Two months ago I shared an open letter to Leon Daniels, Managing Director of Surface Transport for Transport for London (TfL). I wrote to him following an upsetting incident when a bus driver refused to let me board his bus because there was a buggy on board. He did this without even asking the person with the buggy to move and despite there being room for us both.
I copied in a load of other people, including my MP Harriet Harman. At the end of last week the last of several replies dropped through my letterbox. So now seems like a good time to update you.
I received three replies and my MP received one. There were some confusing inconsistences, particularly around whether the bus driver responsible had been identified or not, but there was one point they were all agreed on:
‘Wheelchair users have priority access to our buses’ – Customer Service Advisor, Transport for London
‘We give priority to wheelchair users over buggy users’ – Correspondence Team Manager, Transport for London
‘We ask that customers, particularly buggy users, show consideration to wheelchair users and make the allocated space available to a wheelchair user when needed.’ – Case Management Executive
‘I expect bus drivers to be as proactive as possible to ensure those with wheelchairs are able to board.’ – Leon Daniels, Managing Director Surface Transport
While it’s good to know that TfL policy prioritises wheelchair users, this does not match my experiences in recent months. There seems to be widespread confusion amongst both bus drivers and other passengers and this has intensified following a widely-reported ruling by the Court of Appeal last December.
Doug Paulley, a wheelchair user from Yorkshire, initially took his local bus operator to court after he was denied access to a bus because a passenger with a buggy wouldn’t vacate the wheelchair space. He won his case, but the Appeal Court overturned this ruling stating that while bus drivers should ask buggy users to move, they should not be expected to force them to.
Lady Justice Arden, one of the judges who considered Doug’s case, said: ‘Drivers should instead be taught to pile pressure on selfish passengers.’
The reality seems to be that outside the cloistered courtroom environment, busy buses and rushed schedules mean this ruling is being interpreted very differently. In my case the bus driver applied no pressure whatsoever.
All four of the letters I received mentioned the behaviour of other passengers, particularly buggy users, but only one acknowledged the unacceptable behaviour of the driver. But he’s not the one to have told me that the wheelchair space is ‘first come first served.’ Unlike other passengers I can only board the bus if the driver chooses to put the ramp down. I can’t assert my right to travel if I can’t get on in the first place.
At the time of the Appeal Court’s ruling, Doug Paulley explained that ‘It is a question of not only not knowing whether you are going to be able to get on to a bus but whether there is going to be some conflict.’
I can completely relate to this. As a wheelchair user getting a bus is incredibly stressful. I don’t want to battle with other passengers but neither do I want to wait three or four times longer for a bus than a non-disabled person.
Lord Justice Underhill said: ‘It has to be accepted that our conclusion and reasoning in this case means that wheelchair users will occasionally be prevented by other passengers from using the wheelchair space on the bus.’ But in London it’s certainly not just occasionally. Almost every bus I’ve attempted to board in the last month has already had at least one buggy on board.
Last week Leftwing Idiot and I were waiting for a bus in the pouring rain. When the bus arrived there were two, one was empty and one had a toddler sitting happily inside. The driver lowered the ramp, enabling us to board and begin negotiations. The owner of the empty buggy was upstairs so Leftwing Idiot moved it and I squeezed in.
Moments later the owner came downstairs holding her baby and shouting at him not to touch the buggy. It felt really tense, but fortunately the situation calmed down when Leftwing Idiot made it clear that he was happy to help. In the end both parents were friendly but they also blamed the bus driver for letting me board.
The letters I received from TfL suggest that they have a clear policy. My experiences and those of countless other wheelchair users, including Baroness Sal Brinton, demonstrate that this policy is being widely misinterpreted and misunderstood.
The result is that I can’t rely on TfL’s bus service. Every time I wait at a bus stop I feel tense. Will I be able to get on? Will there be a conflict? Will I be left at the bus stop? Too often the answer is ‘Yes’. The service for wheelchair users is unreliable, stressful, frequently takes longer and occasionally feels unsafe.
The Equality Act 2010 is supposed to prevent someone with a protected characteristic (for instance a disability) being treated less favourably than others. My wheelchair should not mean I get a second-rate service, but at the moment it does.
The one glimmer of hope is that Doug Paulley has been granted permission to take his case to the Supreme Court. But with the case unlikely to be heard until late next year the confusion looks set to continue.
Overall, the tone of the letters I received from TfL was sympathetic, but I don’t want my frustration simply to be understood, I want change.