BEN STEVENSON explains why unions and disability rights campaigners are demanding the right to ride
A LACK of access to affordable reliable transport is one of the significant contributions to poverty.
For disabled people who rely upon it to work, access public services, attend benefits assessments, shop, live and participate in aspects of political, social and culture life it isn’t an overstatement to say public transport is a lifeline.
Since 2010 the number of disabled people living in poverty has skyrocketed to 4.2 million — or more than a third of the 12 million disabled people in the UK. And you don’t have to look very far to find the cause of this.
Since 2010 the government has cut the Independent Living Fund (ILF), which previously supported people with individual care packages.
In some areas as many as 88 per cent of disabled people have seen their care packages reduced by up to 50 per cent. The cuts by a third to employment and support allowance (ESA) for sick and disabled people in the work-related activity group (WRAG) have affected half a million people. More than half of those receiving personal independence payments (PIP) have seen their benefits package slashed.
The direct economic impact of the cuts and sanctions regime to disabled people have been devastating enough but the social impact often remains untalked about and misunderstood — even in sections of the labour movement.
Personal transport for disabled people — 51,000 adapted vehicles and motability scooters — have been taken away as a result of PIP reassessments.
According to a report by Muscular Dystrophy UK 126,300 of the 254,200 people who were eligible for Motability funding under the forerunner to PIP, the disability living allowance (DLA), have been reassessed and lost their eligibility.
The crisis in transport access is especially acute in rural areas but even in London, the sole part of Britain where public transport is entirely administered (if not run) by a public body, it’s far from perfect.
Peak-time travel is an impossibility. Dial a Ride services were routinely cut back under Boris Johnson’s mayoralty — and they’ve been forced into wholesale closure or seen cuts of more than 50 per cent in services and funding in Tory councils like Oxfordshire, Swindon and Cambridgeshire.
The High Court judgement in January this year against FirstGroup, which reconfirmed wheelchair users’ primacy of access to spaces on buses, has further highlighted the extent to which even on the most “disabled-friendly” forms of transport accessibility is being undermined.
Just 70 out of the 270 Tube stations have some degree of step-free access but just half of those are step-free from platform to train (assuming the lifts haven’t broken down of course).
In stations where there are multiple lines, there is often no direct accessible route to transfer from one line to another. For crossover services where TfL Rail, National Rail and London Overground intersect with the Tube, there are different staffing levels, training and levels of responsibility, separate manual boarding ramps with different lengths and heights to bridge the gap between platform and train.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan has launched a long-term — 25-year — Mayor’s Transport Strategy.
It claims to embrace the vision of facilitating “a city for all Londoners.”
It’s a tentative step in the right direction — when held up against the disastrous approach being followed by train companies like Southern Rail and local authorities in other parts of the country.
But it’s a far cry from the wholesale shift that’s needed. Currently the sole commitment on transport accessibility is to aim to halve the extra journey time for step-free station journeys by 2041.
A recent study by international public transport experts UITP puts Hong Kong at the top of sustainable (environmentally, economically and in terms of access and use) urban public transport, followed closely by Stockholm and Amsterdam with Copenhagen and Vienna completing the top five.
Singapore, Paris, Zurich and Helsinki all rank before London. No other British city is even close to making it into the listing of 84 top ranking cities.
For those outside central London, in the areas where most people in south-east England live, more than a third of underground and rail stations have just a single trained member of staff working on the station 75 per cent of the time as a result of the closure of ticket offices and cuts to station staff numbers.
All London Underground front-line staff and most rail staff receive disability equality training but their ability to provide assistance to passengers is contingent on time and resources that often aren’t there.
An issue that we ought to address as a society has become once again reliant upon individual public-sector workers shouldering the responsibility themselves.
The more than £2 billion cut in TfL’s funding from central government, due to hit at the beginning of 2018, has plunged London transport into yet another cost-cutting “efficiency” exercise which imperils the safety, reliability and accessibility of one the busiest and most complex public transport systems in the world.
Transport workers and disabled people’s organisations and campaigners have an intimate understanding of the connection between their struggles.
An accessible transport infrastructure benefits everyone, not just disabled passengers and transport workers. The economic, political and social benefits massively outweigh the amount of investment required.
Today Disabled People Against Cuts, Transport for All, TSSA and RMT members and supporters will be holding protests at London Underground stations and travelling together en masse to the Department for Transport’s headquarters in London to deliver a petition demanding the right to ride for all.
Ben Stevenson is TSSA organiser for London Underground.