Tuesday, June 18

Good times ahead for the mobility of disabled people

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The recent announcement that the public transport system in Kuching and Samarahan will be revamped is good news indeed. Konsortium BBK Sdn Bhd (KBBK) comprising five local bus companies are involved in the Stage Bus Service Transformation (SBST). The project involves the purchase of a fleet of 116 new buses to serve four zones with fares ranging from RM1 to RM4.

Assistant Minister for Land and Air Transport and Safety Datuk Lee Kim Shin said, “The new fleet of buses which will be called CATbus (City Area Transit Bus) will have international standard. It will be low-deck buses which are friendly to those with disabilities.”

I am sure my disabled friends in Kuching are excited at this new development. Having more opportunities to go out will certainly improve their quality of life. The advantage of using these buses is that disabled people can enjoy the comfort of sitting in the wheelchair for the entire journey instead of having to transfer to another seat like the case of traveling in a car.

Accessible buses are a boon for powered wheelchair users too. Due to the weight, construction and size of these machines, moving them often require a lift van. However, they can easily board and be accommodated in these buses.

Having studied extensively about accessible bus standards previously, I would like to share some pointers on how the provision of this stage bus service can better serve disabled people. We have a saying that what is useful for disabled people is useful for everyone else. The same goes for public transport.

Low floor buses with kneeling function are most suitable to fulfil the diverse needs of passengers, including people with young children, passengers with luggage, senior citizens, wheelchair users and people with mobility limitations. Similar buses are already in service in the Klang Valley and several other cities in the peninsula.

These buses are fitted with useful features that enhances the safety and convenience of passengers. A built-in ramp enables wheelchair users to board easily. A designated space for wheelchair together with safety belt ensures disabled passengers are properly secured during the journey. Bell buttons or buzzers are placed at fixed and accessible locations for the convenience of wheelchair users and persons with vision impairment.

Most modern buses are designed for one-person operation without the need of a conductor. The drivers collect fares and supervises the loading and unloading of passengers. To reflect the expanded responsibilities, the drivers are designated with a more professional title of bus captains.

I assume the new buses will be operated this way. Therefore, bus captains must be sensitised with disability awareness for them to interact effectively with disabled passengers, some whose impairments may not be apparent. They must be equipped with skills to assist wheelchair users and other disabled passengers to board and deboard safely.

An inclusive public transport system comprises more than accessible buses and professional driver trainings. The connectivity and accessibility of the built environment must be looked into as well. Upgrading of the existing infrastructure is imperative to support the optimum usage ofthese new buses.

The last mile is essential. Bus users must be able to get from their homes to their intended destination without any hiccup. Any break along the journey, particularly on the way to the bus stop or from the bus stop to the destination, may cause them to be stranded halfway.

This is where the cooperation and dialogues between the various stakeholders are important. The bus consortium must work closely with disabled people’s organisations and local authorities to identify such problems and rectify them to ensure a smooth passage from end to end.

Pavements, bus stops and bus terminals must be accessible. It defeats the purpose of providing accessible bus service if disabled people cannot get to the bus stops or face barriers that disrupt the journey after getting off the bus.

The height of the pavement also plays a crucial part in determining the gradient of the bus ramp when deployed. A lower pavement will result in a steeper ramp gradient and difficult for wheelchair users to ascend and descend safely, even with assistance. Drawing up a standardised accessible bus stop design will be helpful in this aspect.

These are the problems plaguing disabled bus users in the Klang Valley and other cities with accessible bus service in the peninsula. The majority of bus stops were not designed to complement these buses. The absence of kerb cut means wheelchair users cannot get to the bus stops. Improperly positioned guard rails prevent the deployment of the ramp.

Because of these challenges, even with the availability of accessible buses, disabled people are not able to benefit fully from them. These issues must be addressed so that bus users in Kuching and Samarahan will not face the same problems later.

If the consortium signs the agreement with the Finance Ministry in April this year, SBST can be implemented in April 2018 because it takes one year from the time the buses are ordered to the time they are delivered and put into service. There is still time yet to make the proper upgrading and modifications to the infrastructure. The local authorities should make full use of this window of opportunity to do a good job.

Lee further said that if the SBST proves to be effective in Kuching and Samarahan, the concept will be expanded to Miri and Sibu. The lack of practical transport options has been the bane of disabled people’s mobility and independence so far. If the above points are looked into and addressed, I am confident the social participation of disabled people will increase because this is the most affordable transport option. It will encourage them to go out more often. These are certainly exciting times for the people of Sarawak.