The Future of Accessibility

I did originally post this on my Linkedin profile a few days ago. So apologies now if you have read this before!

Picture courtesy of Future Cities Catapult

Picture courtesy of Future Cities Catapult

Talk to most transport professionals about accessibility and a few things come to mind: disabled access ramps, dropped kerbs, tactile paving, perhaps even some diversity training for bus drivers. To some, the grey matter that once constituted Accessibility Planning, or even PTAL, may be stirred.

Let’s be honest, the UK record generally when it comes to accessibility is far from sterling. The UK Government’s Environmental Audit Committee Report on Transport and access to Public Services was damning to say the least. This report touches upon a key reason why this is so: accessibility is so poorly defined outside of what is traditionally considered to be accessibility – notably physical – that ownership is difficult. Also, because it is something that is owned by everybody, it is led on by nobody.

When undertaking a journey, anyone who experiences an accessibility issue doesn’t care who owns the issue. Any failure at any point affects their whole journey experience, and can even determine whether people travel at all. Specific transport accessibility issues associated with services and infrastructure have been covered many times by a lot of people who know a lot more about the issue than me.

Accessibility is also about to get a whole lot more complicated

As with most things, new and emerging technologies are seen as a major possibility for tackling accessibility issues. One project that I love in particular is Cities Unlocked being delivered by Microsoft, Guide Dogs for the Blind, and the Future Cities Catapult. This involves combining location-based technology and smart phones to enable the blind to navigate around cities.

Technology certainly has a role to play, and is a solution in many use cases much like tactile paving or lifts. But technology is a tool, and that tool is useless should you not have the means to utilise it. Technologist Jon Gosier recently spoke of the phenomenon that he refers to as “Trickle down techonomics“, where well-intentioned technological solutions to social problems inevitably has unintended consequences. A blind faith that technology brings nothing but benefit really doesn’t help either!

What technology does instead expands the accessibility issue for transport professionals. If technology is going to play an increasing role in how transport is delivered and experienced, what other accessibility issues does this create? How can we as professionals ensure technologies are available for those who have difficulty using it, that platforms are cross compatible (imagine an automatic ticket gate stopping you because it can’t read m-tickets on iPhones), and importantly that we don’t fall into the trap of assuming technology trickles down to us all.

Consider these facts. According to Ofcom in 2014, only 20% of those aged 65-74 own a smartphone, and even now smartphone ownership stands at 62%, with 33% of smartphone owners shopping using their phone. It needs to be said that all of these percentages are rapidly increasing. But as with every new technology there will be laggards. Even now, 7% of the UK population does not own a mobile phone.

Back to the accessibility question

Over the forthcoming months, I am going to be undertaking some personal research into what the future holds for accessibility. But to start with we need a definition of what it is. And that is part of the problem. Current definitions of accessibility, for me, are confined to specific remits. Accessibility manifesting itself in standards comes from a narrow physical or technological definition often for a specific accessibility issue.

What is needed is a framework that recognises specific accessibility issues, but defines accessibility in such a way that enables a coherent understanding of it. Now, i don’t have the answer now. But here is my starter for 10, and its a simple one. Accessibility is fundamentally about the ability for us to satisfy our needs as human beings. So why not start at Maslow? Your thoughts are welcome…



2 thoughts on “The Future of Accessibility

  1. Charles Musselwhite

    I like it James, as always eloquently written and overall you are right. I adapted a needs-based diagram for my work with older people, but it holds true for all ages in different ways I think. See Problem with getting a needs-based approach to work is that it assumes we all have needs, know what they are, can articulate what they are, that they are relatively stable, not in competition within the person, that they act to motivate behaviour logically etc etc. I think needs are more complex, sometimes we don’t even know what they are and that they may suddenly become a need when we think about it!

  2. spatialsyndave

    Thanks for a stimulating piece James.
    I always think that needs are the philosopher’s stone or the holy grail for us transport planners. It’s something I’ve wrestled with throughout my career and still not found a definitive answer. The problem with needs is that they are inherently difficult to measure objectively thanks to their core attributes. They are essentially contestable and they are context-specific meaning what I think my needs are may be very different from someone else’s assessment. It was these conundrums that spurred me to look at phenomenological or ethnographic research methodologies in transport some time ago.
    One day I might find some funding and a University willing to take me and I’ll resume that PhD that I never finished on this theme back in the 80s!


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