„Commuting by bus for me represents independence. However, every time I have to ask the driver to stop closer to the bus stop kerb so I can alight safely, even though public transportation vehicles are fitted with wheelchair ramps.“
So says Dušica Lipovac, who would benefit from inclusive public transportation as it would make her commute trouble-free. She and other citizens of Banja Luka with impaired mobility have a clear message to convey – we want to use the bus!
This is also the name of the campaign launched by the Humanitarian Organization „Partner“ as part of the project „Banja Luka – Inclusive Community“. The city government has recognized this initiative as key to the development of Banja Luka, and the project was supported by the Regional Programme on Local Democracy in the Western Balkans (ReLOaD), funded by the European Union and implemented by the United Nations Development Programme.
The project aims to train bus drivers how to deploy existing wheelchair ramps in city buses and increase their awareness of the needs and rights of persons with disabilities. Training was provided to a total of 144 drivers employed in public transport companies, and, as part of the project, HO „Partner“ carried out a situational analysis and held a round-table discussion with representatives of the city and the carriers.
„Our analysis showed that drivers didn’t know how to transport people with disabilities, so we agreed to organize a training workshop where therapists demonstrated how this was done and persons with disabilities talked directly with the drivers“, says Olivera Mastikosa, Project Coordinator in HO „Partner“.
Radenko Stjepanović, member of HO „Partner“ and a wheelchair user, compiled an inventory of bus routes and stops in Banja Luka. In the process he had the opportunity to talk with the drivers and realized that the obstacles in public transportation can be overcome. „I overcame my own prejudices, and I see less and less resistance among drivers when it comes to the deployment of the existing ramps“, he says. „However, ramps are still difficult to deploy as they haven’t been used in a long time“, observes Radenko.
Bus stops are not wheelchair-friendly
In Banja Luka, there might be about 600 people with disabilities who could benefit from public bus service, not only to see a doctor, as people most commonly believe, but also to meet their everyday needs, to go to work, school and cultural events.
The experiences vary. In addition to drivers and other citizens not knowing how bus wheelchair ramps work, sometimes also people with disabilities themselves are not sufficiently informed.
„Getting on a bus for a wheelchair user takes a while: the driver has to get out of the bus, open the middle door and deploy the ramp so that I can get on the bus. The whole process takes between 40 seconds and one minute. Getting off takes just as long“, adds Stjepanović.
HO „Partner“ sees bus stops as the biggest problem. Specifically, in the city centre there are proper bus stops, but they are not wheelchair accessible, whereas those in suburban neighbourhoods are less accessible, not only for people with disabilities but for all citizens.
„If there’s no bus stop, we can’t get off. The fact that we have a disability does not mean we should break the law“, says Mastikosa.
Use of public transportation is a basic human right, and it is extremely important for local communities to ensure unimpeded movement for all their residents, taking account of all their needs. The campaign and promotional rides are just the beginning of the inclusive urban transport scheme in Banja Luka. In the coming period HO „Partner“ and the City of Banja Luka plan to launch a mobile app that would allow visitors with disabilities to easily navigate the city, and there is also a plan to install audio and visual notification displays in public transport vehicles.
Regional Programme on Local Democracy in the Western Balkans (ReLOaD) is implemented in the countries in the region. It is funded by the European Union in the amount of € 10 million and implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Under this programme and in cooperation with 21 local governments, the European Union supports public interest projects benefitting more than 20,000 people across Bosnia and Herzegovina.