Accessibility and dystopia on Greater Manchester’s buses.

Accessibility and dystopia on Greater Manchester’s buses.

In the UK, people with mobility difficulties make 42% fewer trips than people with no mobility difficulties.

And, if you can believe it, it’s getting worse. At the current rate of decline, passenger numbers will drop by 10% from 2010-22, but trips by elderly and disabled people will fall by almost 20%.

We think there are many reasons for this, horrendous austerity cuts disproportionately hitting disabled people being a very important one of them. However, we also think the problem has been worsened by having 30 years of deregulated and privatised buses across a lot of the UK.

Starting in 1986, everywhere outside of London was forced by Thatcher to deregulate and privatise their buses, meaning we have little control over the vast majority of regional buses timetables, fares, ticketing, and driver’s pay and conditions. Companies are in the driving seat, cherry picking the most profitable routes, filling their pockets with £184 million a year, and demanding public money to subsidise anything else at a price they choose.

Accessibility of buses is not the priority. Instead, it’s profits over people’s needs. This is why we’re campaigning for better, publicly controlled buses that meet the needs of passengers and staff.

As the above displays, it is often passengers with disabilities who find it hardest to use our wildly inadequate buses in Greater Manchester. We spoke with fantastic campaigners, including Shabaaz Mohammed, an artist, film maker and campaigner with Manchester Disabled People Against Cuts. We discussed some current problems faced on our buses, some of the solutions found across the UK, and what a future dystopia could look like in Greater Manchester if we don’t intervene to get better, publicly controlled bus services.

  1. Delving into specific examples, ramps sometimes or often do not work in Greater Manchester.

Shabaaz noted: “For example, when a bus replacement service is put in place to replace the same bus service, they also need to be accessible and of the same standard, for the wheelchair user or disabled person to be able to use them as efficiently as they would do a normal service.”

In London, bus companies are given considerable fines for any bus caught without a working ramp, meaning bus companies do not send them out onto the streets, and they fix them quick.

  2. A big issue is a lack of regular training and codes of best practice from bus companies. In Jersey, where they also have publicly controlled buses, they offer training to all disabled passengers who want to travel independently. LibertyBus in Jersey also provides access cards, which simply allows people to communicate any extra support needed to the driver.

Liberty buses survey showed that over 30% of disabled passengers said their confidence and their mobility had improved as a result of using the bus service. Henshaw’s Society for the Blind and Transport for Greater Manchester introduced an orange pass holder, signifying to a driver the passengers needs, as well as a bus hailer card which displays what bus they want to catch to a coming driver. However one campaigner tells us that these have not been taken up by bus company managers at all, with drivers not always knowing what they are, and new routes not being added.

  3. Disabled passengers’ needs are not taken into account when designing buses and the surrounding infrastructure.

Shabaaz noted: “I'm not just interested in accessibility on the bus, I'm also interested in the actual design of the buses, like the wheelchair space. It’s got a bar in it that you can't move: that kind of makes it a bit tricky to get on and off, for me as an electric wheelchair user.

“So, we as residents of all shapes and sizes and disabilities need to be involved in not just the regulation but the procurement, and ideally consulted or (to have) an advisory role on the actual design of the buses as well.”

Citizens with disabilities also have to face the multiple ticketing apps available out there being hard to navigate and use. One campaigner told us that their involvement in the process was far too late to make any meaningful changes. Priority seating placement and the lighting on the bus are further problems. It’s crucial that bus companies don’t purchase buses or start planning, unless they have properly consulted disabled users.

Bus companies are currently completely unaccountable to passengers, and it’s those with disabilities that suffer most.

There are several more problems, as highlighted in GM Coalition of Disabled People’s Mayoral Transport Manifesto.

However, there are places in the UK where improvements can be seen.  While it’s not perfect, London’s publicly controlled bus network is far ahead of ours. In Greater Manchester, with little control over our bus network, we have not been able to force bus companies to introduce audio-visual announcements. In the few instances where we do have them, they are, as one campaigner put it, ‘poorly maintained and are scrolling rather than static, which makes them harder to understand across a range of disabilities’.

On London’s publicly controlled bus network, they have audio-visual assistance on every bus, and have for a while, because Transport for London plans the network and dictates standards to the companies. However, we are under no illusion that Transport for London is the victor here. Campaigners make things happen. If we were to bring our buses into public control, we would be able to use our democratic processes to speak to our representatives and demand they make these vitally needed changes for us, across all the region. This would make travelling less stressful and easier for lots of us.

When thinking on what a dystopian future looks like if we don’t intervene on our bus services, Shabaaz added:

The dystopian worry or future for me is for the bus to become unaffordable for the everyday person.  For it to perversely become the preserve of the upper class.”

Our buses are currently failing us in many ways, from not being affordable or reliable, to not being easy to use, accessible and accountable.

If we don’t fight for better buses which we can control more, then we risk losing this opportunity to transform our buses and make it easier for us all to get on and get about. We risk public services being seen as an avenue to profit for a few at the top, rather than serve our communities.

It’s time we got accessible buses and prevent dystopia, and this means public control.

As Shabaaz notes, “the future beyond, it should be focusing on those everyday utilities, those services or whatever you want to call them, to preserve them for the whole of the population.”

Let’s do this in Greater Manchester Andy Burnham, starting with better buses.

By Shabaaz Mohammed and Pascale Robinson

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