London's routemasters -- icon or inaccessible dinosaurs?
This article on London's familiar Routemaster buses prompts a good question: When does an icon's historical status eclipse its need to be accessible to everyone?The Routemaster is one of those enduring designs -- created 50 years ago and still around because of its functionality but perhaps even more so because of its uniqueness. The red double deckers say London. But time has marched on too and these buses, after all, are not amusement park rides; they're public transportation. For the most part, the Routemasters have been replaced, the article relates, with more accessible modern vehicles, in some cases still red and still double deckers but more accessible to all riders. Only 16 remaining Routemasters run on two routes. Some advocates for people with disabilities in the UK say all the Routemasters should go, replaced with more accessible, albeit less quaint, vehicles. Others lament any of the replacement of Routemasters and want the few remaining to keep in service. Who's right?
It's not an easy question to answer. I can relate to the irrational adherence to what one knows and identifies with times gone by, which of course we know were always better than now. I'll offer an example. I live in Wisconsin, but I'm originally from the Chicago area. Consequently, I grew up with the Chicago-style hot dog stand. My impression of a real hot dog is pretty rigid. The right condiments -- tomato, pickle relish, onion, mustard, celery salt, pickle spear, sport peppers (no ketchup!). The right bun -- steamed with poppy seed. And the right fries -- cut from a fresh potato, skin on, soggy with grease and served wrapped up with the dog in one piece of paper. Several places do a good job on the dog around here, but the proper fries are elusive, and it kinda ruins the Chicago style hot dog experience. It's just not authentic to my mind, even if many places present a -- shall I say -- healthier fry presentation. And I feel it strongly.
So it certainly seems reasonable that people might feel strongly about the Routemasters. Other red double deckers, even if more practical, more accessible, just aren't the same. But this argument just doesn't work for the buses for the plain reason they are public transportation. You can go to another hot dog stand, but you can't go to another public transit system, generally. The principal is well established that public transit ought to be accessible to as many as possible. London does appear to be doing more than many places to encourage accessibility in transit or the changes would not have taken place. That should be acknowledged, but keeping a few inaccessible buses running on a couple of key routes isn't in the spirit of maximum accessibility no matter how iconic the vehicles.
The article also addresses a key issue supporters of less accessibility are bound to make -- that riders with disabilities are small in number. Why is that? One reason is there is still far from universal accessibility on most transit systems. You've got to have the right station. You've got to have the right line. And in this case, you've got to catch the right kind of bus -- at least on those routes. Andrew Braddock, formerly head of access and mobility at Transport for London, nails it in the article when he says "the total number of wheelchair users is inevitably small... but the number of trips being made by this previously ignored group is growing all the time."
(Photo of Routemaster by Rudi Ashdown via morgueFile.com)