Steep Ramps and Slow Progress

20 / 03 / 2014

Inadequate public transport infrastructure is a topical issue for a country with a growing population and ever-expanding cities. For many, cramming into train carriages like sardines during the commuter rush hour, and tut-tutting at behind-schedule buses, are our biggest beefs. In this month’s First Person, Janny Ryan takes a hard look at the accessibility of Melbourne’s public transport system for those with a disability, and shows how simple, fixable problems are posing almost insurmountable obstacles for some commuters.

Riding the Buses 

by Janny Ryan

A friend – a former colleague with paraplegia – has taken to riding the buses. She’s long been a keen driver and is adept at dismantling her manual chair and flinging it over her shoulder onto the back seat of her car. But before Christmas she broke her leg (while dancing in a mixed abilities dance group) and ended up with a plaster cast and then, an electric chair, because her leg wouldn’t bend sufficiently for her to manage her manual chair.  

Both forms of wheelchair have their advantages and disadvantages. For my friend, driving was now out because electric chairs cannot be pulled apart and flung about.

I was sitting at a pavement café when she appeared, heading to the nearby bus stop. She told me she was still getting used to the electric wheelchair and, on top of that, was adapting to bus travel. She’d commented to a friend that she’d struck a couple of not very friendly or cooperative drivers. He assured her it wasn’t the wheelchair; they were like that with everyone! We had a laugh.

I was happy to recount my observations of wheelchair users on New York buses a few years back, and a more considerate culture around disability. Unlike here, wheelchair users are first on and first off and all chairs are clamped, and unclamped, by the bus driver. A fellow passenger, an older woman, commented that when wheelchair restraints were first introduced “some of us got a bit huffy about the extra time it took but we got used to it.”

At each stop most passengers headed to the back half of the bus while the front was generally dedicated to wheelchair users and others with limited mobility or older frail people, or perhaps a mother with little ones.  As someone with hopeless balance and a walking stick, I happily qualified for the front part but there was ongoing calibration as to who had the greatest need to be in the most convenient spot, that is, close to the door and the driver.

It was not unusual to change seats to cater for someone less mobile. While it’s perhaps easier when travelling to view things through a rose-tinted lens, I certainly found it a far more caring and safe environment than any bus or tram journey I’ve taken here.

My month-long New York stay coincided with an anniversary of 9/11 and we learnt that Australian fire fighters were being funded to join memorial events. I was wishing they’d send over our bus drivers instead for a bit of in-service!

***

Back in Melbourne, I accompanied my friend to the bus stop feeling an ally wouldn’t go astray. I checked the timetable at the stop, something she couldn’t do given there was a street seat that hindered her access to it.

When the bus arrived, I was there in full protective mode. I wanted the journey to be as efficient and easy, as safe and secure, as it could possibly be. I waved her off with slightly exaggerated fervour – I wanted that driver to know I cared about this woman, my friend, and I wanted him to care about her too.

She later reported that it had gone pretty well. Another wheelchair user had got on at the next stop – a real plus – and the driver was friendly. The downside was that a seat that was meant to fold back to make way for her chair wasn’t working and she had to hold it up for the duration of the trip, and at the the other end the ramp was steep. “Bus stops should be a uniform height,” she told me, to avoid overly steep ramps. “And there should be wheelchair restraints.”

Before her last accident, my friend had ventured onto buses using her manual chair. Aside from being less convenient than a car time-wise, she’d found the inconsistency of the height of bus stops a real problem. She was always frightened of falling forward and out of her chair on a steep ramp. “It’s the usual thing, a lack of detail around infrastructure,” she said resignedly.

In 2006, just before the Commonwealth Games, we visited Federation Square to check out a (now defunct) wheelchair rental service. As we looked across at the Yarra River and the spectacular oversized fish sculptures commissioned for the official opening, and as I ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ at their beauty, she, an ardent arts lover and practitioner, quietly observed, “For the money it cost, we could make this city fully accessible overnight.”

It’s a long, slow process.

 

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