Accessibility and Sydney’s public transport: knowing where you’re going

This post is the first in an irregular series about accessibility and Sydney’s public transport at my home blog, Wallaby. It was first posted here in March 2010. This is a slightly edited version – I’ve noticed a change to the “metrobus” lines since I first posted, and I’ve added in some info from a couple of comments on the original post. I may update this post with links to other posts as I create them. Meanwhile, the second post is here. It will be posted here on Hoyden About Town in the next few days. You can also keep an eye on my list of series to see when posts get added to this series.

One thing that I particularly enjoy when I visit another place is figuring out how to use the public transport system. I like the fact that I can figure it out – that the tools provided are tools I am able to use. Some of the tools which are commonly available (sometimes online) are: timetables and route maps, route diagrams at stations/stops and in the relevant vehicle, stop announcements (visual and audio), signs at stations/stops.

Perhaps it’s ironic, but I think that Sydney is one of the worst places I’ve been when it comes to figuring that sort of thing out. This has a serious impact on the accessibility of our public transport.

It seems to me that the people who will have the most difficulty with accessibility in that regard are (in no particular order): (1) people with visual difficulties of various sorts; (2) people who have difficulty with certain processes (including people who find change difficult or confronting); and (3) people who have difficulty talking to strangers.

What follows is a general summary of the characteristics of public transport in Sydney which may cause those accessibility problems, and then a more specific discussion of the relationship between those characteristics and the people who have the general accessibility difficulties I’ve stated above. It’s quite a long post – that’s because there are a lot of accessibility problems!

Problematic characteristics of Sydney public transport

Stop! I want to get off!

Buses are probably the most difficult. Apart from some of the relatively new metrobus buses, the buses have no visual or audio announcement of what the next stop is. Even on metrobus, the newest buses don’t have those announcements at all, and within 12 months, the visual and audio announcements which do exist are often faulty. There are no route maps on the buses. The stops are not regular distances apart – perhaps there’ll be a couple of stops within several hundred metres, then the next stop will be over a kilometre down the road. Buses stop on signal, so if you’re the only one getting off at your stop, you’ll need to press the “stop” button. The upshot is that if you don’t know where you are and have no visual knowledge of where you’re going, it can be very difficult to know when you need to press the button and where you need to get off. Sydney bus drivers are known for their friendliness and will often agree to tell you where your stop is – but may well forget. A driver new to a route may not actually know. Passengers can also be helpful, but this relies on you being the kind of person who is willing to ask a stranger for help, and that can be confronting for many people.

This problem is compounded by the increasing number of ads which cover the windows of buses. These are made out of a perforated material, which allows you to see through them from the inside of the bus, but only to some extent. If you’re trying to look out the window obliquely, or if it’s dark or raining, it’s impossible to see anything but a blur. I’d imagine that this is more difficult for people with certain visual impairments. On the original post, lilacsigil commented that those stickers also cause problems if you have vertigo.

Trains, at least, stop at all the timetabled stops, and there are also audio announcements. On newer trains, there are also visual announcements, but those trains are still in the minority (and are more common on some routes than others – I’ll let you guess which sorts of suburbs are more likely to get the old, crappy, un-air-conditioned trains!). Most trains do have network maps inside the carriages, so you can keep an eye on where you are and how many stations until yours (if you can remember which ones the train is stopping at).

Other limitations are: the audio announcements depend on the train drivers, who are notorious for being completely inaudible and/or incomprehensible (again, the newer trains – the ones with visual announcements – have pre-recorded audio announcements, which are much clearer). It can also be difficult to catch sight of the sign on the station as the train pulls in. Sydney trains are double-decked. Every platform used to have stacked signs at each end that were easy to see as you came into the station, whichever level of the train you were on. Not any more. Now, there tend to be approximately three signs along each platform, all quite high (and so difficult to see from the lower level), and none at the ends of the platforms (which can make it difficult if you’re at the back of the train, for example).

Ferries may also be pretty difficult to navigate. I’ve mostly caught them as a pleasure ride and/or when I’ve known precisely where I’m going, but again, there are no (or inaudible/incomprehensible) announcements of the next or current stop and no route map. Some of the wharves don’t have signs. Once again, crew and other passengers may be helpful, but that relies on you being willing to ask.

(I left light rail aside in the original post, as I’ve never had reason to catch it in Sydney, but Ariane provided some insight in a comment on the original post.)

Let me on!

All of the above is about knowing where to stop on your public transport mode of choice. However, knowing where to get on (and what bus etc to catch) can also be problematic.

Many bus stops have no information other than a timetable. Some don’t even have that. Larger bus stops will have a little more detail about the destinations of the buses. Occasionally, you’ll come across a route map, but this will either be a list of stops or it will be an actual map which shows the route but not where the stops are. Again, drivers may be helpful, but you’ll get dirty looks for holding the bus up if you ask too many questions – and if you signal the wrong bus, maybe you’ll miss the right bus while you ask your questions. Other passengers may well be helpful, but that depends on whether there are other passengers at the stop (the smaller the stop, the less likely that is – and remember, the smaller the stop, the less information available at it) and on whether you feel comfortable asking. Buses only stop if signalled, so you need to signal the bus you want. This may rely on you being able to see the bus – including route number and/or destination – from a reasonable distance away.

Train stations are pretty good. There are pre-recorded announcements of train routes at the stations now, and there have always been route signs or maps at the stations, so you can generally work out whether the train stops at the station you want to go to or not. The trains are also usually consistent in terms of which platform they stop at. However, whenever there is anything out of the ordinary, it can be very difficult to know what is going on (for example, platform changes, or trackwork requiring replacement of trains with buses).

Ferries: if you’re catching one from Circular Quay, there are visual indicator boards which tell you which wharf to be at for your destination. However, once at that wharf, it can be difficult to be sure if the ferry that is there is the one you want to catch. Similarly, at the smaller wharves, the only information available may be a timetable – otherwise, working out whether the ferry that has just pulled up is the one you want to catch may rely on asking the crew member on board.

Accessibility difficulties that may be caused by those characteristics

So far, this may have seemed like just a general whinge about Sydney public transport, although I’ve been trying to focus on accessibility points. What follows is a discussion of how those characteristics may cause difficulties with accessibility of public transport.

One of the most obvious is this: if you can’t see where you’re going, or what bus (for example) is approaching, it’s going to be very difficult for you to access Sydney public transport. This is especially so with buses. In fact, apart from the characteristics described above, there is often very little indication of where a bus stop is. Large bus stops would probably be fairly apparent, if only because of the number of people, and bus stops with shelters would also be easier to find. However, for many bus stops, there is only a yellow sign on a narrow metal pole (old style) or a plinth about 40 cm wide (new style).

Old style bus stop sign
Old style bus stop sign

Yellow sign showing a diagram (dark colour) of a person getting on a bus. The sign is an arch shape and is at the top of a narrow metal pole.

A plinth-style sign
A plinth-style sign.

It is mostly yellow, with dark blue sections at the top and bottom. On the dark blue section at the top, there is a yellow circle with a blue diagram of a bus. It is about as wide as a person and significantly taller than a person.

Once you’re at the bus stop, depending on your visual impairment(s), you may not be able to read the information which is available (the timetables – when they are there – tend to be fairly small print, and there are no audio information buttons as there are for Melbourne trams), and you may not be able to see the bus approaching in order to flag it down. Once you are on the bus, you may need to rely on someone else telling you when to get off.

Something that may be a little less obvious is this: certain neuroatypicalities may make it incredibly difficult for a person to navigate the bus system. Some neuroatypicalities may affect a person’s ability to do something like read a timetable; others may affect a person’s ability to work out which bus they need to catch to get to their destination; yet others may make it difficult or impossible for a person to approach other people for assistance.

Trains are more predictable and have more audio cues, and it seems to me that this would make them more accessible. However, for the reasons described above, they are still not perfect.

Ferries are variable. Ferry routes are simpler than bus routes, and at the big wharves (eg Circular Quay, Manly), there are plenty of audio cues. However, there are certainly problems with some of the smaller wharves.

Let’s have a discussion!

I don’t have any complex conclusions on this, other than “it can be difficult to navigate using Sydney public transport, especially if you have a visual impairment or (a) neuroatypicality/ies which affect you in certain ways, and especially if you use the buses.”

It seems to me that some definite improvements could include:

(1) Better signage, both inside the relevant public transport vehicle and at stops and stations. “Better” would mean: available at more stops; include route maps; bigger writing; availability of audio indicators.
(2) Some way of ensuring that buses stop for people who may not be able to see a bus coming, or may for some other reason not stop. One idea off the top of my head: a light on the bus stop which lights up when a button is pressed (with an audio indicator to confirm). There could be some sort of remote control that would allow a bus-driver to switch the light off. Problems: maintenance of the light; potential flagging of the wrong bus (especially if two buses show up at the same time – the wrong bus may stop while the right bus sails past).

The original post also elicited some very interesting comments, which are well worth a read.

What else?

As well as your thoughts and comments, I’m quite curious to hear your stories (either in Sydney or elsewhere).

Please keep in mind that this post is specifically about knowing where you’re going, and accessibility related to that. I will cover other accessibility issues on Sydney public transport in posts to come (and may update here with links). If you want to tell me about any accessibility issues which are not directly related to those in this post, or if you want to make sure I cover something, please email me at my gmail address, where I use the name displayed here as my handle, in the format lastname dot first name.

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8 replies

  1. This is a pet peeve of mine – trains tell you when they’re running late, there are often scrolling signs on train stations letting you know which stops the next one will stop at and how long it is before it’s due. Buses? Are late just as often as trains, and sometimes early to boot, but there’s no real way to know, when you arrive at a bus stop at the time the online timetable told you to, whether your bus left just before you turned the corner, or whether it will show up in five minutes, or twenty minutes, and therefore whether you should walk to a larger bus stop with more routes or wait. The impact of this upon me and presumably others in a similar to more severe anxiety disorder range is largely in terms of stress – when you’ve budgeted your time to get somewhere important every minute of this uncertainty can ramp up your nerves. I have been known to burst into tears at bus stops on occasion. Physical disabilities, I imagine, would compound this, as the prospect of walking six blocks while knowing you’re late would loom heavier, let alone the prospect of getting halfway there and then having your bus pass by you while you’re between stops.
    This is also an issue largely for the smaller stops, further out, and later at night – if the bus comes once an hour, but the window in which it might show consists of twenty minutes… I’ve often though some sort of GPS system for buses would be good. I know installing information screens at all the bus stops would be a bother, but even if you could only check whether your bus is late or early online, before you leave the house or on an appropriate phone, that would be better than the current situation.

  2. MK, thanks for your comment. I hadn’t even thought of how an anxiety disorder would affect accessibility in that way.
    I agree a GPS tracking system as you describe would be very useful. I wonder how much something like that would cost?

  3. The new smart buses in Melbourne have those signs like the trains do, but the older bus lines still don’t (and many of them don’t run Sundays or even Saturday afternoons, which is pretty problematic for people who depend on them for access to the outside world) – and it’s only the very inner city tram stops that have the buttons to press for arrival information – the tram stop I catch the tram from some mornings certainly doesn’t and it’s frustrating as hell not knowing whether the tram will turn up or how late it will be – and I hadn’t even thought of how that would also affect someone with an anxiety disorder.

  4. I have always felt very uncomfortable with Sydney public transport. I’ve only caught a train on my own once or twice, and never a bus. I always blamed myself, for being raised in a country area – but now I can see – of course it’s uncomfortable because there is no freakin’ easy way to work it all out!!! thanks for making feel better about something I’ve felt bad about for years!!!

  5. I noticed a while back the wording on info stickers on the windows near the priority seating on Sydney buses:
    “For more information on travelling with wheelchairs, seniors and prams”
    Which of these is not like the others?

  6. Thanks for the comments.
    Hendo: nope, it’s not you, it’s them.
    Melissa: the second post in this series (already up at Wallaby) deals with mobility and accessibility, including the language of the stickers at the priority seating, and I knew there was something I forgot!
    In that post, I wrote about the othering language in relation to wheelchairs in the other parts of the sigh, but forgot to write about the othering language that you’re pointing out. *sigh* So much fail!

  7. Can’t comment on Sydney public transport; can comment on Perth, which has many of the same sorts of problems. There are a couple of different types of bus stops – there’s the straightforward “pole in the ground” type – about 3 foot tall, orange base, green top, generally no shelter from the weather; or the new-style shelter type – about 7 foot tall, green and white, with timetable and route information on opposite sides, usually accompanied by a bus shelter of some description and design (with designs varying according to the area you’re in). In a nice little wrinkle, all the bus stops, ferry terminals and train stations in Perth are numbered, so if you SMS the number of your stop to the Transperth info line, you’ll get a message back telling you when the next arrival at your stop is due.
    The majority of the bus fleet is wheelchair/pram accessible (the newer busses “kneel” and have an extendible ramp) and there are generally reserved areas for people of all ages who aren’t as bipedal as most. The trains are also wheelchair/pram accessible, as are the majority of train stations. Of course, if the lift is out or the ramp is blocked at your particular local train station, you’re in trouble. The trains on the Mandurah/Joondalup lines (ie North/South along the freeway) have visual and audible indications of which stop is next. Trains on the Fremantle/Midland (ie West/East) and Armadale/Thornlie (South East, with different stopping patterns in the nearer suburbs) lines tend to be the previous iteration of our swanky new electric trains, and while they have the audible “next stop” warnings, the visual ones are an occasional thing. All of the trains have a system map posted fairly regularly in each carriage; each line has its own separate colour except for Thornlie (which is basically a sub-branch of the Armadale line anyway).
    To catch a bus, you have to be able to hail it down (ie raise one arm to indicate that yes, you are waiting for a bus, rather than standing near the pole for the sheer hell of it). In order to get off the bus, you have to know where your stop is – and sometimes this can be rather awkward information to find out. The best tool I’ve found is the Transperth website – there are route maps available which show where the buses go, and better yet, where the bus stops are along the route. Plus, there’s the journey planner, which will tell you how to get to just about anywhere reachable by bus.
    Overall, as a regular user of public transport, I prefer the trains over the buses (despite the current industrial relations wrangling going on) since the trains are generally more reliable, and better suited to bulk passenger transportation.

  8. Hi,
    I agree with most of what you wrote however I think you missed perhaps the most troubling aspect of navigating PT in Sydney, pre-pay!!
    It’s certainly not a new realisation that ticketing in sydney is awful, the worst by far ofany city i’ve been to which includes substantial chunks of Australia and Asia. However whilst myzone is designed to make it all more simple, pre-pay only buses are a NIGHTMARE for casual users and tourists.
    Visitors from out of town have no idea what to do or where to buy a ticket and assuming that a 7-11 is the right place is hardly intuiative. Whilst i get where they’re going with prepaid tickets surely confining it to certain routes that are duplicates or normal services (eg express buses in peak hour, the 333, and metrobuses) would be logical. Making entire streets (eg Parramatta Road, Oxford St, Anzax Pde, King St and the entire CBD) prepaid only is very silly as it means people have no idea what’s going on. Not to mention encourages fare evasion (especially of the accidental variety).
    Anyway just a thought 🙂

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