Urgent funding needed to finish long battle for accessible public transport

A snap protest blocked trams in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick after the 2022 budget failed to make inroads on tram stop accessibility. Photo by Radical Women.
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In 1979 Joan Hume, a wheelchair user, led a protest at the opening of Sydney’s eastern suburbs railway demanding accessible public transport. Hume, who died in 2017, is remembered as a trailblazer and warrior activist for disability rights. Over the next four-and-a-half decades, many have followed her example. The 1980s was a decade of militancy — people with disability raising their voices, building alliances and taking to the streets to end the systemic discrimination. Protests in Melbourne, initiated by People for Equality Not Institutionalisation, demanded an accessible public transport network. In 1991 Sydney woman Bronwyn Moye led a protest of wheelchair users, who blockaded the busy Broadway thoroughfare to demand that the bus network be made accessible.

Legislating against discrimination. In the context of this wave of organising, the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) was enacted in 1992. This gave the movement for disability rights a useful tool. Determined to bust barriers, activists put the DDA to good use. Case after case helped expose the depth of disability discrimination and its entrenched systemic nature.

An important development was the release in 2002 of the Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport (DSAPT). These standards required all states and territories to make their public transport fully accessible. They had two decades to do this, with a final deadline of December 2022. With the deadline now in the past, it is disgraceful that no state or territory has met its obligations in full. There have also been some shocking failures along the way. In 2013, Queensland rolled out a whole new fleet of trains that were not accessible!

People with disability continue organising — on the streets and through the courts — to demand the access they need. In 2018, wheelchair user Julia Haraksin had a big win. The Federal Court ruled that bus company Murrays Australia had directly discriminated against her when it refused her booking because its entire fleet was not accessible.

Glacial pace of progress in Victoria. The Disability Resource Centre (DRC) is leading the Transport For All campaign in Victoria, where stronger alliances are being forged between disability rights activists and the Rail Tram and Bus Union. Disability activists have long supported the union, criticising the staffing cuts across the public transport network, which reduce support for those needing assistance and risk the safety of passengers with less mobility. The union has joined DRC-initiated street protests and advocates for more funding for accessibility upgrades in its annual budget submissions to government.

The state government didn’t listen. The 2022 budget was a shocker. With the impending DSAPT deadline looming, the government found funding last year to make just six additional tram stops accessible! A 2020 Auditor General’s Report notes that only 15% of tram services are delivered with a low floor tram at a level access stop. The choice of stops funded for an upgrade in 2022 also drew community criticism. They are along the LaTrobe Street corridor, where most trams on the route are not low-floor! Users argue that higher priorities must be at interchanges like Clifton Hill, where rail, trams and buses intersect. Clearly more community consultation is needed!

This budget fail sparked protests. Transport for All led a protest, blocking the number 19 trams on Sydney Road in Brunswick. Protesters were fuming, arguing they can’t wait. If the Victorian government maintains its current pace, it will be 2066 before the tram network is accessible! Without equal access to transport, a simple journey takes longer, costs more and is often completely out of the question. Transport for All campaigner Akki Ngo, who joined the Sydney Road protest last year, had to pay $100 for the short trip to Brunswick and back, using the subsidised multi-purpose taxi card.

The next state budget will be announced on 23 May. More funding is urgently needed to make the public transport system accessible for people with disabilities and others such as those pushing prams and seniors with mobility issues. Reduce spending on policing and redirect funding from the obscene amounts being pumped into building new prisons. Demand that the Andrews government get these priorities right!

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