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‘A significant challenge’: Unclear when public transport will be fully accessible

Despite some improvements in recent years, ongoing obstacles to accessibility are leading to isolation and anxiety for disabled people.

The Good Information Project and Noteworthy, with logo of speech bubble as well as a wheelchair user boarding a bus.

“I CAN’T PIN a date to it, as it’s not my Department.” That was Minister of State with responsibility for Disability Anne Rabbitte’s response to Noteworthy when asked when public transport would be fully accessible.

It’s a question that the Minister herself has asked, she explained, but added that her “role is to ensure to advocate” for this during budgetary decisions.

A lack of timeline or target date for full accessibility was a common theme across responses to Noteworthy by Government Departments, State bodies and transport providers.

That was with the exception of Dublin Bus and Luas who stated they were “100% low floor accessible” and “in compliance with all current accessibility legislation” respectively.

A spokesperson for the Department responsible – Transport – gave details of ongoing work, including a multi-annual allocation of €28m for the Accessibility Retro-fit Programme, but avoided giving a timeline or date for full accessibility.

The body which oversees public transport development in Ireland, the National Transport Authority, said an “exact timeline is dependent upon the availability of funding”. The spokesperson added:

Achieving fully accessible public transport is a significant challenge with a number of engineering and location specific difficulties in addition to requiring extensive funding.

Minister Rabbitte admitted that investment in transport accessibility is “a huge challenge”. She added: “It’s massive to be quite honest with you.”

The extent of this challenge was outlined by the NTA earlier this year when they stated it would cost “in the region of €328m” to make “public transport vehicles, stations and stops fully accessible”.

Minister Anne Rabbitte, wearing a black top and red jacket, speaking at a podium with two microphones. Minister of State with responsibility for Disability, Anne Rabbitte, says investment is a huge challenge. Source: Sasko Lazarov via RollingNews.ie

At Noteworthy, we investigated accessibility of public transport over the past few months. Disabled people repeatedly told us of the impact of ongoing obstacles to accessibility. These included rural isolation, inaccessible bus stops, notice periods required for bus and train travel as well as inconsistent audio announcements.

In our fourth and final installment of our LIFT OUT series, we can now reveal:

  • Inaccessible infrastructure is preventing disabled people from travelling on accessible trains and buses, with people living in rural areas left “isolated”.
  • Issues with ramp and wheelchair assistance were the top accessibility-related complaints to Irish Rail since 2019.
  • With numerous lifts reported as out of order in recent weeks, activists are calling for full – rather than partial – upgrades to lifts. 
  • Minister Rabbitte expects a reduction in the 24-hour notice period required for wheelchair users to travel on Bus Éireann or Irish Rail intercity services, with activists calling for this to be scrapped.
  • There are issues with on-board audio announcements on a number of services, with just half currently in place for bus stops on Bus Éireann routes.
  • Disabled activists say outdoor dining is turning streets into “an obstacle course” and are concerned about the safety of a new bus stop design that, they say, relies “on the kindness and generosity of cyclists to stop”.

The LIFT OUT series by Noteworthy explored public transport accessibility over the past month. Part one found disabled people were ‘on tenterhooks’ trying to access taxis, part two examined a €2.7m transport training centre causing conflict in the disability community and part three revealed there were no plans to reinstate ‘vital’ transport schemes.

***

Inaccessible infrastructure

One of the biggest obstacles to disabled people is inaccessible transport infrastructure that accessible buses and trains are operating on, according to disability activist Suzy Byrne. This “massive issue” is preventing people from travelling on public transport.

“It’s all very well in spending money on accessible transport options, but it is a waste if [they] cannot be used to get people from A to B.”

She highlighted the regional bus fleet as an example and said “Bus Éireann keep saying that their buses are accessible, but many of their stops aren’t”.

Victorian-era stations, out of order lifts and bus stops on narrow paths are the main infrastructure obstacles to accessibility.

Noteworthy obtained all accessibility-related complaints made to Irish Rail since 2019 through a freedom of information request. Issues with ramp and wheelchair assistance were the most frequent issue highlighted.

This also ties in with the findings of the most recent Eurobaromoter survey of Europeans’ satisfaction with passenger rail services in 2018. The top two reasons that Irish people gave that prevented them from travelling by train were inaccessibility of stations or platforms and difficulties in travelling to the station.

Niamh Ní Hoireahbhaird, a wheelchair user wearing a grey patterned dress and cream Dr Martens boots, in her garden beside a climbing plant with pink flowers. Niamh Ní Hoireahbhaird says the notice period to travel removes any spontaneity. Source: Niamh Ní Hoireahbhaird

Journalist Niamh Ní Hoireahbhaird said that issues with infrastructure combined with a lack of assistance staff which make transport for her “very inaccessible overall”.

Having a progressive muscular condition, Friedreich’s ataxia, Ní Hoireahbhaird is a wheelchair user and due to the lack of level access on trains, requires a manual ramp in order to board them.

“It’s pretty frustrating to me. All trains are accessible once the ramp is put out.”

Though she has missed the train to Dublin a few times due to no staff being there to put the ramp out, she said this has never happened when exiting at Heuston Station. However, her journey home has been far from smooth on a number of occasions.

Sometimes they’ve forgotten to stop the train, get off and take the ramp out. The train continued on. I pressed the emergency button but they said: ‘We’ll help you off at the next stop.’

The last time this happened to her was just before the pandemic as she has not travelled on public transport as frequently since then due to being at high risk. She was not offered an alternative way from Newbridge to Sallins, such as a taxi.

Ní Hoireahbhaird would have had to wait for an hour for the next train, but this was cut in half as her mother picked her up. “It was pitch black out and that wasn’t fun,” she recalled.

“I’m 24-years old. I like to be able to do things without calling my Mam to pick me up, but sometimes that is my only option.”

This is a similar experience to a person who wrote a complaint to Irish Rail. They said: “I got to Clonmel and nobody came to take me off and I had to wait in Limerick to go back to Clonmel.”

Background - Empty seats in a train carriage. Foreground - Quote from a complaint to Irish Rail from a passenger travelling to Ballymote station, Sligo - When I arrived, there was nobody there to help me. In the end, I had to get two inebriated passengers to hold my rollator steady on the platform while I tried to negotiate the steps from the train. It was far from ideal. Source: Irish Rail via FOI Request

Another said it “was very disappointing” they had to email after an “absolutely disgraceful” experience where ramp assistance was not provided. This wasn’t the first time it happened as they added that the previous month that although they “had phoned in to arrange accessibility to the trains, there was no assistance ready” in Portlaoise or Limerick.

When Irish Rail was asked how they are addressing this issue, a spokesperson said that “the number of falldowns as a proportion of assists provided is very small”. They added that “every complaint is individually investigated” and remedial action is taken.

Missing announcements

Another accessibility issue that featured in a number of complaints was an absence of audio announcement on services. A wide variety of people rely on this service to know where they are and which stop to get off.

“Access to information in multiple formats is an important part of making any service accessible for all,” explained Rosie Bissett, CEO of Dyslexia Ireland. She added that “clear audio announcements are helpful for those who may be unable to read or see a text or visual message”. 

A number of transport services have issues with on-board announcements at present. An Irish Rail spokesperson said that the PA system in about half of the total DART fleet requires replacement, with work starting on this later this year.

Work is also ongoing to add more announcements to the Luas Red Line, according to Transport Infrastructure Ireland. The entire Green Line was recently upgraded.

On-board audio announcements are in place for just half of bus stops on Bus Éireann routes, though work is ongoing to roll this out to “all bus stops” during the remainder of 2021 and into 2022.

To better understand the importance of next stop announcements, Noteworthy sent David Redmond, a vision-impaired journalist, on a typical journey he regularly takes in Cork City. Listen here:

Source: Noteworthy/YouTube

Mairead Forde has also missed her stop due to a lack of audio announcements on Cork’s buses. However, instead of ending up a few hundred metres down the road, she travelled 33km from her desired destination into neighbouring Kerry.

“You have to be awake all the time on a bus and you can’t rest. That’s why I don’t like buses compared to trains.”

The evening that Forde ended up in Kerry, she missed her bus changeover due to a lack of announcement. “It was one mistake [and] I went to Killarney instead of to Millstreet.”

Forde is a member of the steering group of the National Platform of Self Advocates, an independent self-advocacy organisation which she explained was “set up so that the voices of people with intellectual disabilities are heard” – something that Forde said were not often “heard on the news”.

Research by the organisation in 2017 recommended that “people with disabilities should have a say in the planning, design and running of the transport services” and decision-makers should “listen when people with disabilities tell about the barriers they experience”.

Isolated ‘in the middle of nowhere’

It also stated that “there was a clear difference between the lived experiences of people living in rural areas and those living in the Dublin region”.

That is something that really impacts Forde, as a person with an intellectual disability. She told Noteworthy that living “in the middle of nowhere”, six miles from the nearest train station, she has no access to public transport from her house.

Mairead Forde from the National Platform of Self Advocates, wearing an orange and white striped top, with the quote - I have to get Mam or Dad to take me places. I’d be lost if my parents ever passed away. I don’t know how to drive.

She added that many disabled people living in rural areas had no access to transport and it was the “one topic” she wanted to highlight.

Ní Hoireahbhaird is in the same boat as she also lives “in the middle of nowhere”. She relies on her mother for lifts to the train station or Luas.

Both reported difficulties in accessing taxis, with Forde’s taxi service gone after their local driver died and Ní Hoireahbhaird finding it difficult to order a wheelchair accessible taxi in her area. 

This is a common problem for disabled people, as highlighted in part one of this series, with two-thirds of the wheelchair accessible fleet based in the Greater Dublin Area.

Joan Carty, national advocacy officer for the Irish Wheelchair Association, said that while public transport accessibility has improved in cities, “if you’re anywhere outside the city and you can’t drive, there is a huge impact on how you live your life”.

When public transport doesn’t work for you, as a person with a disability, you’re isolated completely.

The NTA addressed rural transport plans recently when answering a parliamentary question by Social Democrat Holly Cairns – one of a series she asked on the accessibility of public transport:

“Later this year the NTA plans to publish its plan to increase travel connectivity across rural Ireland. The Connecting Ireland initiative aims to provide better connections between villages and towns… It proposes enhancing existing services, adding new bus routes and new services, in addition to expanding the demand responsive local bus network.”

Cairns told Noteworthy that “transport issues are most acute in rural Ireland, where the poor services affect everyone but are especially felt by people with disabilities”.

“The reality is most people have to rely on private transport, for some people with disabilities this means their capacity to work, socialise, and run errands is dependent on a relative giving them a lift or having the means to pay for a taxi.”

To improve this, Cairns said “we need more frequent and later running bus and Local Link services – with all vehicles being wheelchair suitable – to enable all people to live independently and to combat rural isolation”.

Closeup of TD Holly Cairns wearing a white polo neck and cream jacket. TD Holly Cairns posed a large number of parliamentary questions on transport accessibility in recent months. Source: Leah Farrell via RollingNews.ie

Schemes that were previously in place that activists say helped combat rural isolation were the Mobility Allowance and the Motorised Transport Grant. However, as revealed in part three of this series, there are no plans to reinstate these schemes which were closed in 2013, and it is unclear if a promised replacement is still on the cards.

When Forde’s situation and the isolation of disabled people due to lack of public transport was put to Minister Rabbitte, she said that “it’s very challenging” but believed “that the solution is there if we could pull it together”.

She added that transport “is an Eircode lottery… there’s no denying that whatsoever”.

Rabbitte also mentioned Local Link as a solution. This is a rural transport initiative managed by the NTA which has been around in some form for the past 20 years. Transport officials say it will play an increasing role in meeting Ireland’s public transport needs and climate goals in the years to come.

  • “We would be lost without it. Absolutely lost.” The Good Information Project took a look at this responsive bus service that has become a lifeline in rural Ireland. Read more about it here.

Rabbitte said that the licensing and mapping of Local Link across the country needs to be expanded so that there is more flexibility for providers to “incorporate more people in that catchment area, while not diluting the main trust of the service”, with “the public purse” supporting this rural service.

A spokesperson for the NTA said that “over 90% of passenger journeys operated by TFI Local Link are fully accessible” and anticipates that all Local Link services “could be fully accessible by 2026”.

Notification means ‘no sense of spontaneity’

One issue that Rabbitte said she raised with the NTA is the required notice period for disabled people on some services.

Inaccessible platforms in some stations and manual ramps on Irish Rail trains as well as the fact that there is just one wheelchair space on Bus Éireann Expressway and regional routes, has resulted in these providers requiring disabled people to give 24-hours notice. This was reduced to 4-hours on Dart and Commuter train services in recent years.

One of the recommendations of a 2018 Joint Oireachtas Committee report on the accessibility of public transport was to “remove barriers to impromptu or spontaneous travel for people with disabilities”, which included the elimination of this notice period and the availability of “accessible infrastructure and/or assistance” without pre-booking. 

Every disability activist that spoke to Noteworthy who travelled on these services wanted a significant reduction, and ideally a removal, of this notice period.

That is an issue that the European Disability Forum has campaigned on for years, with 60,000 signing a petition last year calling for a “turn-up-and-go” principle to be adopted by the EU.

This is currently in place for some services in Ireland, including city buses and the Luas. “No advance travel notice” is also planned for the new MetroLink

The petition was in advance of an update to the Rail Passenger Rights’ Regulation by the European Parliament in April. Instead of a turn-up-and-go system, the EU cut the current pre-notification period in half to 24-hours, the maximum period already adopted by Irish bus and train providers.

However, in reaction to this, the European Disability Forum said pre-notification is “a breach of the UNCRPD” – the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, ratified by Ireland in 2018. “There’s no sense of spontaneity,” explained Ní Hoireahbhaird. 

Niamh Ní Hoireahbhaird, a wheelchair user wearing a grey patterned dress and cream Dr Martens boots, in her garden beside a climbing plant with pink flowers, with quote - All trains are accessible once the ramp is put out. I don’t fully understand the need to give them notice of more than half an hour to one hour.

A spokesperson for Bus Éireann said that “the 24-hour notice is to guarantee the space is kept available for the booking passenger”. They added that “it also assists Bus Éireann to make the necessary arrangements to remove seats in order to accommodate the wheelchair on the vehicle”.

Minister Rabbitte told Noteworthy that she “spoke at length” to the NTA and met with Bus Éireann in relation to this. “We need to be able to respond better,” she added.

She said the NTA’s response to her was that “they were designing an app” which means people won’t have to call to book assistance. “They would respond within a very short period, as opposed to 24-hours,” she explained.

Automatic ramps ‘unfeasible’ on existing fleet

Sean O’Kelly, a disability activist and wheelchair user, told Noteworthy that “there should be no specific notice period time”.

He added: “We should be able to rock up to any station like anyone else without having to give notice at all” and suggested that “ideally, the first carriage in trains should have an automatic ramp”.

When Noteworthy asked Irish Rail about this suggestion, a spokesperson said it had “previously conducted a feasibility study into the installation of automatic wheelchair ramps onto the existing train fleet” that found this would be “technically unfeasible”.

For notice periods, the spokesperson said “Iarnród Éireann’s goal is to work towards ‘turn up and go’”. They added that “every effort” is made to provide assistance in the case of reduced or no notice.

They also outlined a number of plans for notice-free travel in the future. These include the Dart+ Programme which will allow them to “order up to 750 carriages over a ten-year period”.

The spokesperson said details will be confirmed with the order later this year, but they were “very encouraged by the responses from suppliers” and their “ability with this fleet to facilitate independent access to services in the Greater Dublin Area”.

In addition, for intercity trains, the spokesperson said that as “the majority” of these services “now have on board Customer Services Officers”, they are “working towards” reducing the 24-hour notice period. That means that ultimately just over 60% of their stations will be notice-free.

“There will be circumstances where – at Intercity stations that have one or more platforms without mobility access – notice will ensure a train can be brought to an accessible platform.” To address this, Irish Rail said they are introducing “accessible lifts and upgrading existing lifts and footbridges to such stations on an ongoing basis”.

Lifts ‘impacted by persistent acts of vandalism’

O’Kelly became an activist five years ago when he was stranded in Clontarf DART station after not being told before travelling that a lift on the platform was out of order.

The Journal caught up with O’Kelly two years ago to find out about issues with lifts:

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Campaigning by O’Kelly and others has resulted in much progress on lifts with plans in place as part of the ‘Big Lift’ programme for 52 existing lifts to be replaced or upgraded between 2020 and 2024.

A ‘Lift Call’ system was also introduced on a “large proportion” of Irish Rail’s lifts, allowing live monitoring and access to be provided by pressing a button. “This has greatly reduced vandalism,” according to the provider’s spokesperson.

However, the advocate group, Access for All Ireland, that O’Kelly co-founded with People Before Profit representative Bernard Mulvany, reported up to 12 lifts were out of order in recent weeks. “It has improved slightly, but not a whole heap,” said O’Kelly.

Through FOI, Noteworthy obtained a list of all partially or fully replaced lifts, as well as new lifts, installed across Irish stations since 2016.

Just 14 lifts had work done from 2016 to 2019, but this has scaled up since last year, with 49 lifts upgraded, replaced or newly installed over 2020 and 2021.

Source: Noteworthy/Flourish

Click here for a full searchable version of this table.

“Historically, the underfunding of the accessibility programme for much of the 2010s, meant that lifts which would have been due for renewal or upgrade were overdue, impacting on reliability,” explained the Irish Rail spokesperson.

The age for full lift replacement ranged from 15 to 22 years, with an average age of 18 years. For partial replacement, this ranged from eight to 20 years, but on average, partially replaced lifts were younger, at 11 years of age.

O’Kelly said he noticed that stations which have had partial upgrades to lifts last year, are once again going out of service. He felt that “they need to be replaced instead of upgraded, because an upgrade could easily go out of order, as has happened in several stations”.

One of these which was out of service last week, Raheny – Platform 1, is one of the older lifts in the group and was 14-years old when partially upgraded last year.

The Irish Rail spokesperson said that partially upgraded lifts at six Dart stops, including Rahey, Clontarf Road and Howth Junction “have been impacted by persistent acts of vandalism”.

They added that 2021 is the busiest year of their replacement programme, with “22 stations seeing lift and escalator improvement works”. This means that “lifts may not be available”, they added, giving the example that lifts were unavailable at six stations for this reason when responding to Noteworthy’s query. 

Background - People walking away on a station platform from an open Dart carriage door. Foreground - Quote from a complaint to Irish Rail from a passenger at Salthill & Monkstown Dart station about a broken lift - It took four people to get the lady over the bridge and six to get the electric wheelchair and accompanying equipment to the opposite side. That is an appalling situation. Source: Irish Rail via FOI Request

Key performance indicators (KPIs) were also introduced by Irish Rail in January this year so that the performance of lifts can be monitored at board level – a development welcomed by O’Kelly.

Through FOI, Noteworthy obtained extracts of these KPIs from three board meetings this year. Targets include a maximum of 20 lift door failures as well as five lifts and escalators to be out of service for more than three days over the course of a month. Contractors must also have no lift entrapments that last longer than an hour.

Overall, lifts and escalators must be available for 94% and fault free for 97% of days. Since these KPIs have been in place, they “have been exceeded every month”, according to the Irish Rail spokesperson.

In April, the latest period provided to Noteworthy, lifts were available 97% of days and fault free for 99%. That month, one KPI did hit its maximum level as there were five lifts and escalators out of service for more than three days.

For Ní Hoireahbhaird, a more reliable solution for lifts being out of order is the provision of ramps which she would like to see in more stations. “In Sallins and Newbridge, there’s a very long zig-zag ramp which takes about five minutes to cross, but there’s no situation that would break down.”

This is “not something that could be done overnight”, she added, “but would be very beneficial”.

Minister Rabbitte suggested that a second lift shaft, installed beside the current one, “would be a simple measure” in “disability-proofing” train stations.

Though she said that lifts can cost up to €100,000, Rabbitte felt that if they aren’t working “people can’t access a platform and miss a day’s education or employment”.

‘Limited’ routes due to inaccessible stops

One of the other major pieces of infrastructure that are making accessible buses unusable by disabled people are bus stops. This is an issue that mainly affects those based in rural Ireland, which is already poorly served by public transport.

“Bus Éireann keep saying that their buses are accessible, but many of their stops aren’t,” explained activist Suzy Byrne.

Though all Bus Éireann public service obligation (PSO) and Expressway buses are accessible, according to their spokesperson, “the number of fully wheelchair accessible coach routes may be limited” because of inaccessible stops along them.

The recent delivery of over 100 “low-floor coaches”, which are similar to buses in Irish cities and towns where ramps can be deployed onto paths, has increased the number of accessible regional routes.

However, “other regional and Expressway routes, served by high-floor coaches with wheelchair lifts” require “significant bus stop infrastructure modifications… to enable wheelchairs to board and alight safely”, added the spokesperson.

A single decker red coach with Expressway and Sligo written on the front. It is near Busáras as the Life Centre on Abbey Street is visible. A Luas and some trees are also visible in the background. A “high-floor” coach on the Dublin to Sligo Expressway route last year. Source: Sam Boal via RollingNews.ie

The NTA said it “has been working with local authorities to arrange the installation of accessible bus stops”, but added that a width in excess of three metres is required for the operation of a wheelchair lift which “can be very difficult to achieve” on many streets in Irish towns.

Byrne said that this “means planning permission is going to have to be applied for a lot of bus stops, roads are going to be planned, paths are going to be dished”. There needs to be better “coordination between the local authorities, National Transport Authority and operators to ensure universal accessibility”.

Local authorities completed 11 of these “bus bays” in 2020, but 10 more due to start in 2021 were “delayed due to Covid restrictions, according to the latest Department of Transport Accessibility Work Programme Progress Report in June.

To help speed up this progress, disability advocate Ciarán Delaney, who is a member of the Irish Rail and Bus Éireann Disability User Groups, suggested that local authorities should “disability-proof” plans by including elements such as accessible bus stops in “street or town regeneration schemes”.

‘Have to wait in the rain’

In addition to bus stops, a number of other issues are ongoing in relation to buses. The NTA spokesperson told Noteworthy that “various commercial bus services are provided by private operators on a licenced, commercial basis” that “are not all fully accessible”.

The NTA had begun to engage with private sector operations to consider the imposition of accessibility conditions as part of their commercial licencing regime, according to a spokesperson, but this engagement was “put on hold” during the pandemic.

Background - Project design image of a wheelchair user approaching steps, signifying lack of accessibility. Foreground - Quote from a National Transport Authority spokesperson - It is not possible at this stage to put a definitive date on when all privately operated bus services will be fully accessible.

Another issue that a number of disabled people contacted Noteworthy about was that only one wheelchair user could go on accessible buses. One parent wrote to us that her daughter who is a wheelchair user can never travel with her friends – also wheelchair users.

She also said if someone is already in the wheelchair space or a person refuses to move a buggy – something that a number of people reported to Noteworthy – “you have to wait for the next bus which has a free space”. She continued:

“Many bus stops do not have shelter from inclement weather, and this can be very hard on someone with circulation issues, particularly if, as is common, you cannot get on the first or even second bus that comes along and have to wait in the rain.”

A survey by the Irish Wheelchair Association in 2018 found that 43% of respondents have “sometimes been refused access to buses”, with the main reasons reported being a buggy in the wheelchair spot (33%), the ramp being out of order (24%) and another wheelchair user in the spot (24%).

Concerns over new infrastructure

Though accessibility should be at the core of all new infrastructure, disability activists raised a number of concerns with Noteworthy about new developments that were “unsafe” or having a negative impact on their daily lives.

One controversial new bus stop design has caused huge conflict between the disabled and cycling communities. This design, which incorporates a bus stop island, is part of Dublin City Council’s Clontarf to City Centre cycle way, with a similar design mooted – but not yet finalised – by the NTA as part of Bus Connects in Dublin and Cork.

The design incorporates a segregated cycle lane running 60mm below the level of the footpath and separate from the road. Segregated cycle lanes are one of the top priorities of cycle groups, both in Dublin and around Ireland.

In order to get to the bus stop islands on the route, pedestrians must cross the cycle lane. Disabled activists who spoke to Noteworthy all agreed that safer cycling infrastructure is needed on the route, but felt the proposed bus stop design will not be safe, particularly for mobility-impaired and vision-impaired people.

Barry O’Donnell, is from the disabled person’s organisation, Voice of Vision Impairment, and also sits on the Irish Rail, Dublin Bus and Luas Transport Disability User Groups. He said that a raised pedestrian crossing point has now been added to the design, but they’re “relying on the kindness and generosity of cyclists to stop there while we are walking across their lane”.

O’Donnell, a cyclist before he was blind, said that he “doesn’t trust walking across” the crossing as he has been hit by cyclists breaking lights on a few occasions. “I’ve a five second rule, when the light beeps, I count to five as I can feel the air of the cyclist breaking the lights.”

A glass bus shelter beside the sea with advertising on the back panels and a bench with a red top, with a real-time bus display on a pole nearby. The stop is located between the road and a cycle lane. There are two dished kerbs to cross the cycle lane - made of tarmac - from the bus stop to the path - both of which are made of grey concrete. There is no marked crossing on the cycle path. There is a small painted bike at the dished crossings with arrows pointed in both directions. Bus stop island, without a raised pedestrian crossing, in place on the Sutton to Clontarf cycle lane. Source: Google Street View

He is proposing that instead of running behind the bus lane, the cycle track runs in front of it, meaning cyclists would have to wait behind buses at bus stops. To reduce the “time cost” to cyclists, O’Donnell suggests that improvements in ticketing of the bus would “reduce the driver interaction and dwell time” of passengers.

This is similar to the original design approach for bus stops, according to a Dublin City Council (DCC) spokesperson as it required “cyclists to wait behind buses”, but a requirement to segregate cyclists from buses at bus stops was included “following a motion passed by Elected Members in 2018″.

In a document published in January, DCC included drawings of the most recent design for bus stops on the route. It states that “cyclists will have fewer ramps to negotiate” and “vulnerable pedestrians and wheelchair users are better protected”.

A DCC spokesperson said that all Disabled Person’s Organisations who provided feedback said “that cyclists could not be relied upon to yield to pedestrians crossing to and from the bus stop, even where a pedestrian priority route has been provided in the design”. They added: 

“However, there is an extremely strong case for the introduction of fully segregated cycling facilities” as cyclist collision statistics “are high on this route and there have been a number of fatalities to cyclists”. 

In Noteworthy’s BICYCLE BLACKSPOTS investigation last year, this route was found to be the most dangerous in Ireland for cyclists.  

Though their document from January states the below is the “final design’”, the DCC spokesperson said an improved design has been developed that takes this feedback “into consideration”, but added “the final design is not yet available”.  

The design shows a bus pulling up to a bus shelter located between the road and cycle lane. This is similar to the previous design in this article, but a raised crossing point has been added beside the bus shelter. The crossing is made out of the same material - grey concrete - as the bus stop and path. There is tactile paving on either side of the crossing point. In the drawing, there is a cyclist approaching the crossing point and a pedestrian waiting for a bus. Latest publicly available design of the bus stop island on the Clontarf to City Centre route. Source: C2CC Document January 2021 via Dublin City Council

Commenting on the implementation of “island bus stops”, the NTA spokesperson said that “this is a layout which most cyclists prefer as it removes them from being in potential conflict with bus vehicles at the stop”. However, they added that “it does create an interface with pedestrians, which is of concern to some disability groups”.

The NTA stated that many cyclists consider merging with buses at stops “unsafe… with the potential for cyclists to be squeezed between a bus and the kerb and the possibility of serious consequences”.

“There was no agreement on a solution that satisfied everyone” following a workshop of stakeholders last year, but the NTA are using feedback to “guide the development” which will be finalised “for inclusion in the BusConnects proposals shortly”.

‘It’s like an obstacle course’

Voice of Vision Impairment’s O’Donnell also raised another conflict caused by new infrastructure, this time between disabled people and Covid mobility and reopening measures.

“It is a temporary Covid measure, but for us streets have become impossible to navigate.”

Covid “undid about 10 years of work in a blink of an eye”, according to the activist. Previously, O’Donnell and others had worked on “getting rid of advertising boards, random tables and chairs, barrels and everything on paths” as part of Make Way Day – a campaign that draws attention to the challenges posed by obstacles on paths.

When you are blind, it’s like an obstacle course. There’s so much clutter. Weaving in, weaving out. It’s made 200 metres of a footpath, like the Olympics.

O’Donnell uses a cane to navigate around the streets, hitting it either against the shoreline – the building line – or if that is taken up with signs or tables, he resorts to dragging it against the edge of the kerb, trying to avoid poles as he goes.

“People say it’s like Europe, it’s nice to have people dining on the street. For us, it’s a double-edged sword, our building lines and footpaths aren’t clear.”

A busy street in Dublin with people sitting at tables and chairs on a path buildout that would have previously been a parking space. This has a black and white kerb at the edge, with a cycle lane running past that is protected by black and white plastic bollards. There are also people sitting at the side of a pub on chairs and standing talking near them. In the distance, there are people crossing the street, including a woman with a guide dog. Outdoor dining on a path buildout in Dublin earlier this summer. Source: RollingNews.ie

Minister Rabbitte met with Minister of State for Local Government and Planning, Peter Burke, about this issue last month.

Following this Minister Burke wrote a letter to the Director of Planning in all local authorities stating that “it is important that a balance is struck between facilitating outdoor dining while also being cognizant of the issues experienced by people with disabilities in relation to disabled parking bays and general accessibility”.

Rabbitte said she would like to thank Minister Burke “for his cooperation and quick action in response to my request. Some would say, it was a bit late, but officials have taken it very seriously and that’s welcome.”

Applicants “are required to have regard to the convenience and safety of all road users including pedestrians, the disabled and visually impaired”, a Department of Local Authority spokesperson said. They also referenced a number of circulars and the letter above which were sent to planning authorities over the past number of months.

  • “Some of the footpaths are lethal.” Disrepair, blockage by parked vehicles and an absence of paths and walkways across Ireland is also having a major impact on accessibility. The Good Information Project examined this issue over the weekend which you can read here
Priority needed in pedestrian zones

In addition to the increased presence of restaurants and shops on the street front, another Covid measure that has impacted both mobility-impaired and vision-impaired people is pedestrianisation.

O’Donnell explained that the main issue with pedestrianised streets for vision-impaired people is that they are normally a “shared space” with no distinction between paths or road areas. This isn’t a problem in locations that are permanently pedestrian zones, but when they are limited to certain times of the day or suddenly turned back into traffic-filled streets, they become “no-go” areas.

This happened during the pandemic on some streets around Ireland, such as The Mall in Tralee which was open to traffic during the first lockdown. “We didn’t become aware of this until we were on the streets and we accidentally walked into the middle of it and were encountering cars and trucks.”

The pedestrian zone of the Mall in Tralee - a street lined with shops and cafes - which has no kerbs and is all on the same level, with some tactile paving beside a path that lies between the road section and seating areas. There are a number of planters with trees lining the road section. The paths and road are the same level in the pedestrian zone of the Mall in Tralee. Source: G.P.Essex via Alamy Stock Photo

The fact that pedestrianisation can be removed “in a vote… was a lesson for us on the importance of keeping a [wide] footpath with a kerb on either side of the road” in pedestrian zones, added O’Donnell.

The increasing number of streets being pedestrianised in Dublin and in other towns and cities, also concerns a number of disability activists.

Mobility-scooter user, Byrne, said that “whole areas of Dublin will become inaccessible to people” as they won’t be able to be dropped off close to where they need to go.

A number of EU countries allow people with the Disabled Person’s Parking Card to drive or park in pedestrian zones. Lithuania allows holders to “drive in a zone where traffic is prohibited”. Seven other EU countries, including Italy, Germany, Spain and Poland, allow card holders to park in pedestrian zones if “local concessions” allow it.

However, in Ireland, card holders are not allowed to drive or park in pedestrian zones. Ideally a taxi carrying a card holder “should be able to drive up a pedestrianised street, as close as possible”, suggested O’Donnell.

A spokesperson for the Department of Transport said they “are aware of concerns which have been raised in relation to the impact of certain infrastructure projects on persons with disabilities”.

“Over the coming weeks we intend to engage with both the relevant transport agencies and disability advocacy groups in order to determine a way forward which will take into account the needs of those with disabilities while also remaining committed to the delivery of improved and expanded Active Travel infrastructure as outlined in the Programme for Government.”

Consultation ‘from the ground up’

Early consultation about all of these measures, designs and plans was something that disability activists raised as not happening numerous times during the course of this investigation. This was delved into in part two of the series, where we revealed disability organisations were not consulted about the need for a multimillion transport training centre for disabled people prior to its funding announcement.

However, one initiative - the JAM card - was highlighted by activists as a great example of a successful service developed by disabled people, with over 75,000 card users now across the island of Ireland and a plan to expand to half a million in the near future.

Ciarán Delaney, NOW Group Ambassador, wearing a blue shirt and holding a JAM card which has a drawing of a pot of jam and the writing ‘Just a minute’ on it, with the quote - Everything on the JAM card comes from the service users. They designed the card. That’s why people buy into it. Source: Photo - Robbie Reynolds via Lidl JAM Card Launch

“It was designed by people who are experiencing the problem themselves and that doesn’t happen often enough,” according to Maeve Monaghan, CEO of NOW Group, the Northern Ireland based social enterprise that developed the card.

“I could never have come up with this idea myself but they designed it based on [the fact] that they knew the problem and they knew the solution.”

The ‘Just-A-Minute’ card allows people to ask in a discreet, non-verbal way for a minute of patience. Long-time accessibility transport advocate, Ciarán Delaney, was instrumental in bringing it to Ireland after he spotted it on a visit to Newry.

Following meetings and hearings organised by Delaney, the NTA introduced the card across all of its transport services. “It makes a huge difference – when people produce the card.”

Delaney is autistic and a stroke survivor. He felt that “people buy into” the card because it was developed by service users of the NOW Group. “The beauty of JAM” is that it’s not just for autistic people, he explained, “it’s for all people”. 

For Monaghan, co-design is “the only way to deliver real impact”. She “can’t see any other way of doing it now”.

The cards “have been a phenomenal success” with much of this down to Delaney, according to Minister Rabbitte. “You’re creating awareness in an employment setting, notifying your staff on how to engage with a person with a disability. That’s really welcome.”

***

Background - Closeup of the wheel of a wheelchair beside tactile paving at the edge of a train station platform.. Foreground - Quote from disability activist Suzy Byrne - One of the biggest problems for disabled people is the worry about what could happen on a journey. It is the anxiety that you’re not going to be able to either get on or off a service. Source: Photo - CameraCraft via Shutterstock

On the lack of early consultation on transport matters, Rabbitte said that “the voices of people should be heard from the ground up”, with consultation starting at a local level.

“We need a new approach to planning and implementing transport policy that includes people with disabilities at all stages,” according to Cairns. “We all want a country where people with disabilities can live as independent lives as possible, and we cannot underestimate the role that transport plays in this.”

However, Cairns added that the “systemic underinvestment and appreciation for the importance of accessible transport continues to limit the freedom of many people with a disability” and mentioned that Ireland has one of the highest proportions of people with a disability at risk of poverty or social exclusion. In 2019, 38% of disabled people in Ireland were at risk of these, almost 10% above the EU average.

One thing that disabled transport users have in abundance is anxiety about travel. That is a “theme running across the experience of various user groups”, according to an unpublished Dublin Area Bus Network Equalities Plan commissioned as part of BusConnects and given to Noteworthy by the NTA.

It stated that “issues faced by all users in some degree can be amplified by a disability: how to plan a journey, identifying the correct bus when travelling, whether or not there will be sufficient capacity, security during the journey and knowing where to get off”.

Activist Byrne says that “the issue of anxiety and building confidence of disabled people is something that has to be addressed”.

She added that from her experience as a board member in Irish Rail she felt “companies are aware of this” and want to make it easier for people.

The giving of notice is one solution that providers have for this, according to Byrne, but she added that “a lot of that anxiety would go with level access” which would remove the need for assistance when travelling.

“One of the biggest problems for disabled people is the worry about what could happen on a journey, rather than the access of that journey itself. It is the anxiety that you’re not going to be able to either get on or off a service.” 

***

This is the fourth and final part in the LIFT OUT series of articles by Noteworthy on public transport accessibility which will finish next weekend. For this project, we also teamed up with The Journal as part of this month’s deep dive into transport as part of The Good Information Project. 

Project design image for the LIFT OUT investigation of a wheelchair user approaching steps, signifying lack of accessibility.

This investigation was proposed and part-funded by readers of Noteworthy, the investigative journalism platform from The Journal, and carried out by Maria Delaney.

This work is also co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

The Good Information Project and Noteworthy, with logo of speech bubble as well as a wheelchair user boarding a bus.

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Maria Delaney

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