Flash Says…

Posts Tagged ‘wheelchair access

A simple change to a regular journey can reduce a confident traveller to nothing. That’s what happened to me when my train pulled into Paddington this week – and I ended up exhausted and on the verge of tears just from trying to get home. Transport for London, what went wrong?

I turned up at Paddington expecting to take my usual route home (onto Circle / District line, change to Hammersmith & City line at Edgware Road, change to Central Line at Mile End, arrive at Stratford, taxi from there), and this is a good route as although there are 2 changes there is a long rest in the middle.

On arrival at the tube station I was told access to the Circle and District line had closed 2 days previously, and there was no accessible alternative. This was apparently planned maintenance, but I hadn’t seen it advertised anywhere while travelling the previous week, and nor had friends – so it took me completely by surprise.

I asked the staff for a copy of the Step Free Guide so I could plan an alternative route, but nobody had a copy.

One helpful chap (Ben) rang up his manager for me to see if they could authorise a taxi home for me, as has happened before when my usual route was closed. Sheepishly he told me he’d “got an earful” for asking and said he’d been instructed that I should get on the Bakerloo line. This has a long and steep escalator. I took one look and said no way! Ben offered to hold my wheelchair on the escalator but I was having a bad day with my knees and didn’t think I could stand up safely, all the way to the bottom.

I sat briefly in the concourse and rested. It was now 45 minutes since my train had pulled in, and I should have been nearly home by now. I talked to my friends on twitter:

District & Circle lines closed for a month at Paddington. No alternative step free route home! Was told to take big escalator in my chair(!)

I genuinely feel stranded, don’t know what to do. And phone nearly out of juice.

So that left me trying to get a minicab home; I went to Station Reception at Paddington where the Network Rail staff were very kind and let me use their phone. I tried 6 minicab companies and no luck except for one which MIGHT arrive in half an hour, charging £42 (was he joking? I paid £27 for the same journey last week).

This left me no option but to get the bus to Kings Cross and pick up the tube from there; but I wasn’t sure I had the energy to propel myself out of the station uphill to the bus stop. I was already tired and my journey had yet to begin! Still, seeing the bus approaching gave me the incentive I needed to push hard, so I could get on board and rest as soon as possible.

The bus stopped and I pressed the button for the ramp to be released. Nothing happened. I ended up pressing the button four times before the doors opened – but no ramp! So I got my feet on board, and dragged my chair up the step into the bus behind me, at which point the driver slammed the doors closed onto my chair. With me in it. Nice.

I was released, although the bus promptly pulled away while I was still manoeuvring into the wheelchair bay, wheee! Plus I was now facing backwards into the bus with no knowledge of where I was. The visual descriptor was above my head and for some reason the audio announcements were off. I had to rely on other passengers to let me know when we arrived at Kings Cross.

Fortunately those same passengers advocated my presence to the driver, and the ramp was put down so I could leave the bus. I now had to push myself to the underground station, negotiate two lifts and a passageway, but I boarded the tube with no trouble – other than having hit rush hour thanks to all the delays and diversions. This meant that the tubes were crowded and people tripped over me, stuck in the vestibule / doorway space with nowhere else to go.

At Stratford I was SO pleased to arrive, now all I had to do was get a taxi home. I waved my taxicard and was directed to the first Com Cab in line, where I said “Don’t worry about the ramp, I can get out and we can lift it in.” The driver turned to two others and said in a mocking voice “Ooh, we can get out apparently”. So I got in the taxi and said “please can you be careful when you lift my chair, there’s a box underneath…” to which the response to his fellow drivers was “Ooh, there’s a BOX underneath!” This mocking continued with everything I said. Eventually I burst out “PLEASE just LISTEN!” and he turned to his friends saying “Oh, got to LISTEN, that’s what YOU’ve got to do…” I just said “No – YOU!” then gave up and sat back (trying not to cry, well, it had been a bad day).

After a bit more banter with his mates, my driver became bored, lifted my chair into the taxi, and entered the driving seat. I asked “Why is the meter up to £3.80 already when we haven’t gone anywhere?” His reply: “because it took so long to load you”. I was speechless.

Ten minutes later I arrived home and could collapse – not relax – for a while. Two days later I am still feeling the exhaustion in my limbs, and an amplification to my aches and pains. I had planned for a routine tube journey, but thanks to un-advertised maintenance, I ended up with a terrible trip, pushing myself further than expected, and taking an extra two hours to get home.

Thanks friends, I’m fine, just REALLY exhausted. Had a bus driver shut his doors on me, heaving tubes, then a taxi driver who laughed at me.

I am so exhausted I feel like bursting into tears, am also furious about my journey home, everything hurts, angry letter to TfL coming soon.

I wonder what Transport for London will say in response? Watch this space.

Usually, access improvements benefit both wheelchair users and parents pushing baby buggies. So why is it so awkward when both parties meet on a bus? Is there any common ground, or will they automatically resent each other’s presence? Sophie, pregnant mum to a toddler, and Lisa, a wheelchair user, explain where they are coming from.

Sign reading 'Priority wheelchair area. This space is reserved for someone in a wheelchair. Baby buggies. Buggies can use this area if it is not needed by a wheelchair user.'

The wheelchair user

I regularly travel on the buses, but if I could be on the tube for a journey that takes half the time, then I would be. I’m only there due to lack of alternatives.
When I see a buggy on board my heart sinks because I know that either the bus driver won’t stop to let me on; the bus driver will tell me they’re not letting me on because there’s already a buggy there; the driver will ask the parents to fold the buggy and the parent will become verbally abusive; or the parent will fold the buggy but because it takes time everyone else on the bus becomes hostile towards me for making their journey longer. Whatever happens I feel that I’m going to end up hated by someone just for being a wheelchair user.
I can’t fold my chair, because it has a rigid frame. Some bits are removable but that’s far too complex for doing on a bus.
I’ve shared the bay, and it’s not big enough for two!
I wish that… there were both buggy bays and wheelchair bays, like on London’s bendy buses. Signage and awareness are, of course, key issues too. A lot of parents think of the space as “the buggy space” despite the fact that its designation actually is “wheelchair space which may be used by buggies if it’s not needed by a wheelchair user.”
I would like buggy users to remember that they can choose whether to buy a buggy that’s difficult to fold or doesn’t fold at all. I had no choice in the matter.


The buggy pushing parent

I regularly travel on the buses, travelling distances of between 2 and 35 miles. I use a lightweight single buggy, for my 22 month old son. However, I’m expecting my second child soon and will be using a much heavier, bigger double buggy.
When I see a wheelchair on board I dread getting on the bus. It’s nothing personal, I just know that I’ll have to collapse the buggy and then control my son for the journey! On longer trips this is daunting and a bit exhausting.
I can fold my buggy, but being 7 months pregnant, it’s not ideal! It’s hard having to hold a small person while doing it.
I’ve shared the bay, and it was a bit of a squeeze. The bays on most buses have a metal column against it, which is very difficult to manoeuvre round, especially in a hurry (and bus drivers do like driving off when you’re trying to get out of the bay!)
I wish that… the bays were bigger. I also wish the drivers would stop longer at ‘halts’ if they know a buggy user is getting off or on – I’ve often had to sway up a moving bus, because the driver can’t hang on for 30 seconds. Or they have driven away from the stop while I am still trying to get the buggy into the aisle to get off.
I would like wheelchair users to remember that it is not always easy transporting small children and that the bus service is a community service, for everyone.


Sophie and Lisa were speaking to Flash Bristow

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.