London bus travel – the best in the world?

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To coincide with the launch of our transport report, End of the Line 2016, Joe Richardson blogs about his experiences of travelling on buses in the UK and abroad.

Public transport can be a nightmare for anybody. But asking any wheelchair user about their experiences will, I’m sure, bring some even more interesting stories.

Having used regular bus services in Umea (Sweden), Munich, and now London, I thought some readers might be interested to hear about my experiences of bus travel across the world.

My previous experience in London

Having grown up in the south, I used to go to London quite a bit. The Tube wasn’t worth even considering then (we now have the more accessible Jubilee line) but I was told the buses would be fine.

But after a while I stopped attempting to use them. During my last experience, the bus driver refused my entry because, he said, there was a ‘rule against my scooter’. The driver couldn’t remember what the rule was, but he knew there ‘definitely was one’.

I never found out what that rule was and doubt the driver did either, but it appeared to be a recurring theme. In the end I wrote to the Minister of Transport, providing details of my scooter, and received a letter back telling me I should absolutely be allowed on and to carry that letter with me to show drivers that weren’t allowing me to travel.

Clearly something was being lost in translation between them and the drivers. But it made me wary of attempting to use buses because I just didn’t want the confrontation every time, and the disgruntled looks from other passengers annoyed at me causing trouble for the driver.

A year and a half ago I went to Sweden and was interested to see, with the reputation for equality of the Swedes, if the experience would be any different.

The Swedish buses

The first time I got on a bus was with my Swedish room mate and to my relief there was no problem whatsoever. The driver came out, unfolded the ramp, and we were away.

Then I went to take the bus by myself. As the doors didn’t open I saw the driver shaking his head and pointing at my scooter. I tried another bus on a different day and received the same response.

I took a trip to the transport office looking for answers, as again the drivers gave me different reasons for refusing my entry, from battery danger, to wheelchair brakes, and to stability issues. The transport office gave me the same response as those in London; it was not acceptable that I was refused entry. So who had been giving the drivers these rules exactly?

In the end I stopped trying to use those buses as well. Which brings me on to the next experience…Munich.

The Munich buses

I was told all sorts of stories of German efficiency before arriving and how my previous experiences would be distant memories. To avoid repeating myself, they weren’t. It was exactly the same story. Drivers would tell me there were rules against my scooter. But the transport office said it was unacceptable that I kept being refused entry, I received a letter to show the drivers, and they still refused my entry.

If you’re still reading, good, because this is the important part; my return to London.

The new London bus experience

Working at a studio in Shoreditch, the only possible way for me to get there without having an apartment (different story) was a bus from St Pancras station. You can probably imagine my deflation, I was reassured, however, that things had changed and was told about a service from Transport for London to help build confidence in taking the bus, so I thought I’d give it a go.

I was to meet a member of their team, Janet, at St Pancras station, where they would show me the best route to take and they would travel with me to see any problems and help overcome them. At the end of our trip I would be given a mobility aid card to show the drivers that I was capable of travelling on the bus.

It felt like I was almost taking a test in order to ride the bus, but if this card meant no more confrontation, a badge to stop the never ending excuses for refusal, then I was happy to take the test.

I met Janet at St Pancras and she was fantastic from the start. She spoke about the service, and the training they do with all of the drivers, but there was still something in the back of my mind; it’s travelling on my own that bus drivers have the biggest problem with.

So, I passed (wahoo) and received my mobility aid card. In theory before the bus even arrived I would hold the card out and bam, the driver wouldn’t have a reason for refusal.

I felt anxious but confident for my first time alone. I held out the card at the bus stop, the driver pointed at me then pointed to the side door as the ramp started to automatically slide out…the card was working.

One day before I even produced the card a different driver had given me the nod of approval that he’d seen me and acknowledged I wanted to get on the bus, I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing, Sweden no, Germany no, but after three weeks in London using the bus twice a day I haven’t had a single problem. So what about this card?

I’m glad I have this mobility aid card, it feels like I have something to fall back on just in case of a problem, but in reality perhaps it’s more the training that Janet was talking about that is the real hero here. I still go to the drivers every day and say thank you, they treat me like I haven’t been a problem whatsoever, and the reality is it’s because I haven’t. Their job is made easier with the automatic ramps, the servicing the buses receive to make sure no bus goes out of the garage with a ramp not working provides prevention, not cure, and whatever the training is these drivers receive I can say it’s working; they’re comfortable letting me on, and I’m comfortable knowing they will do so.

These cards don’t seem necessary,but if it gives other wheelchair users confidence to take a bus they previously wouldn’t have, then more people will become comfortable with wheelchair using passengers on the bus.

All of this adds up to what I feel slightly surprised about saying but…London buses, are quite possibly the best experience of bus travel in the world. I’d love to hear experiences from others, particularly those using a scooter like I do. 

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