Public transport services in the northeast and across the country are under increasing pressure each year through budget cuts and alterations to services. The number of bus passengers in Newcastle, for example, has decreased by 22 million over the last few years—a figure pinned, in part, on the overall unreliability of the local bus network. With additional, savage cuts to public spending in the area set to continue, the use of public transport is likely to dwindle in tandem with it.
One particular group within the population who will feel these cuts particularly strongly are disabled passengers. According to a recent Scope report, a quarter of disabled people already actively avoid using public transport as a result of “negative attitudes from other passengers”. An additional 40% find it routinely difficult to use public transport, citing long waits as a major barrier to the ability to “travel spontaneously”.
This is, of course, a shocking state of affairs and, as expected, councils and independent transport providers are taking notice and have begun to introduce initiatives to combat this level of inequality for public transport users in wheelchairs. By breaking down three major modes of public transport, this article aims to explore whether these measures are enough.
The London Underground
Although the standard London Underground maps have been updated in recent years to include information on which stations are wheelchair accessible, there are still only 71 of the 270 stations across the network which are fully step-free. The intentions of Transport For London are noble, and the organisation insists they are on track to improve accessibility, including a contract signed by Mayor Sadiq Khan to improve the efficiency of how the network’s disabled access lifts are installed.
Google has offered a solution for commuters by including an accessibility filter on its Maps app, with a view to providing regularly-updated information on when lifts are out of order. However, there is still a long way to go for London to match the networks in major international cities like Washington DC and Los Angeles, both of which are already completely step-free.
In spring 2018, the British government pledged to roll out an increased number of wheelchair-friendly buses across the country, coming in the wake of ruling to that effect from the Supreme Court the previous year. It is particularly crucial that those with reduced mobility should be well-served by local bus services, Intelligent Transport notes, as they make “ten times as many journeys by bus as by rail”.
However, while the buses themselves are increasingly equipped with access ramps, and bells within easy reach, the attitudes of drivers and passengers alike are not quite as up to date. Incidents of passengers in wheelchairs being refused entry during rush hour for lack of space are rampant, but a consensus has not yet been made by disability campaigners as to what more can yet be done.
Some have suggested redesigning bus interiors to make more space for wheelchairs and buggies, while others simply think more strongly-worded signs would do the job of making passengers more mindful. Perhaps we should all take a lesson from a bus driver in France, who went viral at the end of 2018 after kicking all of his passengers out of his vehicle when everyone refused to make space for a passenger in a wheelchair.
Since April 2017, legislation has been in place which would levy harsh fines on taxi drivers who refuse to accept disabled passengers in their vehicles. Alongside improvements to vehicles, this overhaul of the law seems to be working, with one driver even having his license revoked for refusing to pick up two passengers as a result of their disability. However, the vehicles themselves still need to be improved to accommodate these riders, and further budget cuts have left certain services—such as the Darlington Association on Disability’s own taxi service—out of commission entirely.
As with other forms of public transport mentioned above, the intentions of local councils are all well and good, but there remains an inability to balance the books in a way which benefits those passengers most in need.