Thursday, September 13, 2012

Metro policy for blind bus users lacks vision

Saturday 15 September Update; 

Top marks to Metro for rebutting any nonsense that it does not advocate signalling buses, and for doing so rapidly too, and for not trying to further fluff this admittedly difficult issue

The news item linked above -a media statement from Metro the day after the NZ in Tranzit posting below (and title above, less the words now removed "and honesty") above renders much of the "news" aspect of the following item below irrelevant. However the principle that passengers need to flag down buses remain - and I am sure this is so also in the various countries overseas where many readers of this blog live - as does the need to find ways to deal with the issue of sight impaired access to buses.

Blind users of Christchurch buses don't need to have the wool pulled over their eyes, but that is what Metro seems to be trying to do.

According to a recent article in The Mainland Press it has been confirmed "flagging down buses is not Environment Canterbury (ECan) policy"

If this was actually true our public transport system in Christchurch would be in the hands of buffoons!

No urban bus system in the world could run a competent on-time service if it pulled over for every Tom, Dick and Harriet standing or walking in the vicinity of a bus stop or sitting on the seat of a bus shelter.

Bus driver's always have to read the situation, passengers always have to make some indication, however slight the body language, that they wish to catch that particular bus. It might be standing up from the bus shelter seat, it might be stepping forward or walking towards the bus stop pole, it might be catching the eye of the driver; best of all (for road safety) is a clear arm signal, raising the arm. 

It is hard to believe ECan management and that of some local bus companies is so out of touch with practical bus driving reality and practical road safety that they suggest there is no need to flag down buses. 

Often bus driver's unable to get a clear reading will slow in traffic hoping to catch the person's eye (they may be day dreaming or distracted) rather than pull in if uncertain. This is sensible, firstly because it takes time, secondly because  if traffic is heavy it takes even more time getting back into the traffic flow, thirdly because - if the person at the stop is not catching the bus - it can make the driver feel foolish, as if he or she misread the situation (ie lacks competent bus driver skills). This said there will always occasional misreads. Or let's be frank - there are also multiple thoughtless bozos in the the public who stand right beside a bus sign, either not waiting  for a bus or waiting for a different one - who make no effort to step back or signal the driver that they do NOT require that bus. They stand there staring right at the driver allowing the bus to pull in and open its doors. And sometimes they still  stand there. saying nothing even then.

No driver can get too embarrassed with the occasional misread; you can't get it right every time, and if in real doubt the driver will probably opt to check it out unless already under stress and running late.  But I imagine what passengers would think if the driver of their bus stopped for a non-passenger two or three times in one one trip! Which could easily be the case if drivers were forced to stop for every person within proximity of a  bus stop even though no attempt was made to indicate a bus was wanted - indeed why bother inidicating in that culture, keep on chatting to the bus stops. But if signals need to be made then obviously a clear, unequivocal raised arm or hand is by far the most preferable.

This does not resolve the issue for those who are blind, a category which includes mostly people with grossly impaired sight but who can see some degree of movement. light or peripheral vision, but insufficient to read bus destinations. In the case of busy roads and route corridors, used by multiple routes (the last place bus drivers want to pull over needlessly!) blind people can not discern which bus is the right one, or sometimes even know that the bus is approaching until too late, making no indication they want that bus. There have been regular cases of blind people being left behind.

Ecan has held a meeting with the Royal Blind Institute apparently to reassure blind bus users they will not need to flag down buses.

According to the Mainland Press "There never was an ECan policy regarding flagging down buses , so we are not sure how this situation has happened .." said a spokes woman for ECan.

In the first instance there has never been a [specifically written] policy because indicating you want to catch a bus, or a specific bus, is so intrinsic to the whole nature of public transport it doesn't need to be written - it is lunatic to even think that passengers don't need to indicate they want that bus, and illogical not to ask that they indicate clearly. It is international, it is human nature.

Secondly to say Metro never has had a policy is a load of bullshit anyway - here is a bit of signage off the Metrostar route - signage published by Metro itself!!

So really Metro's policy of trying to look good for the disadvantaged is a half-arsed situation essentially unworkable and undermining good bus catching practice and smooth consistent running of bus services.

To suggest this flaky "policy"will solve the problem is naive in extreme or just trying to dodge a hard question by pulling the wool over the eyes of the blind and their advocates.

I don't think they were too fooled. To quote the Mainland Press again " Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind orientation and mobility instructor Carina Duke said while she was pleased that the flagging issue was resolved she had reservations about driver training and communication issues". Personally I don't think that can ever be resolved cleanly, there are far too many variations in driver temperament; split second decision making; road safety; blind behaviour; situational variation (by the thousands) to get a good clean strategy.

Rather what seems to me to be needed is a raft of complementary strategies -  by the public health department; by bus manufacturers; by  bus operating authorities and by bus drivers.

In particular I suggest a protocol for blind of  asking anybody at the stop for support. The Mainland Press quotes one blind person saying how awkward it was asking total strangers to flag down buses for them - yes, it no doubt is, but maybe that is also the part if blind reality. Lots of people can't do things without asking for help in life, it is hardly restricted to the blind and disabled. However if there are no other people at the stop or the blind person does not want to ask for help, they take the optional protocol of standing right beside or under the Bus Stop sign, holding their blind cane up perhaps, vertically grasped around the middle, so it does not protrude outwards, or backwards into the pedestrian area and extending the arm holding the vertical red and white cane for any approaching bus. This immediately alerts drivers that this person blind and can not tell if the bus they are waving is the correct one. This said, most blind people can access the time, so the likelihood in most cases, apart from one or two corridors at peak times, is that this will be the specific bus required.

I wonder whether any experimentation has been done using lights in canes - cyclists nowadays have some very bright flashing lights, often highly visible even in the daytime even though fairly tiny in size. It would seem to me to design canes with the red bands of inbuilt flashing lights or a light at the tip, that can be switched on for situations like this would make a huge amount of sense. Surely this technology exists already?

Bus authorities can do a lot to help by putting out a protocol sticker on every bus shelter, saying (something like) "Please assist sight disabled to signal their bus if needed". A second interesting technological concept - a good one internationally - would be to get a distinctive bus approaching sound signal. This is not the conventional bus horn for blasting motorists, but a separate distinctive penetrating (though not overly loud or painful) "passenger alert: (hey you wake up, do you want the bus?) noise. I think of the funny noise Skype makes on computers, as an example. This distinctive noise may become very important as bus fleets move to fully electric buses, not wishing to repeat the olden times nick-name of trams "silent death".

If every bus in the world had the same sound signal, to be used judiciously (charter buses might also use to warn groups that the bus will depart in a couple of minutes) then many situations involving the sight disabled could be remedied straight away. On certain routes or scheduled trips buses would have a compulsory signal [small sign on lamp-post] when approaching certain stops, just as trains often have "Sound Whistle" signs track-side. And the stops themselves could have a textured ground waiting bay - even a leaner - where the blind person is high profile but safe and can easily move to the bus door when the vehicle stops.

An option is for buses to have bright coloured lights, just little ones, in colour codes for different routes. This was common practice with many trams years ago when a lot of people were not able to read (Blue-Red-Green means Smithville; Green-Red-Green means Brownstown,  etc). Modern technology could deliver far more powerful mini lights visible in day time, even to some of those with less clear vision.

Another way that public transport authorities could support the blind is identifying particular stops where blind persons catch buses regularly  - mostly near institutes, shared houses or workshops for the blind. These could be compulsory stops for bus drivers at all relevant times. This is consistent delay, even if only 30 seconds, that can be factored into timetables, so does not have the needless stop interruptive effect.

Lastly back to the good old driver. I think he or she can read all that. If a bus driver can tell by the nearest nod of a head or even the tensing of a body that it is highly likely the person  50 metres away -  is going to catch a bus, I am sure a blind person standing in the right location holding a cane - better still with a flasher indicating - is going to be readable.

These are just a few options; a couple more below.  To say that Metro has resolved the situation is just nonsense. It needs far more investment of time, energy and funding than a few fluffy words

And God forbid that those who never catch or drive bus impose their naive policies that will send Christchurch public transport reeling backwards into a a situation of e anything goes and and culture of not bothering to clearly signal buses - long run that won't help the blind or regular passengers.

Further Reading -  from Melbourne 


  1. Blind people are citizens too! They couldn't be left just like that and in fact the gov't has a big responsibility upon them.

  2. A better technological solution could be a GPS app on a smartphone or similar. This would check a server every 15 seconds and let whoever is holding it know what the next bus to arrive is, and how far away it is.
    As I understand it at least some buses in Chch are already GPS tracked, so part of the solution is already in place. You just need to update the system so the system is on the internet rather than those fixed street boxes with the lights that illuminate (essentially a closed system).
    Perhaps the blind persons dog could wear a vest with LED lights on each side, these would illuminate with a number of the bus route the blind person requires. LEDs have low power consumption and also are unlikely to require replacement.

    Alternatively perhaps the number of stops on some routes could be rationalised (there are often too many on main arterial routes for example). This would increase the likelihood that other people will be waiting for the bus as well. In time the busiest stops can be upgraded with an announcement system liek they do for trains stating what bus is arriving etc.

  3. Management makes a lot of difference to consumers prefered choices be it transportation as well