Public transport is used by more than 50 billion passengers each year, worldwide. It is a convenient way to get around without having to drive a car, and it’s not a surprise that it’s so popular. However, some people find it easier to use public transport than others. People who have disabilities may find it difficult to travel on public transport due to many factors, however, accessibility is definitely one of the main ones. Accessibility to public transport for disabled customers is important because many disabled people don’t drive, and therefore need public transport to get around.
One reason for public transport’s importance to the disability community could be the cost of driving. Buying, using, and maintaining vehicles is very expensive (even more so if you require vehicle modifications to account for your disability), which becomes even harder once you consider the disability pay gap. In New Zealand, Stats NZ has found that disabled people earn an average of about half that an able-bodied person earns weekly. This highlights the importance of making sure public transport is an accessible resource by all.
Throughout this article, I will include photographs from one of my university assignments. While the photographs focus on wheelchair accessibility on public transport, I will be discussing disability accessibility as a whole. I have watermarked my images just so they can’t be used elsewhere without crediting me – you can never be too careful.
Earlier this year during our Creative Communication class at University we were given the assignment of creating a photographic narrative based on the theme “I ōrea te tuātara ka patu ki waho” (A problem is solved by continuing to find solutions). I instantly knew I wanted to do something disability-related. The issue, however, is that a lot of the problems I overcome on a daily basis (such as chronic pain, fatigue, brain fog) aren’t visible, and therefore can’t be easily photographed in a narrative sequence (unless I chose to take the abstract artistic route). We were told that our images had to speak for themselves, so we couldn’t include any words with them to explain the elements and their meanings. So instead I focussed on an issue my brother faces quite often: Wheelchair accessibility on public transport.
Once I had taken the photos, I decided I would try removing all of the colour from the images except for select areas of yellow. I thought this would be a striking effect that would catch the viewer’s eye. I did choose yellow because it is a prevalent colour on and around Auckland public transport, however, the main reason I chose it is because yellow is the colour of caution. From a young age, we’re taught that yellow is a sign to stop and think. I thought this colour symbolises how whenever a disabled person uses public transport, they have to extensively think about it and plan out their journey to ensure a relatively smooth ride.
Large gaps and steps between trains and the platforms
The first issue I addressed in my photographic story, and the first issue I’ll be addressing first in this article, is the large gaps that are sometimes present between the platform/footbath and the train/bus. The gaps between the platform and the door on trains can vary from very small to quite large, depending on the type of train you’re riding. While I’m living in the large (for New Zealand, anyway) city of Auckland, our train station doesn’t have a direct connection to the electric rail line that goes through the rest of the city. Instead, we have to catch a diesel (which is also older) train to the next town over, then disembark, then hop back on to a newer electric train for the rest of the way.
While the newer trains have easy access points for people with disabilities, these older ones don’t. They require the passenger to take a large step to board them. Or, if you are unable to do so, they have ramps the train manager/conductor can attach to the step to assist you in boarding the train.
While the ramp technically fixes the accessibility issue, this can take away some independence from the lone wheelchair travellers. The ramps in the pictures below are steep enough that the wheelchair user, if they aren’t traveling with friends or family, would have to rely on the train conductor/manager to push them up and down the ramp. This may not seem like a big deal to some, but others feel very uncomfortable letting strangers, or even people they don’t know very well, push their wheelchair. The fact that public transport is also a symbol of independence to some disabled passengers also highlights this issue.
This isn’t as much of an issue on buses, because the ramp is often less steep and is, therefore, more easily manoeuvrable for wheelchair users. However, if the ramp isn’t deployed, this can cause issues for disabled passengers.
Even if you aren’t in a wheelchair, large steps or gaps can cause issues. I can not tell you how many times I have rolled my ankle stepping out of a train or bus that has a large step or gap, simply because I’ve done it too many times to count. Since I am prone to ankle sprains and these injuries take forever for me to recover from, this can cause me a lot of pain and impact my mobility for days (if not weeks) to come.
Of course, this isn’t a huge issue as long as a ramp is available to bridge the gap for those who need it. However, it is an inconvenience that can be ridden of (as seen in newer model trains and busses).
Wheelchair/disability accessible train stations (or lack thereof)
The train station in our town is only accessible by either a lot of stairs or a lift. You may be thinking: “What’s the problem? You have a lift! What more could you want?” Well, recently we have been having issues with the lift at the local train station. There are days when it doesn’t function at all. For able-bodied people, this isn’t an issue. However, if you struggle to climb steps and your only access point to the platform is not working that day, where does that leave you?
The funny (but not really funny) thing is that before recent the station upgrade, we did have a ramp (which is always reliable) that has now been replaced with a lift (which can stop working any time). I have heard of passengers during these instances hoping of the train, finding out the lift isn’t working, catching the train back to the next station over and then taking a taxi back over to their local area, which is just ridiculous. The station the next town over is accessible by ramp, lift, and stairs. So if it can be done there, then why not here?
An even more concerning thought is: what happens during an emergency? If there’s a fire on the platform or an earthquake and the lift is inoperable, how does a mobility-impaired passenger leave the station? I’m sure in a life or death situation there would be people willing to help/carry the stranded person/people up the stairs, but why make things more difficult, when in most situations a ramp would solve this problem? Not surprisingly, stations that have lifts but not ramps aren’t just limited to my local town. I have read horror stories and pleas from people with similar concerns from all over the world. I’m hoping this specific topic becomes more talked-about so that this concern, which has such a simple solution, can be eradicated.
This isn’t only an issue for those who use wheelchairs. What if a passenger is using crutches? Sure – I myself can climb multiple flights of stairs in crutches (with a lot of effort), however, that is because I have been on and off crutches for over a decade and had a lot of practice climbing large flights of stairs in high school. I would never expect that of the average crutches user, especially if they have coordination issues such as cerebral palsy. The same goes for a walking frame user, or a walking cane or walking frame user that can’t manage stairs. What happens then? These are genuine questions I have that I don’t have the answer to, but I sure hope the railway staff do.
And then there are the stations that are not accessible by wheelchairs or mobility-impaired passengers– at all. Mobility impaired passengers hoping to reach these destinations are often advised to hop off at the next stop and then taxi or bus back to where you’re wanting to go. Not only is this inconvenient, but it is also unfair.
Comparing the old to the new
As technology develops, our lives are slowly becoming easier. We don’t have to walk for days at a time, we can keep an entire house heated during winter, and we can cook food in just longer than an instant. It becomes obvious, regarding how traveling with a disability on public transport is becoming easier as technology develops, when you compare the old Auckland suburban trains to the new ones. While the old ones have a large step at the doors, the new ones have at least one carriage with disability accessible doors that line up directly with the platform (as pictured below). No ramp or additional assistance is required when boarding these carriages. This makes riding trains faster and more convenient for disabled passengers.
The newer buses, though it can’t be guaranteed when you can catch them, are also an improvement to the older ones. Some busses can be lowered towards to ground with the push of a button, making boarding easier for those who struggle with steps. In my experience, the newer busses also have more room for wheelchairs and prams, which is always a good thing.
Wheelchair friendly aisles/spaces
On the older Auckland suburban trains, there is only ¼ of each carriage dedicated to wheelchair and pram users. The rest of the train is inaccessible to those in wheelchairs. The new suburban trains, however, have a whole car dedicated to wheelchair and pram accessibility. This gives wheelchair users a lot more room to manoeuvre.
The space on trains, even the older suburban ones, becomes a luxury when you compare it to that of buses. In many buses that I have witnessed, there is only space for one wheelchair or pram, while you could fit at least 4 wheelchairs into one car of the older suburban trains. So if a disabled kid in a pram who can not get out of the pram is riding the bus at the same time an adult in a wheelchair wants to hop on, things can get messy.
While these trains and buses are technically accessible, it becomes a struggle for disabled passengers to travel during busy times, especially during peak hours. Trying to manoeuvre around in a busy train carriage or bus can be overwhelming and stressful. This becomes even worse when people do not honour the “priority seating” areas, which can include specific spaces for wheelchairs and prams, and specific seats for pregnant and/or disabled and/or elderly people. There are instances when people may use the wheelchair space for their luggage, or may not vacate the priority seats when they see someone with a walking aid board the bus or train. Both of these things are inconsiderate and make traveling on public transport for disabled people that much harder.
Living in New Zealand, I understand that our public transport is good, accessibility wise, especially compared to that in some other countries. However, inadequate public transport accessibility is something that our community experiences from different places all over the world, and when it comes to disability rights, “good” isn’t always good enough. Access to public transport should be equitable, whether you’re able-bodied, disabled, young, old, or anything in between.
About The Author
Amy Clements is a 20-year-old who has lived with chronic pain, the result of Fibromyalgia, since childhood. In her teens she was diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome in her wrist, which was the result of a netball injury. Amy lives in New Zealand and studies Business part-time at University. She enjoys reading novels and writing. She especially enjoys writing about her experience with chronic illness.