Looking At Edinburgh

2 October 2008

LRT buses: a space defined

LRT buses - the wheelchair space

This current event blew up on 16th July with a question on Mumsnet:

I was down at Ocean Terminal the other day and the bus driver said that as my pram wouldn’t fold down like a pushchair, he couldn’t let me on and said it was a new policy of Lothian Buses hmm
I’ve checked their website and couldn’t find anything, tried calling them but no answer so just wondering if anyone else has heard this?

Then on 29th July there was a nasty comment piece in the Evening News by Brian Hennigan, in which he began by asserting

“And while one can sympathise with mothers who wish to take younger children on buses, with prams, their position is in no way comparable to those who use wheelchairs” because “pram-users have all chosen to be in the situation they are in. Wheelchair users have not” and finished up with a couple of entirely gratuitous fleers at “conceited mothers” who fail to “communicate to their children the importance of good manners” and “mums” who haven’t considered that if they walk everywhere when their baby is too young to sit in a folding buggy, it’s good exercise.

A plea for “common sense” followed from Steve Cardownie, echoed by an editorial in the Evening News on 8th August:

With limited floor space it is clear that both rigid prams and wheelchairs cannot be accommodated simultaneously. But how often does this happen? So far, Lothian Buses is unable or unwilling to say.
It would be easy to have some sympathy with the company were this problem not of its own making. Before it re-issued guidelines to drivers instructing them not to allow mums with prams on board things appeared to work well. … While the company’s aim is clearly to be seen as not to discriminate against disabled people the outcome of its actions is that it is now discriminating against mums with prams.
The company is not being asked to tell drivers that they must allow all passengers with prams to board. They are simply being asked to allow drivers to use their common sense and discretion to allow them to do so if the wheelchair space is unoccupied.
By informing pram passengers they may be asked to leave the bus should the space be required by a wheelchair user during the journey they will be meeting their obligations under current legislation.

In fact, worse than discriminating against women with small babies, LRT’s policy was also discriminatory against disabled babies (Evening News, 14th August:

Caroline Docherty, from Royston Mains Avenue, said she now finds it very difficult to get around, and to take Sophie to hospital appointments. She has written to Lothian Buses asking it to make an exception for her pram.
She said: “Sophie can’t go in a fold-away buggy or pram as she cannot hold her head up. She gets fed through the tube and has a monitor on her 24/7 for her breathing. She has fluid on the brain and has serious brain damage. We don’t know if she’s going to be able to walk when she’s older.
“I’ve tried to get on seven different buses in the last couple of weeks and they all refused me. I explained that my daughter has a disability, but they still wouldn’t let me on. I have no other way of getting to hospital with her. There must be lots of other mothers in a similar situation.”

Pilmar Smith, chairman of LRT, decided to flame the argument even more by writing a letter in which he

addressed their argument that drivers should be given discretion to let prams on board, by citing examples of dogs and drunks.
He said that drivers could use their discretion to allow some dogs on board but refuse, for instance, “wet, muddy Great Danes”, or rowdy drunks.
But, he insisted, that same freedom cannot be given to drivers when it comes to prams.

By the beginning of September, Kenny MacAskill, Justice Secretary and MSP for Edinburgh East and Musselburgh, became yet another political voice calling for the common sense solution (Evening News, 2nd September) Given MacAskill’s constituency (Musselburgh is six and a half miles from Edinburgh’s city centre) , he ought to have been well aware that Hannigan’s telling women with young babies simply to walk everywhere until their babies are old enough for a folding buggy was pernicious nonsense.

“Lothian Buses are trying to engage with parents and we are trying to work towards a solution. We’ve got to balance wheelchair access to buses with access for parents.
“We need to allow drivers to use their common sense. There’s a difference between a crowded bus at peak times and one where there is plenty of space for a pram or buggy.”

Disturbed by this, Neil Renilson, chief executive of Lothian Buses, wrote on 5th September:

“On a typical weekday, the number of occasions when wheelchair users board a Lothian Buses vehicle ranges from between 285 to 340.
“Typically, circa 20 per cent of requests by drivers to adults with pushchairs to vacate the wheelchair space to allow a wheelchair user to board result in a refusal to do so. The level of refusals can vary depending on the time of day and the route involved, but, as a result, every day a substantial number of wheelchair users find that they cannot board the bus they wish.
“Some give no reason and simply tell the driver ‘No’, while a few supplement their ‘No’ with abuse directed at the driver.
“When a request to vacate the wheelchair space is made to those who have boarded with a pram that cannot be folded and stowed in the luggage rack, and the only option to vacate the wheelchair space is to leave the bus, the rate of refusal climbs to circa 50 per cent.”

(It should be noted that despite multiple requests, Renilson was unable to show any evidence for his impressively definite percentage claims.)

The next key voice to join the calls for a common sense, flexible approach was David Hunter, who led the drive to make LRT buses more accessible when he worked for the city council between 1990 and 2001 (Scotsman, 9th September):

The idea of low-floor buses was to make them more inclusive, for disabled people in particular, but also to benefit other members of the community.
This seems contrary to the spirit of what the low-floor buses are about. It’s throwing the baby out with the bath water.
This was a revolutionary change in the use of bus services. They had been considered a no-go area for disabled people before. A lot of people in the mid-1990s thought it wouldn’t work. They said the number of wheelchair users was very small – only about one per cent – and the bus company argued it wouldn’t be cost-effective.
Our counter argument was it wasn’t just for wheelchair users. It would also benefit people with luggage, elderly people and parents with children. We very much saw it as something that would have wider community benefits.”

Shirley-Anne Somerville, MSP for the Lothians, led a delegation of women with children to speak to the council on this issue, and pointed out what none of the men had:

“It’s time for a commonsense agreement to be reached on this issue. Everyone understands and accepts the need for a wheelchair space to be available on buses, but for a mum waiting in the rain to be denied the space when it’s not in use is just daft.
“As a user and supporter of Lothian Buses I applaud the effort they have made to improve accessibility on their services, but as a mum with a large pram myself, I am also fully aware of the difficulties this confused policy on prams can create.
“Mums may find themselves allowed on the bus for one leg of the journey, then denied on the way home. We need to get a bit of clarity and ensure common courtesy prevails.”

(I mention, since no one else did, that given the price of a bus ticket, that LRT would likely get less resistance from women being asked to get off the bus to make way for a wheelchair user, if they could be offered a transfer ticket. As it stands, if you change buses, unless you have a day or a season ticket, you pay twice.)

Hazel Mollison, one of the journalists covering this issue in the Scotsman/Evening News, wrote an opinion piece on 18th September:

But this row highlights one of the ways our city is perceived as being far from child-friendly. Many first-time parents are shocked when they discover how difficult it is to get good service in cafes and restaurants, and how few people offer help when they struggle up the steps with their prams.
…(see also: You won’t believe what’s happening at Leith Victoria)
Parents often find themselves treated as second class citizens in shops, cafes and restaurants. One friend recently had lunch with a group of mothers in a city centre restaurant. They ended up having to change their babies on the floor of the ladies’ toilet as there were no other facilities. And almost all of them have found themselves struggling to open heavy doors with no-one offering to help.

The difference is especially noticeable when you travel abroad. Italian and Spanish restaurant staff invariably make a fuss of babies, and other customers are more likely to smile than look disapproving. It’s almost unknown to see a sign saying children aren’t welcome.

By 24th September, a delegation of Edinburgh City Councillors was to visit LRT and make plain to them (they are LRT’s largest shareholders and elect the board of directors) their displeasure at this public relations disaster and failure to serve the public. Evening News:

City transport leader Councillor Phil Wheeler said: “I am disappointed that Lothian Buses has been so heavy handed in this issue. I don’t see why they can’t allow the drivers to use their discretion. I would like to ask the company to close out this fiasco and change their stance.”

Councillor Ian Perry, the city’s Labour transport spokesman, said: “I understand that the council cannot interfere with the operational side of Lothian Buses but we are the biggest shareholder, and we have a moral duty to step in because people are being denied access to vital services.”

Councillor and City Leader Jenny Dawe had already said on 4th September:

“I think the (previous] situation where drivers used their discretion worked reasonably well. What I would like to see is Lothian Buses going back, and allowing their drivers to use their discretion. If there is space that hasn’t been taken up by a wheelchair, they should allow the driver to decide (whether to let a pram on].”

And on 30th September, the Equality and Human Rights Commission weighed in: Ros Micklem, National Director for Scotland, said:

“The Equality and Human Rights Commission recognises that Lothian Buses is trying to comply with disability discrimination law.
However, we believe that this does not have to be an ‘either/or’ argument about the competing needs of wheelchair users and parents with small children. We feel that there is scope for a more flexible approach that would benefit both parents and disabled people.
A common sense approach is needed, one that allows parents with buggies to access the space when it is not needed by a wheelchair user, on the clear understanding that the space would be given up for a wheelchair user if necessary.”

In case common sense doesn’t work, the e-petition to the Scottish Parliament (Equal access to public transport operators) will still be accepting signatures till 17th October 2008.

Update, 6th October (Mothers step up pram ban battle):

Gillian Richards, 36, a graphic designer, has designed the poster, which is based on Lothian Buses’ information given to drivers.

She said: “When I saw the poster produced by Lothian Buses, I thought I just had to highlight the confusion this is causing. There are such an array of prams and travel systems that this makes it very difficult for the drivers. Their managers have put them in a position where they have to try to tell which buggy’s which.

“The ones they recommend have no head support, and so are only suitable for babies over six months.

“I know in the past women weren’t able to take prams on buses, but things are different now. There is an expectation that everyone can use public transport. Most mums go out to work now, and so they may need to use the bus to take their child to nursery.”

Article 12 in Scotland, the organisation that promotes children’s and young people’s rights, has offered to donate £200 to the campaign to help print posters and flyers.

1 Comment »

  1. […] not children being the babies: But this row highlights one of the ways our city is perceived as being far from child-friendly. Many first-time […]

    Pingback by You won’t believe what’s happening at Leith Victoria « Looking At Edinburgh — 2 October 2008 @ 9:34 am

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