Double decker wheelchair odyssey: How hard can it be for a wheelchair user to travel around London on buses?

As The Independent’s James Moore discovers, very hard indeed

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It was yet another setback for Britain’s beleaguered disabled community: earlier this week the Appeal Court threw out a ruling that would have required bus companies to force people with buggies to move aside in favour of disabled passengers.

The case had set mothers with pushchairs against people in wheelchairs – sparking debate about which group has the hardest time getting around on public transport.

So naturally, The Independent’s deputy editor suggested sending me out into London to see just how difficult it can be for the disabled to take the types of journeys that other people take for granted.

The challenge: to travel by bus from my home in Woodford Green to our offices in Kensington, a distance of 15 miles by the quickest route, in my wheelchair.

“Why not,” said I, all gung ho. “How hard can it be?”

 

Then I mentioned the words “bus” and “problem” to my team-mate at the Frenford Falcons Wheelchair Basketball Club. Every one of them had their own nightmare experience, from conflicts with buggies, to ramps failing to work and angry drivers getting out to kick them, to “the look”, the “oh no it’s one of those people” one sees in the eyes of drivers and passengers.

The message? “We don’t use buses unless we absolutely have to. You must be mad.”

If that wasn’t enough, the route my wife had kindly mapped out for me looked more like something out of Homer’s Odyssey than a commute into work. The quickest route involved five different buses and an estimated journey time of two and a half hours. In the middle of the supposed weather bomb.

Still, I never turn my back on a challenge. Full disclosure: I can walk a bit, although I need two crutches and can manage only short distances. But for the purposes of the experiment I elected to leave the sticks at home and agreed with our photographer that she would intervene to help only in the event of a total emergency.

This was something I had cause to regret after nearly tipping backwards towards the end of the expedition. But more of that later.

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We set out at 8.45am, with the aim of catching the tail end of the rush hour. We promptly missed the first bus.

This was despite a frantic burst of wheeling that would have pleased my basketball coach if no one else. Unfortunately, the driver wasn’t waiting for a wheelchair, a pushchair or for anyone, come to think of it.

We caught the next one. But unfortunately it was the wrong bus. Still, down came the ramp, and up we went, on to a busy but hardly jam-packed double decker and into the disabled space.

Five minutes later, having realised our error, I pressed the “stop” bell. The door opened, passengers alighted, the door closed, no ramp.

“Oh come on,” I shouted, in a voice usually reserved for some of the banking industry’s more sclerotic press officers. Every passenger seemed to be staring at me at this point. Until, that is, a beeping sound came on, and the doors opened again and the ramp appeared. We made a hasty exit in search of the correct bus.

This was a 179. Once again, having pushed the stop bell, no ramp appeared. Again I called out. “You have to wait for everyone else to get off first,” said the driver, irritably, as a queue of people trooped out. Staring at me (again). A little nonplussed, I waited, and the ramp finally appeared.

Later, on at the Indy’s offices, when I related this story to colleagues, they were outraged. “I’d always let someone in a wheelchair off first,” said one crossly. “That’s appalling. I can’t believe he didn’t let you off.”

I do work with wonderful people. But to be honest, I’m not asking to be let off first. It would just have been nice if the driver had simply lowered the ramp when the bus stopped (I’m fairly sure I pressed the disabled stop button) and let me join the queue of exiting passengers like everyone else would.

“Not what we would have expected from a driver. We’ll investigate with the operator,” said the nice spokesperson from Transport for London.

TfL is examining the aforementioned court ruling – which is now being appealed to Britain’s Supreme Court. Its official policy is that disabled passengers should have priority in disabled spaces, and there are signs making that clear all over the place. Drivers are told to enforce it by playing a taped message if someone is refusing to let a wheelchair user board.

This is what Mike Weston, TfL’s director of buses, said on the matter: “London has the largest accessible bus network in the world, serving the entire Greater London area and running to key towns over the boundary into neighbouring counties. The entire fleet of 8,700 buses are low floor, wheelchair accessible and are fitted with ramps.

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“Our guidance to bus drivers clearly states that wheelchair users are to be given access to the dedicated space on our buses even if it is occupied by a buggy or other passengers.

“Drivers are advised to use the onboard automated announcement system to make it clear when the wheelchair space is needed and, if necessary, ask buggy owners to share the space, move or fold their buggies.”

But TfL’s spokesperson told me that unfortunately the body has no legal power to force someone from the bus should a conflict arise similar to that which faced Doug Paulley. He took the case to court after he was denied access to a First Bus in Leeds when a woman with a pushchair refused to move.

The unlucky disabled passenger in London would simply have to wait for the next bus in that event.

On to my next bus, and this time the driver asked where were getting off, so he would know when to put down the ramp. Which was nice. Unfortunately he forget to mention when we’d reached it, although he did call out at the next stop to let us know.

At the next leg – even writing this is exhausting – we encountered our first buggy, which joined the bus after us. It didn’t get folded up, but there was plenty of space on the bus at 11am. Perhaps the weather bomb was keeping people at home. I can’t blame them.

Another buggy user boarded on the penultimate leg, between Islington and Green Park, this time one of those enormous things that are impossible to fold up without an engineering degree.

But the people pushing it found a space, and offered to let us know when we reached Green Park, because they were alighting there too. A little peace and love between wheelchairs and prams in the middle of London. Perhaps it was the Christmas spirt.

The final bus had the nicest driver by far who even moved the vehicle along the pavement to make it easy for me to get in. Unfortunately, it is here that disaster almost struck. I pushed up the ramp only to be struck by the frightening realisation that I was to tip backwards, and the sick fear that I was about to crack the back of the head – although it’s more likely that my shoulders would have borne the impact, one of which has already been smashed to bits.

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Fortunately, as I shouted a (relatively mild) four letter word out, a couple of sharp-eyed passengers leapt to my rescue. London is sometimes characterised as a hard-faced city filled with the sort of people who would step over someone on the street.

It can be that way, but this and other experiences I have had suggest that’s not the whole story.

And thus did a six-bus, four-hour odyssey come to an end without further mishap. Average speed – given the roundabout route – I’m guessing about five miles per hour.

Around the time of the Paralympics I wrote a piece on the difficulties faced by disabled people using the Tube. At the time TfL pointed out that all its buses are accessible.

And that’s true. But using them remains a stressful and exhausting experience, even if you do manage to avoid the sort of conflict faced by the unfortunate Mr Paulley.

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