Accessible buses: getting up close

Accessible buses: getting up close Accessible buses: getting up close
Around half of London’s bus stops are now fully accessible according to an audit of over 17,000 of them recently carried out by Transport for London (TfL). In other words, they can now be used without impediment by people in wheelchairs.

While one has to wonder why the figure isn’t higher given all the stress placed on ensuring people with disabilities are not discriminated against and the amount of money bus operators have been obliged to spend on onboard wheelchair access ramps, at least the situation doesn’t appear to be getting worse.

“There is still a lot of work to do however to ensure that all bus stops are fully-accessible,” says Gail Engert, chair of London TravelWatch’s access to transport committee. “There is absolutely no point in having accessible buses if people cannot get on and off them.”

The sort of things that prevent stops from being accessible include the inability of buses to get close enough to the kerb – within 200mm, especially if the wheelchair ramp needs to be deployed – for easy boarding and alighting. That may be because somebody has parked a car or a van at the stop and has been allowed to get away with it due to failure to enforce the parking regulations.

Even if the bus can get near enough, it may be difficult if not impossible to open the doors and deploy the ramp thanks to assorted obstructions on the pavement. There is also the point that the kerb should be at least 125mm high, TravelWatch points out.

Some London boroughs are far worse than others says Engert.

“While 85 per cent of stops in Kingston are accessible only 31 per cent in Barnet are,” she reports. “We will continue to press TfL and local councils to do everything necessary to ensure bus stops are accessible for all.”

In a recent memorandum, TravelWatch states that some boroughs take the view “that there is a balance to be struck between the needs of vehicle drivers to park at the kerbside and the need for disabled access to bus services and have concluded that at some locations parking should be prioritised.

“This effectively means mobility-impaired passengers are not able to use some bus services and even where buses are accessible at the boarding point mobility-impaired passengers will not have the confidence to travel if they can’t be sure of alighting.”

TravelWatch takes the view however that the Disability Discrimination Act imposes a duty on local authorities to provide wheelchair users with the same level of access to bus services as the able-bodied.

To comply with this requirement it believes that stops should be clearways during the hours buses serve them. That often means at least 18 hours a day; 24 hours a day for preference to make compliance easier, it suggests.

TravelWatch keeps a close eye on activities that may impede bus stop use and is quick to make its views known. It recently managed to persuade the borough of Westminster not to convert a 24-hour bus stop clearway in Oxford Street into a part-time clearway and a part-time loading bay for the huge Primark store.

Slightly less than 40 per cent of Westminster stops are accessible.

One problem with stop accessibility contends TravelWatch is that bus drivers don’t always pull up close to the kerb even when they are able to do so; something that needs to be addressed by training.
So what’s the situation with bus stop accessibility elsewhere in the country?

“Across West Yorkshire we have a programme to ensure that kerbs with a minimum height of 125mm are installed during any highway maintenance programme,” says a spokesman for Metro, the West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive.

“In addition, investment has meant that to date around 3,300 – almost 64 per cent – of the 5,200 stops on core routes have been upgraded with raised kerbs to allow level boarding,” he continues.

“What’s more, bus stop clearways have been introduced to enable buses to park parallel to the pavement and additional parking enforcement has been supported by Local Transport Plan funding to deal with particular problems at specific locations.”

“There are 6,000 bus stops in Tyne and Wear and most of those on major routes have been altered to aid access to low-floor buses,” says a spokesman for Nexus, the region’s passenger transport executive. “About 80 per cent of the buses in Tyne and Wear are now low-floor.

“As far as illegal parking at bus stops is concerned, Nexus is working closely with bus operators and local councils to reduce it,” he continues. “Earlier this year we ran a major media campaign to raise public awareness of the problem, including radio advertisements and posters.”

In support, South Tyneside Council operates a car equipped with cctv that is regularly on the look-out for rogue parkers; including those that obstruct bus stops.

Improving access may come up against one key obstacle in the coming months; cutbacks in public spending. “We’re concerned that austerity will have an impact,” says TravelWatch.

“We’re planning more stop upgrades for the coming year but they may be affected by the government’s spending review,” says Metro.

Despite the ongoing need by the public for their products, ramp makers are finding the UK market tough going says Compak’s global sales and marketing director, Tony Rodwell. “Bus registrations are down significantly and you can’t sell a ramp if you haven’t got a bus to put it on,” he observes.

Compak is enjoying export success however, in part thanks to its innovative approach to design and its willingness to be flexible.

“In southern Spain for example there’s a requirement for a manual ramp to be present on a bus in case the powered ramp fails, so we’ve come up with the Dual Action, which offers both facilities,” he says.

France is developing into a strong market for ramps – so is Dubai, says Rodwell – and Compak hopes to capitalise on it. “Over the next two years operators there will have to catch up quickly so far as retrofits are concerned,” he comments.

People in wheelchairs don’t always board vehicles using ramps. Some use lifts, and the rising weight of wheelchairs means that those lifts often have to offer more capacity than they did previously.

Ratcliff Palfinger for example is now offering an internally-mounted C-Thru lift with a 500kg lifting capacity and a big platform. It is 900mm wide and 1,500mm deep – an 800mm x 1,350mm platform can be specified instead – and has high-visibility handrails along with a 150mm high-visibility side guard.
Ricon offers the S-Series and K-Series lifts while PLS produces a fully-automatic lift under the GX – Generation Xtra – banner. It has also developed NX2A, a revised version of its NX Magic Floor front access system designed for coaches.

Given that wheelchairs are getting heavier it is surprising that the ISO standard only requires wheelchair restraints to be tested to 85kg.

However Q’Straint’s Q-140 and Q-195 restraints for instance offer a 140kg and 195kg rated capacity respectively while Unwin’s Titan line-up can handle wheelchairs weighing up to 200kg.

Unwin’s minimum standard is 120kg and the company is in the process of setting up a fully-equipped test centre in a new, purpose-designed, building at its Martock, Somerset site. The equipment will be commissioned in the autumn.

Something that looks set to have a major impact on wheelchair users and vehicle operators is BSI PAS 900, a code of practice for wheelchair passport schemes that was about to be unveiled at the time of writing. Unwin is among its sponsors.

Attached to the wheelchair, and designed to aid transport providers and drivers among others, a wheelchair passport contains all the key information required about the wheelchair and the user’s needs.

Passports are already around, but their content varies from county to county. The guidelines contained in the Code of Practice should lead to greater standardisation; and easier understanding nationwide.