While the South African public transport infrastructure has improved significantly since the advent of democracy, persons with disabilities remain deeply frustrated by a system that is intended to be universally accessible but, well, misses the bus.
“The government has excellent and noble intentions, but intentions are not enough. We’ve made progress, but we still have a long way to go,” says Danie Marais, universal design and accessibility manager at the National Council of and for Persons with Disabilities (NCPD).
Public transport plight
He cites the Rea Vaya rapid bus transit (BRT) system in Johannesburg as a case in point. Unless the driver parks the high-step bus right alongside the platform, it’s almost impossible for persons with mobility impairments to board. If a Rea Vaya bus breaks down, passengers with mobility aids have to depend on fellow passengers to help them off. This has profound health, safety and public liability consequences.
“It’s frustrating that something as essential as the public bus service fails the 580 000 people with disabilities who live in Johannesburg,” says Marais.
By contrast, Tshwane, Cape Town and George all operate low-step buses that provide relatively easy access. “Bus contracts have been awarded in Ekurhuleni (East Rand). We are excited to note that a universal design expert has been appointed in this case. It’s great that some of our cities are getting it right,” he says.
A long way to go
However, there’s plenty to be done.
“Someone living in Alexandra needs to catch up to four taxis to get to a Rea Vaya station. Taxis are not accessible for most persons with disabilities, which compounds their transport nightmares. It makes it close to impossible for persons with disabilities to live independently, to get to and from work without hassle, to socialise with friends or simply to go to the shops,” Marais says.
The lack of accessible public transport contributes to the isolation, marginalisation and demoralisation of persons with disabilities, he adds.
Textbook examples of success
Some elements of the South African public transport system do better than others. The Gautrain, for example, is a textbook example of universal accessibility. There is wheelchair access at all stations and announcements are clearly made on speakers and on digital notice boards.
However, passengers with mobility impairments often have to wait a long time for a carriage that accommodates a wheelchair and the Gautrain turnstiles are inaccessible for most persons with disabilities – especially persons with visual impairments.
“About 13 percent of all South Africans have a disability and most are let down by a public transport system that is not designed to be accessible,” Marais says.
The organisation invites city planners and transport departments across the country to work with it to bring profound, effective change to public transport and make it a system that works for everybody. NCPD national offices are located in Gauteng at 82 Andries Pretorius Road, Edenvale, and they can be contacted on 011 452 2774.