Since January 1, 2016, all new long-distance buses need to include two wheelchair accessible spots. Starting on January 1, 2020, this applies to all intercity buses. This is stipulated in Article 42b in conjunction with Article 62, Provision 3 of the German Passenger Transportation Act (PBefG).
Ulrike Boppel is a staff member at the Registration Office for Accessible Intercity Buses (German: Meldestelle für barrierefreie Fernlinienbusse). REHACARE.com spoke with her about the use of mobility scouts to verify the actual levels of accessibility in these buses.
Last year, the Registration Office for Accessibility Intercity Buses was searching for so-called mobility scouts. What exactly was this about?
Ulrike Boppel: To verify the level of accessibility in intercity buses, the Registration Office has trained so-called mobility scouts. In a three-day workshop, the scouts who all have a disability, obtained the required knowledge as it pertains to accessibility and barriers in intercity buses. The scouts conduct test runs on different intercity bus routes and bus services. Not only do they check the legally required level of accessibility (two wheelchair accessible spots), but they also consider the entire travel chain from arrival to departure. They also review the benefit for people with visual or hearing impairments since accessibility and barriers are not just limited to wheelchair users but need to be seen as an issue pertaining to all types of disabilities. In addition, the scouts review the starting point and destination station for accessibility. After all, there is no point if the bus is accessible, but the bus depot isn’t and you are therefore not able to enter or leave the bus. Mobility scouts have been in the field since January 1, 2016, and are testing numerous intercity bus routes. The second workshop took place in March of 2016. More mobility scouts could be recruited during this event. Additional workshops are planned in October 20-23, 2016, in Berlin and on February 16-19, 2017 in Pforzheim.
What did the scouts learn at these workshops?
Boppel: They primarily obtained theoretical knowledge on accessibility. They also toured the Central Bus Station in Berlin (ZOB). Berlinlinienbus provided an accessible bus so that the scouts were able to review an example of an accessible bus while they practiced getting in and out using the wheelchair lifts. In addition, the scouts learned how to conduct a test drive, what they need to pay attention to and how to document everything.
What type of practical experiences were the mobility scouts able to make so far?
Boppel: The mobility scouts are hard at work. Since accessibility in intercity buses currently only applies to newly purchased buses, buses that are not accessible are still on the road, which is why the scouts also did not get picked up by some of them. However, there are intercity bus services that already feature accessible buses such as the German Postbus and Berlinlinienbus options. Here, the scouts had positive experiences during their test drives. Yet they also noticed that accessibility – if it exists – is limited to wheelchair users and does not address the needs of people with visual and hearing impairments.
What other assignments and missions will be in the mobility scouts’ future?
Boppel: The scouts can expect many future test drives. The more routes and buses are being tested, the more attention this topic will receive. What’s more, the buses are not just meant to be reviewed on their level of accessibility but also as it exists across the whole infrastructure. In this context, scouts also review the journey to the bus terminal: are the public modes of transportation accessible? How about parking spots at the bus terminal? Are barrier-free restrooms available and similar questions need to be answered. These are important aspects of accessibility in long-distance buses because an accessible bus is useless if the bus depot or the bus stop is not accessible and the bus cannot be reached without encountering barriers.
How accessible are long-distance coaches really at this point?
Boppel: Since full accessibility in intercity buses is not mandatory until January 1, 2020, there are unfortunately still many non-accessible intercity buses on the road. They essentially make it impossible for wheelchair users who are not able to change seats on their own to be picked up for a ride.
Accessible buses already in use have two wheelchair-accessible spots available. Unfortunately, mandatory accessibility according to the PBefG is limited to wheelchair users. This does not consider people with visual and hearing impairments, meaning intercity buses don’t offer high contrast or Braille Code. There is a huge need to catch up in this area. The Registration Office for Barrier-Free Intercity Buses has issued a pamphlet on this that makes recommendations for the accessible design of intercity buses and does not limit this to accessibility for wheelchair users.
The German Federal Self-Help Association for People with Disabilities (Bundesverband Selbsthilfe Körperbehinderter e.V.) wanted to obtain more details and asked the German states to divulge the status quo of intercity buses with available wheelchair-accessible spots. The results were – unfortunately – far from being satisfactory. German states don’t maintain statistics documenting the registered accessible intercity buses as of January 1, 2016. A monitoring and control process by legislators is clearly missing. This is also evident in an inquiry made to the German government by Stefan Zierke, Member of the German Bundestag (Parliament) and the SPD party. When asked about the responsible party and extent of acquisition and documentation requirements for new licensed accessible long-distance buses, the government indicated that legal provisions have not been made for this and are also not being carried out by public authorities.
To what extent would standard barrier-free intercity coaches positively affect the mobility of people with disabilities?
Boppel: All human beings have the right to mobility. This includes being able to decide for yourself when and where you want to travel. An intercity bus is an attractive means of travel since it is affordable compared to other modes of transportation. In addition, people like to use intercity coaches since it allows them to travel from point A to point B without transferring. This is especially important for people with disabilities since travel without transfer is easier to manage. That’s why accessible long-distance buses have a positive effect on the mobility of people with disabilities.