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