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An open letter — rant, long — updated

Updated today with the letter that I actually sent this am
An open letter to the
Minister for Transport
the Honourable Mr David Campbell MP
GPO Box 5341
SYDNEY NSW 2001

Dear Sir,

I’m told I tell a great story whether fiction or fact. My education and experiences over many years has reinforced that telling stories is a good way to understand a new topic, or a differing point of view.

So I’m going to tell you a story. It’s a story starring me and the accessible bus network.

By way of background to this story; I use an electric wheelchair to get around and have done in one form or another all my life.  I’m in my 30’s and have worked in public policy development my entire career. Currently, I’ve also got other health issues that affect my ability to sit for long periods without pain as well as fatigue. These last two are new developments which require a fair amount of planning, often taking a cumulative approach.

I’ve been using the accessible buses on the network since they were first put on at the depot in Ryde some 15 or so years ago. While I do hold a license, I have elected not to drive in Sydney as I’ve held the belief for 20 years that there is too much congestion here and an unhealthy reliance on private vehicles for a world-class city. I do use taxis but try to avoid doing so for direct routes.

Last Friday I had lunch plans in South Newtown a straight 4.4 kms from where I live. Lunch was set for 12:30pm. I got to the bus stop early for the scheduled 11:05 service which was the latest one I could catch that would get me there on time. I have learnt to arrive early because of the flow of traffic close to the Tempe depot. I have also learnt to expect anything. When an un-timetabled accessible arrived at the stop at 10:40 I decided to grab it in case this was the 11:05 arriving early, or otherwise affecting the scheduled service. The bus ride was pleasant and by soon after 11am I was sitting in the shadiest spot I could find across the road from my destination reading. It was as you may recall rather warm.

Lunch was pleasant. There was a fight happening at the bus stop directly outside our venue, so just before 2 pm I accompanied my friend south towards his car and a safer bus stop than the one at the cafe. I waited at the next one and after 5 minutes saw an almost empty 422 with a ramp came up. I stuck my hand out and it went straight past me.

Reasoning that my visibility must be poor, I went straight back to the bus stop near the cafe which is more of an interchange but directly in the heat.

I waited expecting to wait an hour. People queued behind me and looked a tad guilty when they got on buses (4 inaccessible 422’s, three or four 352s and half a dozen 370’s mostly accessible). Over the course of that hour four of those waiting were mothers with prams, one of whom gave up and headed towards the train station, while another escaped into a 370 for the air-conditioned comfort, given her child was just asleep.

As the time approached for the 3:05 service. I watched every bus that arrived, my breath catching in my throat with bursts of excitement then disappointment as each service passed. I looked at my phone only to check the time. I did not dare read lest I miss its arrival and the chance to get out of the heat. I felt embarrassed and humiliated to have been sitting there watching people arrive to go to the gym or the supermarket and then leave all fit or with a full load of groceries. I was sure it would arrive soon.

School children released just before 3pm literally flooded out of school overtaking the already crowded footpath. They  boarded buses without hassle. I stood my ground. My bladder was under increasing pressure because even if I had left the stop there was no easily wheelchair accessible public toilet anywhere nearby. I have had to train my bladder to assume that for one reason or another toileting in this area is hard and to hold on, dehydrate and rehydrate where you know there is an appropriate toilet.  Though stressed and uncomfortable, after an hour and a half of waiting, I lost the battle of the bladder about 3:30pm further adding to my discomfort and embarrassment.

Long before this time I had been sitting up for too long and was in severe pain as well as spasm. I had considered booking a cab, but given the time of day and the shortness of the journey as well as the awkward pickup location, decided against it. I began to feel like I should cancel all my commitments, my work, my social and civic, my recreational, even the practical things like shopping and medical. While I don’t consider myself house bound and feel I have a lot to contribute, days like last Friday make me feel quite hopeless. Some of the bus drivers assured me it was coming and I got a few apologetic glances from drivers of  Route 370, for which I’m grateful.

Sir, the 3:05 422 bus scheduled to be accessible never arrived. It wasn’t that it was too full. It never arrived.

The next one I could catch was one soon after 4 pm and I was home at 4:30pm It had taken me 6 hours to have an hour and a half lunch 4.4 kms from home. The bus trip home was as pleasant as it could be, the driver kind and efficient given my obvious heat and sunburn but oblivious to the delay.

I lodged a complaint by phone with 131500 that afternoon and am awaiting a response. (Ed note Heard from depot at 1:55 pm today apology included)

In writing to you I’m trying to give you a sense of my experience. While perhaps more dramatic than most times, this is not uncommon. In order to travel from South Newtown to the CBD for work for example if I have to be at a meeting at 10am the latest bus I can catch is the 7:34am (assuming it’s ramp is working and its not full). I tend to organise my life around the bus timetable and have to build in a large buffer every time that my contemporaries without disabilities do not have to include, both in time and in money (when I cannot afford the time buffer). I must point out that these long delays do not happen every time. But as with my forward journey last Friday, it happens consistently enough that it must be built into planning my day, often leaving me embarrassingly early.

I congratulate you and the Ministry on the progress towards the Transport Standards with which I am very familiar.  Statistically NSW is doing quite well. However those numbers do not reflect my regular experience locally.

While I understand that all times given on timetables are approximate, given the infrequency of some timetabled accessible services, is there any way we can assure that these ones turn up?

If we only let women or another minority on at best one bus every hour (and expected them to build their lives around it and be grateful), there would be an almighty outcry. Why must it in 2010 be any different for those with disabilities, trying to get on with life in an ecological way?

Sincerely yours,

Joanna Nicol

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