Mind the gap: making transport more accessible for older and disabled people

A rural bus

The Department for Transport (DfT) has just released its much anticipated Accessibility Action Plan (AAP), now open to public consultation. The Plan covers bus, trains, airports, taxis and driving, as well as scooters, cycling and walking, and is partly a response to a House of Lord select committee report on the Equality Act 2010. This found many types of transport fail to meet the basic needs of disabled people despite pre-existing regulations and guidance.

Problem of implementation

The AAP admits that one of the main problems is the gap between regulations on accessibility and implementation on the ground. Despite some significant progress to improve the accessibility of transport, local implementation is poor in some places. The DfT acknowledge that this has resulted in a lack of consistency in the delivery of transport across different operators.

Cuts to public transport

Although the AAP should be welcomed it still needs to be seen in the context of an overall decline in key areas of public transport. The Campaign for Better Transport found that over 500 bus routes were reduced or completely withdrawn in 2016/17. This means that despite a free bus pass, many older people can find themselves completely cut off from public transport, especially in rural areas.  They are often forced to turn to more costly alternatives – assuming they can afford them.

Hospital transport

A vital aspect of accessible transport is the ability of older people to get to hospital. A report commissioned by Age UK found that 1.45 million people over 65 find it quite difficult or very difficult to travel to a hospital, whilst 630,000 over 65s find it difficult or very difficult to travel to their GP. A forthcoming Age UK report, to be published in the autumn, finds that a lack of accessible transport is one of the factors that contributes to this problem. We will be submitting our evidence in response to the consultation.

Getting the basics right

Although the AAP highlights good practice and major improvements in accessible transport this doesn’t always square with the day-to-day experience of many older people. Issues can include: slippery platforms, broken toilets, a lack of assistance for wheelchair users, rude or unhelpful staff, confusing signs and incomprehensible audio announcements. The AAP acknowledges the need to improve monitoring and responsiveness to the daily problems experienced by disabled people.  As part of this it highlights staff training, especially to meet the need of those with hidden disabilities and impairments including mental health conditions and dementia.

 Potential of new technology

The consultation outlines exciting advances in technology that will transform the lives of many older and disabled people. This ranges from driverless cars, shuttles and pods to a headphone navigation system to make it easier for blind and partially sighted people find their way round towns and cities and the London tube system. This is good news but progress still needs to ensure that all older people are supported to engage with these advances or offered practical alternatives. We need to recognise that in some cases, innovations may well be tinkering around the edges and failing to provide the assistance needed in the here-and-now.

Positive opportunity    

Despite the many problems affecting public transport the AAP consultation provides a great opportunity for older people to contribute their views and ideas to push for further and faster progress. A key test will be whether the AAP will make a meaningful difference to isolated and vulnerable older people who have simply given up on public transport too difficult or elusive to use. The consultation runs until 15 November 2017, and we urge you to share your experiences with the Government. Further details on the consultation can be found on the DfT website.  

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