There’s been progress, but South Africa still has ‘a long way to go’

October is Public Transport Month, and while South Africa’s public transport infrastructure has improved by leaps and bounds since democracy, persons with disabilities remain deeply frustrated by a system intended to be universally accessible, but misses the bus.

“The government has excellent and noble intentions, But intentions are not enough,” says Danie Marais, Universal Design and Accessibility Manager at the National Council of and for Persons with Disabilities (NCPD). “We’ve made progress. But we still have a long way to go.”

Johannesburg’s Rea Vaya service is a case in point, he notes. Unless the driver parks the bus right alongside the platform, it’s almost impossible for persons with mobility disabilities to board the “high-step” buses. When a Rea Vaya bus breaks down, fellow passengers need to carry a passenger with a mobility aid off the bus. This has profound health, safety and public liability consequences.

Tshwane, Cape Town and George all employ low-step buses that are relatively easy for persons with mobility disabilities impairments to use

“Bus contracts were awarded in Ekurhuleni last week. We are excited to note that a universal design expert is on board in this case. It’s great that some of our cities are getting it right” Marais says.

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“Someone living in Alexandra needs to catch as many as four taxis to get to a Rea Vaya station. Taxis are not accessible for most persons with disabilities, compounding the transport nightmares they face. It makes it close to impossible for persons with disabilities to live independently: to get to and from work without hassle, to socialise with friends or simply to go out to the shops.”

The lack of accessible public transport is a contributing factor to the isolation, marginalisation and demoralisation of persons with disabilities, he adds.

Some components of South Africa’s public transport system do better than others. The Gautrain, for example, is almost a textbook example of universal accessibility. There’s wheelchair access at all stations, and announcements are made on speakers and on digital notice boards.

However, passengers with mobility impairments often have to wait a long time for a carriage that accommodates a wheelchair, and the Gautrain turnstiles are inaccessible to most persons with disabilities, and especially to persons with visual impairments.

The lack of accessible public transport is a contributing factor to the isolation, marginalisation and demoralisation of persons with disabilities

About 13% of all South Africans have a disability and most are let down by a public transport system that’s not designed to be accessible, Marais says.

The NCPD welcomes all positive changes implemented so far in South Africa’s public transport system. The organisation invites city planners and transport departments across the country to work with it to bring profound, effective change to public transport and make it a system that works for everybody.