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.