Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

To Get On The Public Busses

I just watched a segment of a New Zealand consumer affair’s show called Target. @kylierichardson called my attention to the segment screening last night. It was about accessible busses in Auckland. Kylie said it was "absolutely shocking". I watched it, and was not particularly surprised to see what was happening. Part and parcel of my experiences with public transit, just about everywhere in the world, as a wheelchair user.

The segment can be viewed on TV3’s website. The piece on accessible busses comes in about 1/5th into the show. Unfortunately, only New Zealand viewers can view the segment (interesting reversal of fortunes, really, as I often can’t access video out of the US!). It follows the adventures of a woman who was injured in a bus accident when she was a teenager, and who has been using a wheelchair since.

Issues Found

They raised several issues that were encountered during a day’s use of Auckland public busses. Here are some of the things they found:

  • Bus drivers just drive straight through
  • Ramps are stuck
  • Broken hinges
  • Uneven links
  • Narrow aisles
  • Poor / no maintenance on the ramps/kneeling system

Same Stuff in Chicago

As I looked at the doco, I could only shake my head. It reminded me so much of my days in Chicago. It was not unusual for drivers to just drive straight and not stop, or slow down and say "The lift is broken", and keep going. Even in Winter, when it was -10C. The funny thing was when the following driver would stop and pick you up and say "oh, the guy ahead of me is a jerk, he always say the lift is broken, but it works fine".

I once embarked on a bus, and as I was about to get off, the lift got stuck. It wouldn’t go down, and wouldn’t come back in. I was stuck in the bus. Other passengers were angry. Strangely enough, angry at ME, rather than at the faulty and poorly maintained equipment. Another bus was dispatched for the other passengers. But I had to wait for a repair guy to come and fix the lift. I was in there for 2 hours before the repairman even arrived. I never even got an apology from the company.

I often explain the poor situation of public transit by saying that in the 1960’s in the United States, African-Americans wanted the right to ride the front of the bus. But in this new millenium, people with disabilities just want to get ON the bus. Doesn’t seem to be such a big ask, is it?

Closer to Home

Closer to the Target piece, is my experience with public transit in Palmerston North. There is free bus service going to my place of employment. Only one bus in four is wheelchair accessible on that route. And they are not scheduled regularly. So I would have no way to know how many busses I would have to wait for before one is accessible. How can *anyone* rely on public transit in those conditions to go to work, and get there on time?

Pervasive Issue

As they explain in the piece on TV3, the majority of people just don’t realise how much of a problem there is. They see the ISA (wheelchair symbol) and think "cool, people in wheelchairs can use this bus". They are blissfully unaware of the real issues faced by those of us who would like to rely on public transit. And we can’t blame them, there is no reason for them to be aware. It still makes it difficult for those of us encountering those barriers, because people don’t understand our gripes, unless we spend time explaining, and people don’t have time or interest.

What’s The Future?

The Auckland bus company says that currently 52% of their fleet is accessible, and that they undergo regular maintenance every 2 months. They add that more busses will be made accessible as the busses are being replaced. It will take decades before it’s all accessible busses.

But the real problem is often the drivers. Mind you, I’m not attacking all bus drivers here. There are many of them who are very good, caring, and right on top of their jobs. But there are also many who do their job while making you feel you’re a burden. And then there are those who just drive right by you without stopping.

The real problem may not be a lack of accessible busses, but rather one of attitudes on the part of both the transit companies and many of their drivers.