Five great tips for using London buses in a wheelchair

The photo is of a red Routemaster bus in London. The bus is number 88, to Clapham Common. It fills the image, and is on a road. In the background of the image are some shops, and the bus is being followed by a taxi
Routemaster bus number 88 to Clapham Common

Having lived in London for three years, I’ve taken a lot of buses. In that time, I’ve been sworn at by drivers, had a woman accuse me of trying to kill her baby, been shouted and sworn at by passengers, and been chased off a bus in tears – all for trying to assert my legal right to have priority in the sole wheelchair space – the only space on a bus where I can safely travel. I’ve also learned a lot about how to travel on London buses in a wheelchair. Bus travel has improved in 3 years. Buses are far more likely to stop for me than they used to be. Other passengers are far more willing to share the wheelchair space, and ramps are far more likely to be in operation. However, there’s still a long way to go.

Always film the bus. When you see the bus pulling up, have your phone out, filming if possible. There’s no need to be obvious, but this means you have the exact time and numberplate if something goes wrong. In my experience, TFL are far more likely to be responsive if you can offer them video evidence alongside your claim. Keep filming until you are safely placed in the wheelchair space and the bus is pulling off. Other passengers can be horribly abusive, and a video or audio recording makes good evidence. Had I had this evidence, I could have reported hate crimes in the past – but without it I knew the report would go nowhere

Flag the bus obviously. As the bus pulls up, move in front of the other passengers, and flag the bus visibly, so it’s certain to know you’re there. If you can’t signal, ask someone else to point to you. Once the bus comes to a halt, if the driver hasn’t seen you you can pull round the side and press the ramp request button. If the driver completely ignores you and doesn’t stop, report them to TFL

Have someone guide you up the ramp and clear the space. I struggle with going up ramps backwards, but going up forwards makes it hard to turn into the wheelchair space. I make sure someone’s always got my handles as I reverse and is guiding me straight. That person also makes sure everyone’s moved their buggies and shopping, with a fixed smile and a repeated “can I have the wheelchair space please”. The advantage of them coming up the ramp with you is that the bus can’t pull off before they get on, separating you. Having that person there also means you won’t be stranded if there’s aggro with the other passengers. That person can then go down, tap in, and let the driver know your destination. I find this helpful because I often miss hearing the announcements, and the display isn’t visible from the wheelchair space on most buses.

Know your rights. In early 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that wheelchair users have legal priority in the wheelchair space, and people with buggies should fold their buggy and vacate the space. TFL asks bus drivers to keep the front door closed until wheelchair users have boarded the bus, which makes it easier to get on as other passengers aren’t moving through the bus and into the wheelchair space just as I try to get on. It also requires bus drivers to repeatedly announce that buggies must fold and vacate the wheelchair space. If they refuse after several recorded messages from the driver, then the bus driver must radio the next bus to inform them of the wheelchair user waiting before they leave the stop. If the driver has not done all of these steps, then they’ve breached TFL guidance. To complain about this, fill in this form. Remember your video evidence.

If conflict is flaring, leave it. If people really refuse to move their buggies out of the way to let you us the space, it’s worth the person you’re with asking the driver to require that they move again. If that doesn’t work, and people start raising their voices and swearing, it is often safer to get off the bus. I understand the temptation to get into an argument, but if someone’s that angry I wouldn’t want to remain stuck on the bus with them anyway. I’ve narrowly avoided physical violence (really, over a wheelchair space), and I don’t plan to change that.

In general I find buses easy to travel on compared to trains, but I do discover that at certain times of day it can be harder. After school, there are lots of parents with buggies trying to collect their children and take them home. This means between about 2pm and 4pm you’re a lot more likely to encounter conflict over the space. Conflict is also a risk in the mornings, when people are trying to get kids to school. Finally, at rush hour, between about 5pm and 7pm buses can be so full that there isn’t literal space for you on them. Don’t let this stop you from travelling, but do be prepared.

I tend to leave 3 buses of leeway. That way if I miss 3 buses for whatever reason then I can still get to my appointment on time. It”s really frustrating always arriving early, but it’s better than being late to something important because you couldn’t get on the bus.

What are your tips for travelling on London buses? Comment here or tweet me at @jamierhale

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