Travel & Holidays

The Red Bus!

Regular DH contributor, Mark Wilson, shares an interesting article about his joy of travelling on a London Red Bus.

For some of my younger years the limit of my wheeled mobility was a home-made go kart. My tin legs sat quite nicely on the wooden flooring, my artificial right arm rested snugly by my side and my one good left arm made a reasonable fist of using a rope to steer. Well, in truth I was terrible at steering but somehow we got by. The “we” here being my long suffering brother whose job it became, for a couple of strangely hot UK summers, to push me around the local area in search of a good hill to roll down.

One day, my mother offered to take me on a big green Liverpool bus for a trip to “town” to buy some shoes. Having no feet except wooden creations, I was never too interested in shoes – I wore socks for six months and shopping trips to secure new footwear were never high on my list of things to do whilst off school. I’d never been on a bus and frankly it was a bit nerve wracking.

I walked with my tin legs until I was in my late forties and when I was a mere boy I could get around quite well, so the bus should surely have been easy peasy? Not so. The big day arrived and there we were waiting for the no. 86 to town. As it approached I could see the driver glaring in my direction and I swear it was a malevolent stare! My balance wasn’t brilliant and I quickly found the swaying bus to be a bit of a theme park ride. That driver made no allowance for my unsteady tinnies and I swear he enjoyed watching me hold on to the rail like a boy in fear of having a short lifespan! I tried the green bus that one time and gave it up as an undignified and scary mode of transport.

Many years later, and now a permanent wheelchair user, my gorgeous wife, daughter, and extended family went on a trip to London where the famous London Red Bus was to be part of the experience. I was somewhat sceptical about being able to cope, this despite promises of full access. I suspect I rather thought that my wooden go kart would have been a safer, if less dignified, form of transport for a then 49 year old! How wrong can you be? My first trip was a truly wondrous adventure, deserving of a mention in the best of Enid Blyton’s “Five Go Mad in Dorset” books.

As the modern TfL red bus approached, our daughter signalled the driver in a way that simply screamed “virgin red bus… wheelchair waiting to board”. The doors in the middle of the bus opened, along with my hope of a subtle entrance. Sirens wailed to warn unsuspecting “norms” that the ramp was extending and they should keep clear to avoid being cut in half or worse.

Everyone stopped to see who was causing the fuss. “Ah hem, it’s only a fanatical Evertonian from Liverpool” I whispered as up the ramp we went and immediately positioned the chair in its designated spot. Nobody rushed to bolt me down and chain me up as in the wonderful New York Transit buses which I later discovered on visits to that incredible city. Nope, this was – sirens apart – a rather normal, almost subdued experience and how good is that.

I could go on to tell you how I insisted on the whole family staying on board THREE stops more than needed because I was having such a good time. I could even mention the time the lift broke whilst I was on a bus in Whitehall and sixty travellers had to disembark (thanks entirely of course to moi), but this small adventure is, of course, significant beyond a child-like joy at the wonder of Red Bus travel.

The entire network of London bus routes is, I think, accessible. This is without doubt one of the most enabling bits of access provision ever to become a reality. It is a joy to travel around the capital city in much the same way as anyone else, with minimum fuss and maximum flexibility. The sheer power of this enablement is genuinely hard to explain when so many take for granted “hopping on the bus”. Regular users in a wheelchair will, I’m sure, not give it a second thought now, but for me every time I visit the city and use the bus, it is with a smile of amazement and gratitude to the far sighted leaders who made it happen, however costly.

There is a theme here and it often represents pivotal moments in the lives of disabled people. It is, of course, that which disables us the most… it is the environment around us and mostly it’s the stuff that most take for the granted i.e. being able to choose how you travel, what restaurant you eat in, what shop you buy from and what theatre you watch great musicals in. Our horizons are formed not by natural development but man-made awareness and dogged determination to even things out, and the accessible Red Bus is a perfect example of this fact of life.  We should celebrate its existence and never under play its impact on everyday life.

But why have other cities not followed London’s lead in a headlong rush to deliver the same right, the same enablement?  There are accessible buses in many towns and cities in the UK now but few places copy London’s insistence that, to make this really work, ALL buses on ALL routes much be equally accessible. The Equality Act 2010 may well have carried forward the legal requirements that should see this uniformity in place by 2017, but why is it allowed to take that long? This ease of access to local bus services is surely a fundamental right for disabled people everywhere. Without it yet another barrier is allowed to stay in place, impacting the employment chances and social lives of many people who deserve better.

By Mark Wilson

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