Can you please help me off?

The article below was first published in the July edition of Planning News. Planning Institute Australia, Victorian Division‘s monthly magazine. Thoughts expressed are my own.

‘Can you please help me off?’ I’ve lost count of the times I’ve asked this question when travelling on Melbourne’s trams, and thankfully for me, 9 times out of 10, someone says ‘yes’.

But I’m one of the lucky. My wheels aren’t my own, they’re my baby’s, and in a pinch I can travel without them. As well as a mum to little Charlie, I’m a Councillor on Moreland City Council and their delegate on the Metropolitian Transport Forum. Earlier this year I sat through a whizbang presentation about how Public Transport Victoria was going to drive Melbourne’s public transport network into the future. 40 minutes and not one mention of accessibility.  So it was with the 1 in 5 people in Australia with a disability in my mind, that I questioned Public Transport Victoria’s new CEO.  I asked what the plan was to improve the accessibility of Melbourne’s public transport network?

Melbourne’s Accessible Public Transport Action Plan 2006-12  should be wrapping up this year. The APTAP outlined some ambitious targets, those in strategic planning might even say stretch goals. ,  For instance, 55% of boarding points (tram, train & bus stops to us ordinary folk) should be compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and the Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport 2002. Any casual observer of our tram network can tell you that this particular target has not been achieved.

I don’t mean to malign PTV’s new CEO Ian Dobbs, he was but two weeks into the job when I asked that question. However, the answer I got was symptomatic of a broader problem. To me, there is a lack strategic focus on improving the accessibility of our public transport.

For many years I sat on Moreland City Council’s Disability Advisory Group (DAG). Before my pram adventures, the DAG gave me some insight into what it would mean to have a disability in Melbourne. Some stories were positive – the young man in the wheelchair whose bus company, running a public route, timetabled the accessible buses around his work schedule – or the person with vision impairment who would get on the tram and recognised by the driver, would be assisted in their travel . But many were not. The most common tale was the overwhelming number of people with disabilities that didn’t, and couldn’t, use our public transport.

The most important thing that the DAG taught me was the best and most effective way to increase accessibility of anything is to simply involve those that you’re try to provide access to. I remember a lively two  hour conversation about public toilets. This discussion ranged from whether handrails could be installed on both sides of the toilet, (because what if a person has limited use of one arm and that is the side with the rail?), to technical conversations about model numbers and suppliers. It was an eye opener! I had believed that it was just a matter of getting the assurances of the manufacturer that the model met the DDA requirements Obviously, there is much more to the issue.

My experience with this issue is broad, but also limited. My wheels are temporary. When I try to get off a low floor tram at the accessible door, but have difficulties, because the stop’s too short/narrow/non-existent, I console myself with the knowledge this is not forever.

Part of the issue is money . As a councillor at an inner metro council I can relate, there are millions of demands on council funding and not all requests (however worthy) will be met. However, the right of access is an issue of fundamental human right. And when billions get poured into our road network each year, the current level of inaccessibility of our public transport is inexcusable.

And for anyone who has never considered the issue, think about public toilets, public transport, public footpaths and ask have you consulted anyone with a disability?

A great place to read the stories from people with all abilities on Melbourne’s transport network is All Aboard.

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