India struggles for accessible public transport

Anyone who has taken the bus in India knows that the majority of the bus fleet consists of buses built on truck chassis and can only be accessed via a number of steps. 'Low entry' or 'low floor' buses are available, but their numbers are by no means enough. A world of difference.

Twenty percent (!) Of the Indian population suffers from a disability, according to the World Bank Report. Together with the elderly, about half of the population is unable to use public transport because of the poor accessibility of buses in particular. This was made clear during a congress organized by Busworld Academy during Busworld India last year in Bengaluru. Already in 2015 the Indian government introduced the 'Accessible India Campaign', to achieve that people with disabilities can travel and use public and private transport with 'dignity and user-friendly'.

There is no good accessibility in a large part of the bus fleet in the country despite the fact that legislation and regulations prescribe this and the Indian government has been facilitating it for some time via incentives accessibility and personal mobility. And like in Europe public transport in India is also issued through concessions and permits, but buses and taxis are still not easily accessible for people with limited mobility, not to mention people in wheelchairs. The panel during the seminar stated that an aging population is imminent in that enormous country.

Free of obstacles

The panel suggested that India should strive to ensure that every voyage should be free of obstacles. In this the forum also spoke about 'walking' as streets and sidewalks look a bit different than in our organized part of the world. The call was made to include requirements in the subsidy schemes for easily accessible public transport. The central government, intending to invest a great deal of money in public transport, has to oblige the state governments to do so by introducing regulations in the specifications for the purchase of buses and other equipment. Security, mobility for all, accessibility and affordable, reliable public transport should, according to the initiators of this conference, be non-negotiable. Ramps for wheelchairs must be mandatory as well as handles and hand rails in a contrasting colour for people with poor visibility. Also public address systems and dynamic travel information should be included in the specifications. These are questions for modern technical aids that may be in sharp contrast to what the fleet in a city like Bengaluru currently looks like. A very large part of the approximately 6,000 buses is old to even very old. It was striking that in the hours prior to this seminar there was an extensive discussion about hypermodern digital applications in public transport, such as ticketing systems.

Awareness

Buses in India have traditionally been built on truck chassis. But a bus built on a truck chassis has at least three, often narrow, steps leading to the passenger section. It is clear that the accessibility is not great. A ramp is even simply impossible. Some photos were shown of people standing on the street, lifting their little children almost above their heads into the bus and then pulling themselves inside.

It was interesting to learn that in the state of Karnataka, where Bengaluru is the capital, there are buses with a ramp, but that a survey of a year ago showed that 99 percent of drivers had no idea that their low-floor bus was equipped with such a ramp. Training of the drivers is therefore also badly needed. The rhetorical question was asked: "Say there is a ramp and say the driver wants to fold it out, who will push the wheelchair into the bus?" The following silence made it clear that this apparently will not be the driver.

'Big no'

It is clear that buses on truck chassis could get a 'big no'. But semi-low floor buses also received little support and were also qualified as non-accessible. The state government in Dehli stated in 2018 that semi-low-floor buses and low-floor buses must be purchased for accessible public transport. At present there are thousands of buses in Dehli. The question asked by the panel was therefore: 'who can guarantee that if you go to work in your wheelchair in the morning, there will be actually a low-floor bus with a ramp stopping at your busstop?' But still even if that happens, there are also some practical problems, because the bus has to stop directly at the platform, something that is not entirely the habit of the drivers. Buses stop quite chaotically and also next to each other, possibly in the middle of the street. It is a wonder that in this chaos the Indians still end up in the right bus. And if the buses stop directly at the platform, there is often an insurmountable height difference and it is impossible to enter the bus with a wheelchair.

Equality

'Equality is a democratic goal', was stated, 'and that equality can only be obtained if the system changes'. On the exhibition floor, representatives of bus builders admit that it is mainly the price of the vehicle which is the problem. Safety and accessibility are non topics. Even the most modern buses have virtually no protection for the driver in the event of a frontal collision. Crumple zones and 'impact' absorption systems, such as those that have become common in our part of the world, are unknown.

This article was previously published in the Dutch magazine Touringcar & Bus.

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