Public transport and disability in Melbourne

Priority seat
A blue sign with white text which reads, "PRIORITY SEAT: Please ensure that this seat is available upon request for the elderly and people with special needs"

Posted as part of

Blogging Against Disablism Day 2010

Before I start, I will give a quick intro.  I am a temporarily abled, bisexual, cis-gendered, white, middle-class female living in Australia.  If I use any language in this post that is abled, please let me know and I will correct it.

I’ve been thinking recently about how much it must suck to travel on public transport in Melbourne when disabled.  This sign that I took a photo of on Friday is present on buses, trams and trains in Melbourne and nominally this means that the public transport in Melbourne is friendly to those with disabilities.  But on a deeper look that isn’t even remotely true.

Trains are wheel chair friendly, the drivers have ramps in their compartments and I’ve been on trains where the drivers have ordered off passengers so that the wheel chair user can board the train – more common at peak hour when trains on some of the train lines resemble sardine cans more than trains.  When this has happened, there hasn’t even been much audible grumbling, even though those passengers who have gotten off the train may not be able to re-board and may be stuck waiting up to 20 minutes for the next train (depending on the train line).

Trams have wheel chair ramps, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a wheel chair user on a tram.  This isn’t all that surprising as most tram stops are not even remotely wheel chair friendly.

Now I’ve dealt with what many abled people would consider people with disabilities.  This isn’t even remotely the tip of the iceberg though.  There are a whole range of other visible and invisible disabilities, and this is where the sign above comes into play.  Wheel chair users bring their own seat onto public transport and therefore won’t be the ones asking to use the seats as identified by the sign above.  This sign means that those who have disabilities, visible or invisible, often have to ask a complete stranger to give up their seat.  This puts that stranger in a powerful positions of judging whether or not the person asking is sufficiently disabled for them to give up their seat.  I have friends with disabilities who avoid travelling during peak hour because they don’t have the spoons to argue with someone about their need for that seat.  I have recently witnessed, now that we have a new contracted train operator, station staff boarding trains with people and ordering others out of the identified seats.  This of course only works in stations that are staffed, which sadly isn’t very many of them.  I have regularly witnessed people on trams giving up their seats to elderly and pregnant people, though no one asking for a seat due to their need to sit while travelling.

Most stations have tactiles for those with vision impairment to know where the edge of the platforms and lifts are and there are no issues regarding travelling with any form of assistance dog on the trains (all pets and assistance dogs travel free).  The underground stations (3 in Melbourne only) are the only stations with Hearing Loops, so those who are deaf or hearing impaired have to rely on visual displays for details of the next train – which do not exist at all stations and can be incredibly frustrating when the display says, “Listen for announcements” as it did recently for a friend of mine.  The Hearing Loops themselves are problematic as station staff are often unaware if they are working or not and do not know how to correct or fix any issues that arise.  Hearing Loops are not suitable for all deaf or hearing impaired people as the tone of the announcement may be outside the range audible to them or it may be too quiet to be understood.

Metro Trains has a lacklustre accessibility policy nested in their Customer Service Charter.  They state:

We recognise and respect the rights of all our customers and we consult with the Public Transport Access Committee to ensure that Metro’s rail service is accessible for everyone, everyday.

But focus mostly on wheel chair users and those who need assistance boarding the trains.  They do have a TTY service and their website is somewhat accessible.

The Public Transport Access Committee (which I only learnt about tonight) “is representative of disability organisations in Victoria and includes people with disabilities.  Representatives are appointed for a period of three years.”  There are ways to contact members of the committee to raise accessibility issues with them.  This, at least, is somewhat positive for people with disabilities who use public transport in Melbourne.

Yarra Trams have a plan to make their services even more accessible and actually appear to have a policy in place, including working with the Department of Infrastructure.

I haven’t touched on buses because I rarely travel on them myself (not convenient) and the buses I see are rarely so full that someone has to stand.  I am sure that there are bus routes in Melbourne which are that crowded and where people need to ask whether they spend spoons on asking for a seat over spending those spoons standing.

This whole blog post came about after hearing/reading somewhere someone else proudly stating that they refused a person the identified seat on a train because in that first person’s eyes, the other was not sufficiently disabled.  Then after thinking about writing this, friends who have disabilities discussed with me issues they had recently while travelling on public transport in Melbourne.  I don’t have a solution here, and I wish I did.

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10 thoughts on “Public transport and disability in Melbourne”

  1. I don’t know about Melbourne, but a problem we’re encountering a lot here in the UK is partial access. For instance, the timetable might say there’s a bus every half-hour, but there’s no way of knowing whether that will be a ‘kneeling’ bus with easy access and a wheelchair space and so on, or a minibus with several steep steps onto it. How long is it reasonable to wait at a bus stop hoping that “the next one” will be accessible? So we don’t use the buses, the wheelchair space is empty, and people say “oh, but no one uses them…”

  2. I live in the Washington DC area. While there’s lots of promotion for accessible transportation here, I think it is non-existent, unless you take the metro. If you live outside of the metro area, the paratransit services are a disaster, and the buses don’t run too often. And this is a city where transportation is one of the best ones. Imagine a rural town, or farm for that matter. It is just impossible. I always tell people that whatever your disability you have is not the biggest difficulty. The difficulty is when you don’t have a car.

  3. This sign means that those who have disabilities, visible or invisible, often have to ask a complete stranger to give up their seat. This puts that stranger in a powerful positions of judging whether or not the person asking is sufficiently disabled for them to give up their seat. I have friends with disabilities who avoid travelling during peak hour because they don’t have the spoons to argue with someone about their need for that seat.

    This. THIS is my life. Thank you for highlighting this situation. Trains are by far ahead of trams and buses in Melbourne, but that ‘far’ ahead still isn’t all that far at all.

  4. Hi Bec! Love your blog.

    A great post. Years ago, when I did my knee, I got on a tram in PVC pants that I wore because they were the only thing I owned at that stage that would go over the massive knee brace that was holding my leg together. A friend held my cane as I tried to find a seat. I got one, and a lady pointedly said “Excuse me, can I sit there”. I explained I had a bad knee, and she sneered. When I sat down, it became clear that I was understating the matter, and she apologised for the rest of the ride.

    I was enraged. I told her to stop judging people by their appearances, and really rubbed it in.

    1. Thanks Jackson and everyone else who has commented on my post. I’m really happy that this has resonated with so many people.

  5. Nearly a year later – and this still resonates.

    I reached here after a google search, trying to work out how disabled friendly trams are.

    For a couple of years I’ve been invisibly disabled. Once on a peak train I asked for a seat and the look I got was total disgust. I needed that seat badly, so I asked harder. But ever since that look I have found myself trying not to use trains etc on a bad day. I avoid trains at peak just to avoid the look.

    Trams and buses I have always worked around so that I miss the crowded ones. I look at that sign and wonder whether I’ll ever need to prove somehow that I can’t stay upright on a bus in motion. Or if I do – walking might be hard the next day!

    Now I’ve dislocated my knee, and the thought of trying to get around on trams and buses is almost frightening. Although being very obviously disabled now might work in my favour in a funny kind of way.

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