People with disabilities have long campaigned for better access to public transport as part of leading independent lives. In response, London’s transport systems have been transformed in recent decades to enable this. However, the gains that were made are now being reversed, particularly where buses are concerned.
London introduced low-floor single-deck buses with kneeling entrances in 1994. Low-floor double-deckers followed shortly after. Now all of London’s 9000 buses are low-floor, with ramp access for wheelchair users. But that is not enough to make the bus service accessible. Bus stops also have to be accessible as well, with a kerb at the right height to work with the ramp that allows wheelchair users get aboard. There should be no parking at bus stops and any street furniture must not interfere with the doors opening or with passengers boarding and alighting.
When I was employed by London TravelWatch, the official transport-users’ watchdog for the capital, I worked for years to get Transport for London to upgrade its stops. To his credit, when he was London’s Mayor Boris Johnson set aside a £15 million budget and set a target that 95 per cent of all stops should be accessible.
That requirement was crucial. At the time, provision on London roads controlled by its borough councils – which are the great majority of them – was highly variable. Some boroughs had 50 per cent of stops that were accessible, other boroughs had 90 per cent. But unless the whole network is accessible bus travel for disabled people will always be hit-or-miss. These passengers need to be able to depend on their destination being accessible.
Johnson’s 95 per cent target was met. Mobility-impaired passengers could therefore get on a bus and be confident they would be able to get off at their destination. And of course these accessibility improvements made boarding buses easier for everyone: visually-impaired passengers, of which there are 30,000 in London; older people; parents with buggies and, indeed, all other passengers, not least those carrying luggage.
However, Johnson’s Vision for Cycling in London, published in 2013, brought with it a single focus on the bicycle. The first substantial kerb separated cycle track scheme was implemented along Stratford High Street and extended along the A11 to Aldgate. TfL introduced 33″‘bus stop bypasses” along the route. These direct cyclists, at speed, through the pavement and around the back of bus stops, meaning that bus passengers have to cross the bike lane to get to the bus stop. Even worse, London boroughs were funded by TfL to implement bike track schemes with so called “bus boarders”. These routed cycles directly through the space in which bus passengers board and alight.
A generation of effort to create an accessible public transport network was put into reverse. We were told all this was fine because the new bus stop designs “worked” in Europe. There were already some examples in London, but those cited were rare and installed at stops with single bus routes that were hardly used by passengers or by cycles. They therefore affected very few people.
Off-road trials were undertaken by TfL and there was post-implementation research undertaken by the Transport Research Laboratory. The terms of reference of this research was limited to investigating and whether or not a zebra crossing would provide some mitigation for the impacts of by-passes. The study did, however, find that cyclists travelled through them at an average of 14 miles per hour and many at 18mph; that cyclists didn’t stop or slow down at the zebra markings; and that occasionally a cyclist and pedestrian would “interact”.
The research concluded:
“The trial showed slightly higher cycle speeds at peak commuting times (AM: 15.9mph, PM: 15.1mph) in the before surveys and a reduction of 0.8 mph in the morning peak once the Zebra crossings were introduced. Before the implementation of Zebra crossings, 38 per cent of people were cycling at more than 15mph which then dropped to 34 per cent.”
The outcome of the study was that Zebra markings are now included at ‘bus stop bypasses despite making very little difference.
“Bus boarders”, implemented exclusively by the boroughs, are much cheaper and more space efficient but far more disliked. Unlike the bypasses they aren’t included in TfL’s bus stop design guidance. These stops mean bus passengers must board and alight their bus to and from a live cycle lane. TfL say they are monitoring these stops.
Both of these new bus stop designs are often looked at as isolated individual features of a street, but they are not. They are part of a whole bus network. If, say, 10 per cent of the network becomes inaccessible then you might as well write off all of it for disabled people.
The bus network is – at least potentially – the only truly accessible part of the public transport system. Yet TfL and the boroughs are discriminating against older and disabled people, because this group is more affected than the general population in terms of their need to access buses and their ability to use bus stops with peace of mind. TfL and the boroughs are, in my opinion, acting unlawfully, because this country has a public sector equality duty that requires them to “advance accessibility”, not undermine it.
TfL knows this to be the case because their own advisers have called attempts to improve these new types of bus stop equivalent to “polishing a turd“. TfL’s own equality assessment flags up the problem of one particular design, but it is nevertheless intent on installing them on the Lea Bridge Road in east London. Here’s what the assessement says:
“Backless bus stop bypasses – This new type of bypass is necessary where there isn’t sufficient space for the standard bus stop bypass. It conserves space by utilising the pedestrian island as part of the footway. It requires that all pedestrians cross onto and off of the pedestrian island in order to continue their journey. This may increase the potential of interactions between cyclists and pedestrians. Pedestrians who have cognitive, mobility and sensory impairments are more likely to suffer from the negative effects of the increased degree of cyclist/ pedestrian interaction. In addition, the amount of manoeuvrability for wheelchair users may be more restricted to accommodate the cycle track as there may be less space.”
TfL and the Mayor’s Cycling Commissioner have met with many representatives of older and disabled groups and been told of their concerns, but these have gone ignored. Recently the National Federation for the Blind UK presented a petition from 150 groups to Downing Street demanding a change in policy.
It was tragic to see blind people recently plead with the Mayor to reverse his policy and reintroduce accessible bus stops. He showed in his answer that he doesn’t understand the importance of the whole network being accessible – he spoke only of consulting on individual stops. Nor did he recognise the impact of borough schemes funded by TfL that don’t follow TfL accessible bus stop design guidance.
Highway authorities have a legal duty to promote equality. What is being done to the London bus network is discriminatory and therefore, in my view, illegal. How have public bodies been able to do this, in a country which supposedly has a strong public sector equality duty and an expressed commitment to enabling independent living?
Image from video of a bus stop bypass on Whitechapel Road by National Federation of the Blind of the UK. Vincent Stops is a former Hackney councillor and lead member for transport who worked on streets policy for London Travelwatch for over 20 years. Follow Vincent on Twitter.
On London strives to provide more of the kind of journalism the capital city needs. Become a supporter for just £5 a month. You will even get things for your money. Details here.