It had been more than a decade since I had travelled by myself in an MTC bus. I was able to do so on my own with my wheelchair when low-floor buses were trialled in Chennai in February. As per a Madras high court direction, low-floor, accessible buses were taken on a trial along various routes in Chennai.
The buses that run on Chennai streets at present are not accessible for any persons with disabilities. Almost all the buses are three feet in height, with a four-step approach. This meant that no person with disabilities was able to access the network of public buses that the city is renowned for.
Despite various pleas from PWDs and activists, it took a legal challenge and an order from the Madras High Court for the trial of accessible buses to take place. With the trial run, there is hope that hundreds of low-floor buses will soon hit the streets of Chennai.
If buses become accessible, it will benefit not only persons with disabilities but even senior citizens, pregnant women and others.
Need for accessible buses in Chennai
In the absence of accessible public transport, persons with disabilities have had to bear huge financial burdens to simply navigate the city safely.
The choice available to us has been to either be confined at home or opt for expensive private transport.
Since we do not have accessible buses, I travel via auto or cab. I spend almost Rs. 10,000 to Rs. 12,000 on average for transport alone every month. Once public transport is accessible for everyone, my monthly travel expenses will not be more than Rs. 3,000 per month. If travel concessions are provided, it will be cheaper.
Despite paying more, someone has to support me every time to get inside and outside the cab or auto. They have to completely lift me, fold the wheelchair and keep it inside.
But when travelling on low-floor buses I do not need to get down from my wheelchair, I can board the bus sitting in my wheelchair without any hurdles.
This is the case for many individuals who will benefit from the city having a wide network of accessible, low-floor buses.
Fighting for low-floor buses in Chennai
The road to getting low-floor buses to Chennai has been long and hard.
A few members of the Disability Rights Alliance (DRA) filed a case in 2005 demanding the introduction of low-floor buses. Then, they followed up in the years 2009 and 2010. Following these interventions, ten buses with lifts were introduced along a few routes.
Some PwDs participated in the trial of a bus with a lift. However, it was not fully accessible and had operational problems for the passengers- like the height of the lift operator had a safety concern.
In 2016, the Disability Act mandated all public transport be accessible. Also, as per urban bus specifications of the Union Government, it is necessary to provide low-floor buses which will enhance the public transport for all kinds of people like people with disabilities, pregnant women and senior citizens. But none of these rules had been followed by the state government.
The fight for accessible buses was once again taken up in 2018, with it culminating in a favourable order from the High Court.
Out of the 2,213 buses to be procured, 499 low-floor buses will ply in Chennai and 200 buses in Madurai and Coimbatore following the trial.
Experience of using the low-floor bus
I travelled by a low-floor bus on the second day of the trial. The bus came from Anna Salai through OMR, Shollinganallur to Medavakkam. I boarded the bus at Medavakkam.
The height of the low-floor buses is only 400 mm. While the bus stops, another 50 mm will be reduced when the bus tilts. Once the bus stops, a manual foldable ramp gets opened for a wheelchair to easily get inside. Then the ramp is folded again.
Unlike the buses we see on the roads today, low-floor buses have only one step. Inside the bus, one part of the bus is low-floor and the remaining part has seats for people to sit.
I was able to get inside the bus within a minute after someone opened the ramp for me.
The trial run of the low-floor buses has been completed and the tender process will take place shortly. We can expect the low-floor buses on Chennai streets within six months to a year.
Making commute more accessible
We want modern and accessible public transport for everyone which is inclusive. We do not want separate transport for persons with disabilities alone.
Bues must be introduced on busy routes every two to five minutes. Moreover, the fleet strength must be increased to cater to the burgeoning need of the population in Chennai. For every lakh population, there need to be 60 buses.
There is a set of guidelines called ‘harmonized guidelines‘ that all buildings and public transport must follow to ensure complete accessibility for people with disabilities. If the government follows these guidelines and makes multi-mode modern transport, then all people can use public transport.
Even if public transport is made accessible, the infrastructure like bus stops and footpaths which are important for using buses, are not accessible. But the court has ruled that speed breakers must be built according to specified guidelines, apart from making bus stops disabled-friendly.
Drivers and conductors ought to be sensitised. Moreover, the court also recommended that the bus app must have information on accessible buses.
Economic accessibility is also important to make public transport friendly for persons with disabilities. Currently, people with disabilities and an escort are allowed to travel for free within the city buses and for travelling outstation up to 75% concessions are being given on producing the disability certificate.
With these concessions, more persons with disabilities are able to navigate the city. Once the low-floor buses are provided, many wheelchair users will benefit from it.
In Chennai there are around 600 bus routes, but low-floor buses may not ply all routes. The ultimate goal is to make the entire fleet of buses in Chennai accessible. For this, the infrastructure that supports public transport must also be made inclusive. The introduction of low-floor buses is only the first step.