Flash Says…

Archive for December 2010

I raised my hand to speak. “I was really excited about viewing the new Routemaster today, showing off to my friends that I’d seen it – but having been in it, I’m really upset. I just feel that I’m not going to be able to use this bus, and that makes me so sad.”

I’d been one of a lucky few to have a look around the “New bus for London”, along with other disabled people, thanks to Transport for All, and of course our hosts Transport for London (TfL) at their Acton Museum depot.

Flash in the driving seatThe tour got off to a great start as we surveyed the outside of the bus. The exterior is beautiful, with round eye-like running lights, and a glass swoosh along the stairwell which will let in plenty of light and make the space feel bigger and safer. We were talked through several innovative features, such as bonded windows, light weight materials, and a focus on clean, low energy use. Most ingenious is the way that the back platform is open while there’s a second staff member on board, but it can be converted back to operate as a regular door under driver control as necessary.

Then, as we were admitted inside the bus, my excitement and optimism fell away. It quickly became clear that in order to accommodate the iconic rear platform, the interior is full of compromises. Seats in the back half of the bottom deck are high up, as they are above the wheels and other mechanical parts. The step to those seats is equivalent to me stepping up onto my sofa – something a small child will not be able to do, nor people with knee or hip problems. There are some level-access seats around the middle door by the wheelchair bay, but even these pose problems.

Transport for London representatives told us that they wish to have 10 seats on the level floor area. Therefore, five benches were squeezed into place – and the first thing I noticed is that all of them have something immediately in front, be it a barrier (by the door), another seat, or the wheelchair bay. This leaves nowhere that someone would be able to sit with their legs extended even partially – a problem for many ambulant disabled people. I asked what would happen for someone who cannot bend their knee, or who has a leg in plaster to which the reply was “how often would someone in plaster get the bus anyway?” I found this a flippant response; when I was once in plaster from the top to bottom of my leg, I carried on with my daily life. In any case, there are many conditions which mean it is painful and difficult for people to bend their knees. When I use my stick to get about I need to keep my legs out in front of me while I am seated. Why should I be forced to use my wheelchair if I want to travel on this bus – when there might be steps at my destination? Several of us suggested removing certain seats, perhaps rotating them through 90 degrees, or replacing them with flip down seats, but this would break TfL’s magic number of 10 seats – something that is not realistic given the limited space available.

The new Routemaster mocquetteThe level-access seat positions exposed another problem – it was nearly impossible to manoeuvre into the wheelchair bay. We were assured that the space met “minimum standards” but it seemed pretty small to me, and this was aggravated by the position of poles, intended to ensure the wheelchair is contained safely within the bay. In order to move into the bay I first had to push right into a row of seats – if anyone had been sitting there, they would have had to move into the aisle. Then I attempted to reverse into the bay, but due to the position of a pole which trapped me, I had to make something like a 7 point turn in order to finally fit within the bay – by which time, a real bus would have driven off! I lent my chair to a member of TfL staff so he could see how hard it was to access the bay – so he would realise that we were not just picking holes but that even in an “active user” wheelchair (one of the smallest types) – there simply was not enough space.

TfL have already accepted that they would need to alter the poles, but realistically they will need to take out the bench behind the wheelchair bay as well – throwing their ideal of 10 level-access seats out of the window.

As for meeting the minimum standard for bay size – that’s not enough! This Routemaster is branded “A new bus for London”. It is supposed to be revolutionary – leading the way in design and setting the bar for others to copy. I had dared to hope that it might have room for two wheelchair users, so that I could go out with a friend. Instead, I am concerned that it will struggle to accommodate just one of us. It is a bus full of compromises which is in danger of suiting nobody.

If this is the future, I’m disappointed. I had hoped that this would be a Routemaster style bus that I could access, but as it stands I don’t feel I could use it, and that has left me upset.

Of course, I’m grateful to TfL for allowing us access and for testing their bus with real people; they have heard us, and now it’s over to them to make changes. I’d be happy to work with them to find a solution, and I hope I’m invited back when they’ve worked out a better way to include disabled travellers.

View the inside of the bus (showing 8 of the 10 level-access seats) on the Guardian website. The two photos above are by Mike Bristow.

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