Monday, May 01, 2006

North-East line will be disabled-ready
The disabled can wheel themselves into trains at N-E stations; MRT is also studying how to retrofit other stations
THE disabled can wheel themselves into the MRT trains along the North-East line when the system is ready in four years' time, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) has said.
It also called for tenders, on Sept 18, to study how much it would cost and how to retrofit the existing 48 stations with ramps and lifts. Its own estimate: $50 million.
The LTA's chief executive, Maj-Gen (NS) Han Eng Juan, said in an interview with The Sunday Times: "By the year 2002, a person in a wheelchair can get into the station, onto the platform, into the train, get out of the train, platform and station using the North-East line."
While the LTA has announced that the stations along the N-E line will have features such as lifts, it has never committed itself to allowing the wheelchair-bound on board the trains.
Instead, its letters to The Straits Times, responding to calls to make public transport, especially the train system, more accessible, have focused on the dangers that the wheelchair-bound might pose to themselves and other commuters on the train, and the cost of retrofitting the transport system.
Commenting on the LTA's move, National Council of Social Service's chief executive officer, Mr Benedict Cheong, said: "We welcome this move to allow the wheelchair-bound to get on the Northeast line.
"We hope the same move can be extended to all other parts of the MRT and that retrofitting will be possible.
"As we look into the needs of the disabled, we are also simultaneously looking into the needs of the growing number of the elderly among us and, in the long run, this is cost-effective for everyone."
In the interview, Mr Han said that providing public transport facilities for the disabled was not a black and white issue -- to make it accessible or not accessible.
"It is a question of how far to go -- it can be limitless and we can make it so elaborate but unaffordable.
"The Government has a responsibility to provide the baseline and if, beyond that, more is needed, the people must be prepared to pay."
He said the Government's philosophy was to help the disabled to the maximum extent in the use of public transport, within its responsibility of meeting the needs of the general commuting public.
And this would also mean looking after the needs of a bigger group -- the growing group of the elderly.
Four million people make trips daily on the public transport system: one million on the train and three million on the buses. The number of registered wheelchair-bound people: 5,300.
Moving the masses quickly would also have to be weighed against factors such as the waiting time incurred while the wheelchair-bound got on and off the train.
And there was also the question of whether other commuters would help the wheelchair-bound in an emergency.
But, he said, the LTA was committed to studying whether it was feasible and cost-effective to retrofit existing stations and buses, or whether alternatives, such as a door-to-door dedicated service using taxis or vehicles run by a voluntary welfare organisation, should be implemented.
"At the end of the day, if more facilities are required, then more people must be ready to pay more for them.
"The next question will, therefore, be who is to bear the cost? Should all taxpayers bear the cost? Should other public transport commuters bear the cost with higher fares? Should the individual wheelchair-bound person bear the cost? Or a combination of these? These are questions that we as a society will have to answer."
The LTA is inviting views from the public. Its hotline 1800-3757300 will be open from tomorrow till Dec 4 during office hours.

THE ALTERNATIVE: Door-to-door dedicated service
A TRANSPORT system that takes the wheelchair-bound from door to door might be the best way to take care of the needs of the disabled. It will be cheaper than, say, the $40 million that would be required to retrofit the entire bus fleet or the $50 million to add lifts to existing MRT stations.
Also, as the public transport system requires commuters to make their own way to their destination most of the time, such as from bus stop to building, it solves the problem of the wheelchair-bound facing hurdles along the route.
The Land Transport Authority's chief executive, Maj-Gen (NS) Han Eng Juan, suggested that such a dedicated transport system could be run by a voluntary welfare organisation managing a central pool of handicapped-friendly vehicles.
It might cost up to $5 million a year to operate an estimated 50 vehicles from within two Housing board estates. This was the finding by the Ministry of Community Development (MCD)-led Working Group on Transport for the Disabled.
To use the system, a wheelchair-bound person can make a booking and the VWO will send a vehicle over to ferry him to his destination. Asked who will bear the cost of this system, Mr Han said the VWO would receive government support. The public would also have to contribute.
"We as a society must be prepared to reach into our pockets to help our less fortunate countrymen. We cannot run away from the fact that a higher cost will have to be incurred to cater to the disabled. The question is, therefore, what is the most cost-effective solution overall?"
If a centralised system is not used, then improvements can be made to the present dial-a-ride scheme that one VWO -- the Handicaps Welfare Association (HWA) -- already runs for its 1,600 members. This service can also be extended to include taxis.
HWA now operates 10 vehicles. It raises its own money to buy the vehicles or looks for sponsors. Each 20-seater vehicle can cost around $80,000. Its maintenance bill per year for the 10 vehicles is around $12,000. Members who cannot afford to pay the transport fare can ask the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) for transport subsidies.
The Working Group on Transport for the Disabled, comprising officials from the LTA, MCD and NCSS, is now studying how such dedicated services can be made more accessible and affordable.
How to set wheels rolling for disabled
Yesterday was the International Day of the Disabled. BRAEMA MATHI examines an issue that has pitted readers against the authorities for some time -- public transport for the disabled.
MOUNTAINEER David Lim is not a man to mince his words. And he didn't when he wrote to The Straits Times Forum page to complain about "band-aid" measures to help the disabled move around.
Mr Lim, 33, who is recovering from Guillain-Barre Syndrome, asked why the authorities did not think of including features for the wheelchair-bound while it was planning the MRT system.
The reply from the Land Transport Authority's chief executive, Maj-Gen (NS) Han Eng Juan: "Are we to believe that we were singularly stupid in our planning when in the whole world, no one system had provided adequately well for the wheelchair-bound?"
No mistake was made, he said, when The Sunday Times referred Mr Lim's letter, published on Nov 25, to him.
There were bigger issues to resolve at that time, like whether having an MRT system was even viable in the first place.
But that phase was over and "we are now taking necessary action".
Mr Lim's was the 23rd letter appearing in The Straits Times on the transport needs for the disabled -- in particular, the wheelchair-bound -- since the beginning of the year.
There were 11 letters from readers, both disabled and able-bodied, three replies from the LTA, five from associations representing the disabled, one from the Ministry of Education and three from the Singapore Bus Service.
The thrust of the LTA's reply was that the issue was not about making public transport fully accessible to every single person, but finding an efficient and economical approach that would best meet the transport needs of the disabled, ambulant and non-ambulant, and the able-bodied masses.
Readers were not impressed.
A Mr Tham Ah Hock even went so far as to call for legislation.
"The disabled in Singapore must be integrated into mainstream society," he wrote.
"Perhaps the rights of the disabled should be legislated one day to ensure that we, the disabled, also have the 'freedom' to go where we want to go."
The rash of letters also threw into greater relief another concern -- while there are only 5,300 registered wheelchair-bound people now, the number is expected to go up as the population ages.
Should not steps be taken now to prepare for this eventuality?
While no able-bodied person will deny that help should be extended to the wheelchair-bound, the question is how should they be helped, and who should pay.
Also, how can the public transport system serve their needs and still be as efficient and cheap for the able-bodied.
Therein lies the LTA's dilemma, as Mr Han put it: "On one hand, we will have the contactless card system by 2002 to make fare transactions even faster, and on the other hand we can dilute this efficiency with a general system by including the wheelchair-bound to travel on the trains.
"It is our responsibility to maintain the transport network and keep up its capabilities.
"But we also have a commitment to both groups of people that we do not compromise the service for either group."
He produced the figures to show just how much it would cost to retrofit, say, the entire bus fleet.
Adding hydraulic lifts and other boarding and alighting mechanisms for a wheelchair to the 3,800 buses on the road would cost about $40 million.
It would cost another $7 million a year to maintain these buses.
Then there was the cost in terms of the time the wheelchair-bound would take to board and alight.
Other people would have to wait longer for the bus as "bunching" of buses would occur.
Translate this delay into dollars and cents: about $38 million a year.
"This is a conservative estimate taking into account only the delays in passengers sharing the same bus with a wheelchair-bound person," said Mr Han. "The actual figure will be much higher if the impact on passengers of other buses and non-work trips of the wheelchair-bound is taken into account.
"More buses and drivers will also be needed to make up for the delays."
With such high cost-estimates, "the crucial question, therefore, is should the large number of commuters be made to pay a considerable price, in the form of time delays and possible fare increases, to cater to a minority whose needs can be better met with a more cost-effective alternative system -- a dedicated service?"
A dedicated service: The idea of a dedicated service is not a new one. Some voluntary welfare organisations (VWO) are already providing such a service on a small scale.
In 1995, the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) approached private and public bus companies, taxi companies, the Automobile Association of Singapore and St John's Council to set up a special transport service for people with severe disabilities. But, according to NCSS' chief executive officer, Mr Benedict Cheong, it was "not successful as the operators found it not to be economically viable".
The disabled do get monetary relief: subsidies for bus and taxi fares to take them to special schools and rehabilitation and training centres.
For 1997-98, NCSS handed out $135,900 in taxi subsidies to 64 disabled people to use taxis, and $823,600 to 1,331 disabled people to travel on private buses and those run by VWOs.
The VWOs which provide this service are exempted from paying the Certificate of Entitlement (COE) and the Additional Registration Fee (ARF) when they buy their vehicles. To date, 135 COE and ARF exemptions have been given to VWOs.
Individuals who are disabled and need a car can also apply for ARF and COE waivers. Since 1990, 134 have been given exemptions out of the 245 applications.
But the NCSS and VWOs say much time and resources are spent raising funds for new vehicles.
Said Mr Ron-Chandran Dudley, president of the Disabled People's Association: "It is the wrong concept for VWOs to be saddled with raising money for the disabled's transport needs when they are also currently competing against other organisations for funds from the Singaporean.
"It has to be a concerted effort by the Government and the public to address this issue of creating an integrated system for everybody to use at a low cost in the long run."
To the disabled and the VWOs, the issue is integration: a public transport system that can cater to both the able and disabled.

How it's done in other countries
Tokyo, New York and London subways have disabled-friendly features, but LTA says accessibility is still limited
LETTER-WRITERS and voluntary welfare organisation (VWO) officials have cited examples of how other countries manage the transportation needs in other countries.
In busy Tokyo, the Metropolitan subway No 12 that is still being constructed has lifts at eight of its completed stations. The cost for that is 200 million yen (S$2.66 million). When it is completed, all its 12 stations will allow independent travelling for the wheelchair-bound. In New York, 19 stations are wheelchair-accessible, and another 100 will be retrofitted by the year 2020.
In London, the Jubilee line is open to the wheelchair-bound.
But Land Transport Authority chief executive Maj-Gen (NS) Han Eng Juan said that while these cities have embarked on programmes to upgrade their systems, "accessibility is still limited".
"For example, although the Jubilee Line extension in London has made provision for full access to trains, the existing rail system in most instances does not have the lift facilities to accommodate wheelchairs.
"In some cases, the gaps between train and curved platforms would prevent access in any event."
"We should recognise that a comprehensive wheelchair-accessible public transport system is not a quick and easy possibility."
He also pointed out that New York City authorities have also recognised the need for another service to supplement its wheelchair-accessible train and subway systems.
In Singapore, the Working Committee on Transport for the Disabled is looking at ways to improve the dedicated services that are now available.
But even if it was cheaper to have such services rather than retrofitting the entire public transport system, there was still the question of who should bear the cost.
Maj-Gen Han said: "Should all taxpayers bear the cost? Should other commuters bear the cost with higher fares? Should the individual disabled person bear the cost? Or a combination of these?"
He also made the point that public transport for the disabled is not the only concern. The bigger question is: How should the disabled be integrated into society as a whole.
Said Maj-Gen Han: "In my own assessment, the Singaporean has come a long way and we see the Forum Page writers being emotionally engaged in the issue.
"As a society, we are maturing; now it is up to us to make a bold step and go for it.
''But transport is not the only issue -- there is the larger issue of integrating the disabled person into society."

What's available now
PUBLIC transport has become more disabled- and elderly-friendly over the years.
On the MRT, the blind are helped by voice announcements alerting them to the coming stations.
There are also priority seats on buses and MRT for the elderly and the disabled.
The deaf are alerted by "Bus Stopping" signs while the elderly and frail can hold on to non-slip grab poles to maintain their balance on the buses.
The Singapore Bus Service (SBS) and Trans-Island Bus (Tibs) have also ordered more low-step buses, to help the frail and the disabled board and alight with ease.
SBS now has one zero-step bus on trial now. Passengers just walk into the bus from the pavement as there are no steps at the entrance of the bus. It will buy 20 such buses next year. These buses cost 45 per cent more than a normal air-conditioned single deck bus.
Tibs has 518 buses of which many have low floorboards, low first steps and no steps for passengers as they move from the entrance into the aisle of the bus.
Taxi companies are also doing their part.
Tibs said its London cabs have wheelchair ramps and safety belts and 10 per cent of these drivers, on a voluntary basis, offer free transport to the disabled.
CitiCab said it was currently trying out $900-ramps for its 27 Maxicabs to help the wheelchair bound person. NTUC Comfort has a Care Cab Club of nine drivers who volunteer to pick up disabled passengers.


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