October was National Transport Month. The ACSA Disability Trade and Lifestyle Expo & Conference 2011 dedicated a morning to transport issues

According to Deputy Director General, MxolisiKa Toni, Dept. for Women, Children and Persons with Disabilities, there are major challenges in terms of transport access. He said government needs to determine how the National Transport Strategy meets the needs of people with disabilities and learn from developed, and developing, countries and missed opportunities.

Jeremy Cronin, MP and Deputy Minister of Transport delivered the key note address: The National Transport Strategy and how it affects the Disability Sector. He explained: "Our history of Apartheid and forced removals, as well as an absence of major geographical barriers, especially in Gauteng, have all contributed to giving us the transport system we have today."

He admitted that the struggle for universal access continues stating that, despite only 31% of South Africans havingaccess to a car, the country has inadequate, and expensive, public transport with30% of households spending 11% of their income on transport, and 18% spending20% or more.

We also have the highest number of road fatalities in the world (per capita) with 14,000 fatalities per annum, 40%are pedestrians and it is the leading cause of death in four to seven year-old children.

Our city traffic is the worst in the world. "Carmaggedon every morning and evening experienced. We are building infrastructure for cars, not people," he said. Whilst the government has built 3.1 million RDP houses, it has also created more commuters, compounding the problems of congestion.

"South Africa comprises a nation of migrant workers who travel to work every morning and then back lateri n the afternoon and evening."  To change this, Government launched the PublicTransport Strategy Action Plan 2007. "This will see a shift from operator controlled, commuter-based unit-modal routes to user-oriented, publicly controlled, fully integrated, mass rapid public transport network operations."

For this to work, public transport planning needs to be at the municipal level where councillors are atthe coalface. Government sits too far away. Resources must be closer to where services are needed, to empower citizens.

Metro Rail, Gauteng, transports 2.3 million people a day. They could transport four to five million but its rolling stock is old. The average age of the 4,638 coaches, (2,920 in operation) is about 37 years. Some are 40 to 50 years old. A major recapitalisation programme over 20 years, with a total investment of R123 billion, is now underway to revitalise Metro Rail.

As more than 2.4 million of the 20 million passengers have an impairment, "We are analysing the implementation strategy and action plan to guide the provision of accessible public transport systems in South Africa. In this there is a focus on people with disabilities, as well as the elderly, pregnant women, parents with prams, etc."

People have a universal right of access requiring that public transport services be based on universal design yet we still find problems with: pre-travel confidence and information; origin of point of access; boarding and alighting;on-board the vehicle (unsafe speeds, lack of restraint).

The DoT's plan includes:

  • Create an enabling environment: commitment to funding for universal access
  • Leveraging municipalitie receiving grants -  universal access design plan
  • Training and capacity building
  • Encouraging the disability sector to register SETA training courses to build staff capacity and train public transport operators.

"We need to make sure that the new developments are correct while correcting the existing units. This is not to say we will get it right instantly. PRASA has developed a universalaccess policy. The Gautrain has set a new standard but still has challenges, as do our bus systems."

Cronin concluded by saying that the disability sector also had a role to play. "There is still a major need for a larger national consultation group, as well as the critical need todevelop disability sector activism and engagement at municipal level."

Steve Morgan, Technical Specialist, National Regulator for Compulsory Specification, Dries van der Walt, Group Executive Officer, the Passenger Rail Association of South Africa (PRASA), SusanVenter, Project Manager Airport Operational Passenger Services for SAA, Philip Thompson and Jeremy Cronin then participated in a panel discussion.

Dries van der Walt admitted that PRASA had a long way to go to universal access. PRASA will spend R20 billion over the next three years modernising the rail system. Directional signage is the biggest problem. Universal Access is a criteria in all PRASA tenders for upgrading, and new, stations. R260 million has been provided to provide for universal access.

Susan Venter stated that SAA did not want to restrict any passenger, but had to adhere to aviation restrictions. SAA would, however, strive to improve all services, on the groundand in the air. She encouraged people with disabilities to go to the SAAwebsite and share ideas on how they could improve.

Philip Thompson, principal architect, IDC Architects and the National Council for People with Physical Disabilities was riveting.

"The special needs passenger framework fails to acknowledge principles of mobility integration anduniversal access. Universal accessibility is not yet, however considered an integral part of a quality transport system." According to him, there is a relationship between social sustainability and universal access and we need to think around universal access and design. "We fail to acknowledge best practice. We say we do not have standards in South Africa but in fact these standards exist internationally and there is no need to re-invent the wheel."

His analysis found:

  • Taxi recapitalisation:ensure some vehicles are universally accessible.
  • Rail: accessing trains is amajor challenge.
  • Gautrain: a complex ticketing system, signage issues regarding information, emergency escape andsafety and bus problems. Alarm systems not accessible to all.
  • Rea Vaya (JHB): information problems, both pre-trip and during travel.
  • MyCiTi (CT): has improved integrated, tactile way-finding systems but there are storm-water outlet, posts andemergency system problems. He questioned why both Rea Vaya and MyCiTi have highfloor systems. Golden Arrow buses (CT) have low floor systems.

In conclusion he said: "Where physical access not available, we must not just throw up our arms."

Practise what you preach?

Government is not reaching its mandate to employ people with disabilities nor ensuring that its buildings are accessible. Rolling Inspiration visited DoT in Pretoria and found its accessibility lacking.

Christina Sibanyani is an employee of DoT. Every day she parks her car in the basement, then takes the goods lift to the fifth floor because there is no accessible lift for wheelchair users. Sometimes she waits up to 15 minutes for the lift. Sometimes the lift does not work.

An accident while working for the DoT led to her paraplegia. DoT changed a bathroom for her. It is the only accessible bathroom in the building (except for the boardroom bathrooms). DoT also provided her with a laptop, printer and couch.

Inter-leading doors are extremely heavy and difficult to open, and keep open, as she wheels through. When ther eare meetings in the downstairs boardroom Christine needs assistance, as the ramp angle is too steep.

Perhaps DoT needs to get its own house in order?