invisibility, and engaging with the social model of disability from disability studies, this thesis shows the impact of marginalised users’ engagement. It concludes that the social perception of disabled users as ‘passive’ masks an active interaction with and shaping of the transport network. This thesis therefore provides insights into the paradoxical nature of infrastructure, showing places of agency where previously one saw passivity and exclusion.