Friday, 27 August 2010

Why Public Transport isn’t the Solution for Some Disabled Londoners

Recently, on a discussion about taking the private car off London’s streets I put forward the argument for allowing certain categories of disabled people dispensation from such a blanket ban.

One poster disagreed contending that my arguments were more centred on self-interest and convenience; and, that the picture I drew was too bleak, that indeed things weren’t that bad for most disabled people.

My response was as follows:

Of course disabled could be taken out of my original message and replaced. However, some disabled people, of whom some elderly and infirm people may be included, do have a special case for exemption when if it came to banning private cars in London.

If I lost the use of my private car and had to depend on, most forms of, public transport my ability to move around would be severely limited. Sure, I’d have TaxiCard (well, at least until Johnson scraps it as part of the ‘cuts’ programme). TaxiCard will afford me 12 subsidised short journeys per month (by short I mean around 3 miles maximum); which in reality is 6 round trips – less than two round trips a month.

Should I wish to visit family or friends who live say 5 miles away TaxiCard will swipe my card twice, thus taking two subsidised journeys. At this rate I will receive only 3 round trip journeys a month – a journey every 10 days.

Then there’s Dial-a-Ride. Ask most disabled people who have ever had to rely on Dial-a-Ride to take them anywhere within a reasonable distance and time frame and you’ll most likely get a negative response. I gave up on them long ago. Any journey that smacks of the exotic, which means more than a couple of miles from your own home, becomes an impossibility.

It got to the point that I’d phone them and ask ‘where can you take me today?’

Let’s look at ‘mainstream’ public transport. To begin with, where I live in London, the tube system is not a goer for, many, wheelchair users and people with mobilising impairments; and, the same for most overhead train stations (main termini the exception).

So, buses; here, some, disabled people have seen the greatest improvements – especially under Livingstone. While buses are easier to access than most other ‘mainstream’ forms of public transport; for some of us difficulties arise.

  1. Getting to and from bus stops. London’s pavements are, all too often, unusable for someone like me. As a left hemi-plegic I have to hope that pavement crossfalls are not over graded – that the falls across the pavement to the kerb are not too steep.

When crossfalls are too steep, greater than 1:40, the act of independently propelling my wheelchair becomes impossible. This leaves me with two choices 1) surrender my independence by allowing someone to push me, or 2) Stay at home.

Similarly, at crossing points on roads dropped kerbs are very often far too steep for me to negotiate by myself – we’re talking about gradients of 20° plus!

So, unless I live next to a bus stop (which could be ok for one leg of the journey) I’m dependent on others when I wish to go out.

  1. As a result of one disability it isn’t unusual for someone to pick up a few more along the way. Me, I’m hemi-plegic, have chronic pain syndrome, and a urinary complaint, all of which arise from the original accident.

Buses, due to their size have greater gravitational pull than smaller vehicles such as cars. When travelling on buses I’m at the mercy of the vehicle’s breaking, accelerating and general lurching.

As such I cannot control my upper body being pushed and pulled backwards and forwards as well as laterally as the buses momentum introduces external forces. This means I end bus journeys in a greater pain than I’d experience if I’d used a car.

  1. Sadly, I need to pee at a really frequent rate; a 60 minute frequency isn’t unusual; and, often it’s every 40 minutes – the same at night; so, when the pain doesn’t keep me awake; my sleeping patterns are fractured by having to get out of bed every 40-60 minutes. This causes major problems when planning any journey; but, in a car I’ve more freedom to plan a route that’ll take in loo stops.

On buses, and to a lesser extent trains, I’m not in control of the situation. If it’s taken me 10 minutes to get to the bus stop and I’ve been waiting 10 minutes for a bus and the journey is 20 minutes the chances are I’ll be ok.

However, a 10-15 minute hold-up in the journey could well mean me having to get off the bus find a loo...You get the picture. Consequently, a journey that should have taken 30-40 minutes on one bus now takes double that.

On trains I’m at a disadvantage if the toilet is ‘out of order’. The one that’s working in the next carriage, or three carriages down, is of no use to me whatsoever. So, I’ve got to get off the train go for a pee in the station, if they’ve got facilities, and wait for the next train – oh, and the next train may not be able to take me because they’ve their full quota of wheelchairs on board.

  1. Buses now come equipped with ramps. Indeed, Ken Livingstone, through TfL, forced the bus companies to ensure that no bus leaves a garage with a faulty ramp; bus companies are contractually bound, alas not statutorily, to ensure all their bus ramps are in working order – I know they breach this agreement all the time; but, it’s getting better.

On numerous occasions I’ve been let down by buses with faulty ramps; several times two buses in succession have pulled up with broken ramps; on one occasion two buses failed to take me because of dodgy ramps and the third simply ignored me and drove past.

Even when ramps are in working order problems arise because of kerb levels. The kerb is too high or low and the ramp sensor won’t allow it to contact and remain in place.

Then, there are the times that the ramp is working the pavement is at the optimum level to satisfy even the most sensitive of sensors but people with buggies refuse to move out of the area designated for wheelchair use. Some drivers are forceful enough to take control of the situation; if they’re not, then I have to wait for the next available bus.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. Buggy users are not the only ‘villains’. A small minority of passengers believe that buying a bus ticket is their legal entitlement to a seat on the bus; even when that seat is situated in the wheelchair designate area; and, they refuse to move on these grounds. The poor old bus driver must decide whether to tackle the noncompliant passenger or apologise to me – an embarrassed ‘sorry’ and shrug of the shoulders is usually easier.

Rush hour travelling in London is, as you all know, frenetic at the best of times and living hell at the worst. The coming home, as far as I can recall, being the worse. People are knackered; they’re brain weary; and, their souls that bit more spent than yesterday. Feeling like this it’s hardly surprising that most passengers just want to get home, or to whatever place of refuge that’ll salve their savaged soul, and get there as speedily as they can.

Stop, start; doors opening people spilling off while others pour in. Oh Christ, it’s 5:55 pm and we’re crawling along Kennington Park Road; will I ever reach Brixton Station?

Another stop; a man in a wheelchair has an expectant look of boarding. The bus is heaving with tired and jaded people. The driver gave up ages ago counting passengers on; people are crammed so intimately as to be legally engaged to one-and-other. There is no room on the bus.

Frustrated, I mimic the drivers shoulder shrug and wonder if I’ll ever get home and if I do will it be before or after a yellow leakage.

Thus, taking the car away from disabled people like me would be a breach of our freedom to move around more easily, more conveniently and with less pain and stress. Such a measure could, and would, impact on our health; expose us to greater indignity; and, make someone like me more dependent on others to get around.

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