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By Llewellyn Reynders.
Published on MoveFair - VCOSS transport blog on 12 September 2011.
Making public transport accessible is more than an argument about ramps and lifts at train stations. While the very real problems of train station design has been highlighted by stranded passengers at stations with frequent lift failures – and no ramps – the real problem is more complicated, and more deeply entrenched in the way we think about public transport, and how we design for it.
The media has been abuzz with stories about lift failures in the last few days, including in The Age, The Herald-Sun and a great article in the Maribyrnong Leader. The issue has been sparked by the release of statistics of list failures at train stations, following a question raised in State Parliament by Greens MLC Colleen Hartland. The statistics showed that lifts failed every few days at some stations, particularly Laverton and Footscray. Indeed, Age reporter Clay Lucas (@ClayLucas) has challenged his Twitter followers to make a list of train stations without ramps so he can continue to pursue the issue.
At the same time, VCOSS released a new report, Creating Accessible Journeys, that examined the issues involved in making the public transport system accessible to everyone in much more detail. One issue we covered was access to platforms at train stations, and we found that, at its core, this is not an issue about wheelchairs: it is really about the safety and reliability of public transport for everyone, including parents with prams, people with shopping trolleys or luggage, cyclists, seniors, and people with injuries or difficulty with walking.
The problem with having elevators as the only means of avoiding stairs at a train station is that a whole range of people who can’t get up stairs can be left stranded if the lift breaks down, if there is a power failure or other emergency, or if they just can’t fit in the lift. Small, dark lifts can sometimes be difficult to find, and feel scary if you’re alone at a desolate station at night, with no staff or other people around – you have no idea what is waiting for you when the lift doors open. Lifts can also form nasty bottlenecks at a busy station, and more than one mum has had to queue to use the lift – only to find that she has missed her train as a result. While it is true that installing a lift will meet the technical requirements of the Building Code or the Disability Standards – it often simply doesn’t work for real people.
Ramps, in contrast, have several advantages. Firstly, pretty much everyone can use a ramp. If you have a ramp, you don’t actually need any stairs or a lift: it’s a one-size-fits-all solution (although building codes sometimes require lifts over a certain height). Ramps don’t break down and they don’t need power. You can be pretty sure that, in an emergency, they will still work. You don’t have to queue to use them, and you can usually see what’s up ahead, depending on their design and lighting.
On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that lifts are a bad idea. In some cases, people will prefer to use lifts, especially if they feel safe. Busy city stations like Flinders Street and Southern Cross use only lifts to get people needing level access to platforms – and they generally work quite well. The difference is these are bustling centres of activity, full of people and staff, day and night. The lifts at these stations are spacious and full of glass, there are two on every platform, and the use of escalators helps reduce demand on lifts as some people with small trolleys or difficulty walking have another option. If a lift breaks down, you can always use the other one – and you can be pretty sure someone would help you if anything went wrong and that a broken lift is likely to get fixed more quickly. The constant presence of people at a busy station also helps reduce the level of vandalism.
In other words, the problem is not merely a technical one. We need transport designers to get better at understanding people and what will work for everyone, not merely having to follow a bunch of rules. People are more complicated than that – and what works in one location will not necessarily work somewhere else. Ultimately, we need to make sure that public transport is safe and reliable for everyone, and that means understanding how places and people are different. Public transport is about much more than squishing as many able-bodied adult commuters on their trip to the CBD as we can, for the cheapest price.
It is the 21st century, and our community is changing. Our population is ageing, so our transport must become more age-friendly. As our community becomes more inclusive and enables more people with disabilities to be active and involved , they increasingly need the same ability to use public transport as everyone else – as a means to get to work, school and participate in the life of the community. Becoming a parent no longer means staying at home – parents need to get out and about with their children, to get them to childcare, and to do life’s many tasks. Technology has also played a role, with larger heavyweight prams being purchased, and more powerful electric wheelchairs and mobility scooters becoming increasingly common. Because these new products are easier to use, people want take them further – including on public transport.
VCOSS welcomes the Victorian Government’s recent action to put ramps on a new train station at William’s Landing, and in convening a Station User Panel to advise on the design of new train stations. Making sure that everyone feels safe and confident that they can get onto the train platform is a good start to improving public transport accessibility.
But let’s not forget that there is more to public transport than train stations. For example, last Saturday, I caught a bus. As the shiny orange SmartBus approached, a woman tiredly explained to her two impatient toddlers: “No, we can’t catch this one, we can’t fit on. We need to wait for the green bus.” I felt for her. Making public transport more accessible is not just about being fair, it also just makes life a bit easier for everyone.
Llewellyn Reynders is Policy and Programs Manager at VCOSS.