Sunday, July 8, 2012

Improving safety on buses for wheelchair users

Warning: There is a lot of technical bus-speak (jargon) in this entry. If you don't know your bus manufacturers and models... well, good luck to you.


Recently there was a survey about wheelchair access on buses. In particular, it was asking about what can be done for buses to make them safer for wheelchair users. The results of the study are meant to guide bus manufacturers in future designs.

It is encouraging that wheelchair access is being taken seriously. I find that too often, people with disabilities are neglected in the public transportation industry and when studies like these are done, it is a good sign.

However, sometimes I wonder about how such studies are being done and how certain things can undermine their usefulness.

The survey I saw asked a lot about wheelchair ramps for buses. In particular, the people behind the survey wanted to know whether there were any issues with the steepness of the ramps, the width of the entrance, and so on. It did not seem to be very specific though, and did not take into account the different types of buses that are already in existence.

Near the end of the study, it asked for the participant's state. Being from Canada, "British Columbia" was not one of the choices on the list. I suggested to someone that perhaps selecting "Washington" might make sense, since their major city, Seattle, uses literally the same bus manufacturer as Vancouver (New Flyer Industries from Winnipeg, Manitoba).

That was when things got a bit testy. I was given a "lesson" about how surveys must be completely accurate and approximations such as these are not acceptable.

I understand that, but given the content of the survey (which deals mainly with the functions of the bus) and the fact that the two major cities share the same manufacturer AND make/model (New Flyer D40LF) and, in fact, the same wheelchair accessibility mechanisms, I wonder if it would have affected the survey's results.

In addition to that, though, I also question the validity of the location question itself.

Within the state of Washington and the province of British Columbia, I have taken public transit in more than a few cities under different transit agencies. Even when they are neighboring agencies, their vehicles can be quite different. It is actually more of a freak coincidence that Seattle and Vancouver use the same make/model.

An example is Washington state's Whatcom County. Their vehicles are very different from Seattle or Vancouver's. The procedures required to accommodate the vehicle are VERY different. In this case, if I was indeed living in Washington and in Whatcom County, my answer of "Washington" would not have been helpful at all because it is so different from Seattle, another city just down the highway in the same state.

Similarly, in British Columbia, Vancouver's transit agency has different vehicles compared to its neighbors in the Fraser Valley and Greater Victoria. If the survey had asked for a province, answering "British Columbia" would not have been helpful either due to the differences even though they're all geographically next to each other.

The problem with that survey is that it fails to ask what type of bus the participant tends to use. As a survey geared towards bus manufacturers, one might think that would be a helpful thing to know. The accessibility functions of a New Flyer D40LF bus are very different from a New Flyer D40LFR, Orion V, NovaBus LFS, Dennis Trident and so forth. Not every person knows the difference between those buses but knowing at least "high floor or low floor" or "single front door or double front door" would have made a big difference.

This is not to completely justify using a state/province approximation, but isn't this information a LOT more important than location? Shouldn't the focus be on that instead of something petty (and ultimately unhelpful) like location?

I like this survey. I really do.

...but the problem is that it still has a lot of wrinkles to work out, and I feel that the people behind the creation of the survey does not have a full understanding of how there is a lack of standard in public transit vehicles in North America.



I have also taken public transportation in a few other countries and paid attention to the vehicles there (since I am a bit of a transit geek). Other countries seem to have a standard for buses, even if the manufacturers are different.

The bus manufacturers I have seen abroad include: Gillig, Dennis, Neoplan, Hino, Volvo, Leyland, Hyundai, Daewoo, Kia and Toyota.

Many of the countries use a larger variation of these manufacturers than a state/province does in North America, yet they have managed to standardize things such as wheelchair access throughout the country. Thus, it is ironic that this survey would work PERFECTLY in those countries but not in North America. What gives?