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).
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).
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.