Emma Cooper-Williams on the challenges of Public Transport accessibility
“Awareness is key; not just awareness of needs, but awareness of how we can make spaces better for everyone.”
Catching public transport can be arduous for everyone. Sometimes things don’t go to plan, we miss our bus, it doesn’t come on time, or worse still the bus doesn’t come at all. Like most people I experience these challenges, but there in my situation, there is a bit more to the story. If your bus came exactly as planned, there wouldn’t be a lot more to the story would there? In my case, the story is different. I have been a manual wheelchair user for over two years now. Riding the bus as a wheelchair user has some added challenges that obviously don’t arise for every public transport user, and they don’t just come down to how reliable the system is. I still find every bus ride, or attempt to ride the bus, as nerve wracking as the first; beginning from the bus stop.
The first challenge that I encounter is often the bus stop. Without a path to get in front of where the official stop is, or if there is uneven ground, this makes it very difficult for me to even get to a position where I can be in the bus driver’s view. A lack of kerb cuts is also an issue, as getting to the bus stop without one is almost impossible. I have had bus drivers drive right past without even seeing me, merely due to the lack of visibility I have from the bus stop. As I need the ramp on the bus pulled out to enter the bus; the quality of the ground also plays a significant role in how easy (or difficult) it is for me to enter the bus. This creates some immense frustration as I realise how oblivious many people are, not to my disability, but to the inaccessibility of the space. I have friends with different impairments and access needs to mine; and sometimes I am astounded at the challenges they face, many of which I didn’t even think of.
Awareness is key; not just awareness of needs, but awareness of how we can make spaces better for everyone. It is fair to say however, that it is difficult to know what everyone’s needs are, if we do not see the way in which they live their life. Which is exactly why we need to be made aware of seeing the way people live their lives, we need to be seeing and hearing the stories of people who have been impacted by these challenges, instead of spending all of our time listening to people who haven’t. Sure, it is great to think critically about how we think people are impacted by certain issues, but unless we hear from people with lived experience, I do not feel we are going to experience true social change.
Another challenge that I face with public transport actually depends on the type of public transport I am using. I used to live close to the Glen Innes train station and would catch the train to get to the city. With the trains, a ramp automatically extends over the gap between the platform and the train so that I can get on to the train easily and independently. This took a lot of stress out of public transport, especially seeing as I didn’t need to make sure that the train driver saw me at the station, as they would already be stopping at the station. This is a major difference between the train and the bus; a lot of my independence is taken away when I use the bus compared to the train, which creates not only a lot of anxiety, but a lot of self-consciousness with feeling it is an extra effort for the bus driver to let me on. Before I had to use the bus to go to university and to work, I had no idea how catching a bus in a wheelchair would work, I think there needs to be more awareness on the Auckland Transport website about how the whole process of catching a bus in a wheelchair works. When I’m entering a bus, most of the time bus drivers don’t communicate with me at all. This creates some uncertainty and a feeling that they don’t care about what my needs are, such as whether I need a push up the ramp. I’ve had disastrous instances when bus drivers have grabbed the front of my chair as they couldn’t be bothered getting out of the bus and the ramp was quite steep. This could easily be fixed by a little communication, and perhaps treating me like I am a human, not just a wheelchair.
The worst challenge I have faced using public transport has been when a bus didn’t have a foldout ramp on it at all. Due to having a lightweight manual wheelchair, I was able to get two people to lift me in my chair onto the bus, however this is a dangerous situation, and really creates the notion that wheelchair users don’t belong on buses. If we don’t make something accessible to everyone, this creates inequities which in turn mean that some people miss out and are disadvantaged. With increasing petrol prices and more and more encouragement to use public transport over private vehicles, I feel that we need to think about how everyone is going to be impacted by these changes, not just who can use a bus without any assistance. I think the answer to this problem is to make accessibility compulsory on all buses, and not just assume that a wheelchair user isn’t going to using this bus route. I experience this kind of notion a lot, where people assume that there are very few wheelchair users, and that you are not likely to come across someone who uses a wheelchair. This happens particularly in bathrooms. People use the accessible bathrooms thinking that no one in a wheelchair will be wanting to use it, and tend to take a lot longer than they would in a regular bathroom. This means that every time I go to use a bathroom, I can’t because someone who is probably not disabled is using it. Yes, wheelchair users exist. Yes, there are more of us than you think. It’s basically the same for public transport.
I think physical access to bus stops is something that needs to be looked at. Kerb cuts need to be put in place, and even ground is important as it provides a sturdy surface for the ramp to rest on when a person with an access need is entering the bus. These are small things that I’m sure most people don’t think about, and I think it’s about time we start thinking beyond what our own needs are, and how we can make the world more manageable for others. Yes, there are differences in how easy it is to get on a bus compared to a train, and those differences cannot really be changed. What can be changed however, is checking what the needs of a person with an access need are when they are using public transport, and actually recognising that people with access needs are human beings. And lastly, we do exist! People with disabilities make up almost 25% of the population, and I think it is important to acknowledge this with small things such as simple ramps on buses, making the world of transport more accessible for all.