On The Buses

London’s a huge city with an enormous amount to enjoy and do, and for me, as for many others, working here also means I often have to travel to meetings all over the place as well. We have an impressive public transport system, with the Underground, buses, trains and even boats transporting about ten million people a day. But as a wheelchair user my access to this system is greatly reduced – approximately three-quarters of the tube network, a quarter of the river network and half the Overground rail network is inaccessible.

It’s thanks to campaigning by disabled people in the 1990s that we have wheelchair spaces on buses. While all London buses are accessible, using them is not without its challenges. Most buses only have one wheelchair space, and this is the only place where wheelchair user can travel. There are usually signs stating that wheelchair users have priority, but in my experience, how firmly this is applied is dependent on the individual bus driver,

The difficulty is that the space is also used for children in buggies or pushchairs, or by people with large suitcases. Competing with buggies makes me anxious because I don’t like causing a parent with a young child extra hassle, having to fold down their buggy or even get off the bus. But neither do I want to have to wait for ages for a bus to come along with a free space. In London there are a great many buggy users, and particularly during the day, it’s more common than not for the space to be occupied, often by more than one buggy.

Yesterday three buses went past with their wheelchair spaces occupied before I was able to get on, meaning that I had to wait twenty minutes longer than if I hadn’t been in my chair. If you think of this happening several times a day on different journeys it gives you an idea of the inequality in service that wheelchair users experience. Add in the tension caused by having to compete for space with parents and young children and you get a sense of how emotionally fraught bus travel can be.

This week a case about wheelchairs and buggies on buses is being considered in the High Court. In 2012 Doug Paulley, a wheelchair user from West Yorkshire, was unable to board a bus after a woman refused to move her buggy and sleeping baby. Doug took the bus company to court and was awarded damages. In his statement the presiding judge said that:

The system of priority given to wheelchair users should be enforced as a matter not of request, to any non-disabled user of the wheelchair space, but of requirement…

The bus company are appealing against the decision, saying that they need to know ‘what they are legally required to do and how.’

Disability is a ‘protected characteristic’ under the Equality Act 2010 and therefore service providers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that disabled people aren’t disadvantaged in the quality or level of service they receive. This case will test how far this duty stretches, and what its limitations are.

Lots of the discussion around this case has focussed on who should have priority-use of this single space, whether it’s wheelchair users who can’t go anywhere else, or parents with young children who are there already. To me (and to Doug Paulley) this misses the point. Clearly buses are not meeting the needs of their customers, whether they’re disabled people or adults with small children. The question to ask is not who should get priority, but why is there only one space? If this isn’t working (which it evidently isn’t) then it needs to change.

While doing research for this blog entry I came across many posts on forums by parents of young children saying how they felt afraid of travelling by bus because of disapproving comments from other passengers – about their buggy’s size, the noise their child makes, or the length of time it took them to board. Transport should be something that everyone can access equally without fear, long waits or confrontation.

I very much hope that the High Court decision embeds the right of disabled people to access buses, but I also hope it recognises the need for improved access and provision for buggy users as well. It is possible – in Scotland, City Fleet buses accommodate both.

Reasonable adjustment needs to be more than a token gesture. For accessibility to improve for everyone, we need better design, thought-through policies, and responsiveness to emerging needs. Transport’s about more than just getting from A to B: it’s about access to the community, to family, to friends, to leisure and to work, and it’s critical for all of us.

3 responses to On The Buses

  1. Mandyque says:

    I can relate to your post so much it’s making me cry in frustration that nothing is changing. When my daughter was younger, she needed a Major Buggy, a specialised buggy for disabled children, and accessing buses became an absolute nightmare. At this time we were in the early stages of bringing in accessible buses, so as it was we weren’t always able to get on in the first place. Where I live is a council estate with a lot of young families, and some of those young parents were incredibly ignorant. They would flatly refuse to fold down buggies, to hold their child so that a disabled person could use the bus. The bus drivers would refuse to do anything to help. I ended up feeling quite ill whenever we needed to use a bus because we had so many arguments, both with drivers and passengers, despite the notices that stated that disabled people had priority. I complained to Stagecoach numerous times, I had a manager visit me at home. I was even invited to speak to drivers as part of a training session. It made no difference at all.

    Thanks to the Family Fund charity, I was in the very fortunate position of being able to get funding towards driving lessons, and because my daughter gets high rate mobility allowance, we became the proud owners of a Motability car, and I’ve never looked back. However, it still makes me frustrated and angry that public transport accessibility remains so hard for others who don’t have the luxury of being able to drive, or to have someone to drive on their behalf. I clearly remember being on one bus which had two spaces at the front, one of which was taken by me and my daughter, the other with pushchairs. It was cold and raining outside, a really miserable day. A man with a power chair wanted to get on the bus and the parents refused to move, meaning he was left in the cold and rain. I was shocked and disgusted that those people happily ignored a disabled man because it would have caused them a little inconvenience.

  2. Doug Paulley says:

    As you can probably imagine, I identify with and empathise with all you say, including your comment Mandyque. What an abominable state of affairs, that we have to face this sort of selfish and discriminatory situation every day.

    The timescale for the hearing in the supreme court is in theory shorter: by their own performance targets we should have the date for the hearing communicated to us by the 2nd week in October, and the hearing itself should be within 9 months of the notice of right of appeal so in April next year. But they warn this is often delayed by needing to secure barristers’ availability, and also I don’t think the legal system always does SMART timescales – reminds me of Jarndyce and Jarndyce! Also I don’t know how long the supreme court takes to deliberate before pronouncing judgment, and it’s by no means in the bag.

    Keep your fingers crossed, don’t let the fuckers grind you down (says I, who gets very despondent and wound up!) and keep fighting the good fight 🙂


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