Tag Archives: accessibility

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…

2000px-Maslow's_Hierarchy_of_Needs.svg

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Not Making the Connections

Community TransportOthers may no doubt disagree with me, but a report that I consider required reading of current and budding transport professionals is Making the Connections. For those of you who are not familiar with this 2003 report, it is the first Government report (that I know of at least) that makes a very clear case on the relationship between social exclusion and transport, particularly being able to access public services. And like seemingly every other book or report that I consider seminal transport reading, it is written by non-transport professionals, the now defunct Social Exclusion Unit in the Cabinet Office.

The case that it presents is a simple one: being able to access public services is critical to being able to take part in civic life, those who are the most excluded from public services – physically or financially – are those who need them most, and transport infrastructure and services (if provided at all) can also negatively impact on being able to access everyday things, like getting to a job or Doctor’s appointment.

A key factor in these issues manifesting themselves, the report states, is that nobody has taken the responsibility for accessibility in its most general sense. The accessibility consequences of decisions, for example where to locate a new NHS Drop-In Centre, are considered a ‘transport problem’ to be solved by transport people, or worse are overlooked or ignored.

Again, to be clear here, we are not talking about being able to get to a new out-of-town shopping centre or retail park, but getting the most vulnerable people in society to doctors appointments, job centres, council offices – the things they need to get by. That is the problem of everybody who delivers public services. If you can’t serve the people you are meant to serve, what are you doing in your job?

The reason why I bring this up is because today a report from the Environment Audit Committee states that, 10 years on, we haven’t learnt a single thing. In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite: accessibility of services is actually worsening.

As someobody who has worked with the likes of the NHS and Social Services in their delivery, the fact that the lessons of Making the Connections have still not been learned makes my blood boil. The EAC report makes a big play on funding – with cuts in bus services being mentioned prominently, and a very worthwhile suggestion of focussing transport investment on accessibility improvement schemes and not big new roads. But funding is only the half of it, and the report shows it.

The fundamental problem still remains; nobody outside transport owns the accessibility issue. To list some of the shocking admissions in the report:

  • How the NHS measures accessibility of its services is in terms of waiting times, not the actual ability of people to get to their services;
  • The Department for Work and Pensions being ‘unsure’ as to whether accessibility statistics are used when assessing the impacts of their policies;
  • Insufficient weight is given to the ‘social cost’ of transport changes – just journey time accessibility and financial cost of services;
  • Local authorities becoming risk-averse to measures that could reduce social exclusion amongst key groups because of the failure of previous poorly-researched initiatives that failed.

A favourite quote of mine, which is almost Sir Humphrey-esque, comes from the Department of Health:

We have spoken to the Department for Transport … and they have done some analysis about that … It could be that services are reconfigured. It could be that transport services are changed. We need to understand what is causing that change, particularly at local level, so it can be acted on at local level. It may not be a systemic problem, but it may be. If it is a systemic problem, then clearly we in the Department are responsible for helping to get it sorted.

The stats also paint a poor picture. Over half of the population of the UK is over a 30 minute public transport ride from their nearest hospital, worse than in 2003. It takes longer for most people to access town centres by public transport now than it did in 2010. On almost every indicator, it now takes longer to travel to services than in 2007.

Accessibility journey time statistics

The fact that public bodies still don’t think about how people will get to their services is wrong. I am at a loss of how to explain why this is so. Yes, finance plays a role, and there is only so much you can do with reducing budgets and manpower. But mentality of decision makers is a major barrier. I have been fortunate to work with many like-minded people from many public services on improving accessibility over the years, but they are the exception and not the rule. And as I have stated before, without the support of your partners, your strategy is basically screwed.

Nowhere is the accessibility issue more prominently shown than in my own local authority. Our HQ is simply in the middle of nowhere, in a rural area served by an infrequent bus that is under constant threat of being pulled. Yet managers and some members feel that there is not an accessibility issue – or at least it is not significant – because “we haven’t heard people complaining about it” or “but most people have access to a car.”

That ignores one of the key findings of Make the Connections: accessibility issues go unnoticed because those who suffer them either don’t have the means to raise them (e.g. through access to the Internet) or simply do not even try accessing the services because its too hard. In that sense, accessibility issues are hidden from the decision makers who make accessibility decisions – they don’t see it, they don’t hear it (or when they do they don’t understand it), so its not a problem. Or its something that transport can solve.

The most frustrating thing is that accessibility issues associated with past decisions only come to light when they become a service delivery issue – often an expensive one. Delivering services in communities costs a lot of money through support and training. Delivering buses to serve new services adds to stretched revenue budgets. By saving a few quid on a bit of land, the long term costs of maintaining accessibility are increased. Yet still these decisions are being made.

Us transport professionals are not immune from criticism of course. Non-car accessibility is often framed as accessibility by public transport only. Making the Connections makes it very clear that in many cases, even public transport cannot overcome accessibility issues due to people’s circumstances, routings, and costs of public transport. Our solutions need to be more rounded than providing a new bus service.

This has been the main failing of Accessibility Strategies to date, even the ones I have worked on. The approach has been to do a public transport accessibility analysis using Accession, identify the gaps, and develop policies based on that. Many have failed to consider accessibility in the round; to improve walkability and cyclability of our towns and cities, to tackle public transport affordability; to reshape public service delivery on accessibility lines. Or they have paid lip-service to them.

In fact, why on earth are we not thinking about walking and cycling more? Many groups who are socially excluded are struggling to pay bus fares, and do not yet own a car. Accordingly, investment in walking and cycling infrastructure could have significant benefits in the more deprived areas, where cycling rates are hisorically low. The investment need not just be infrastructure. In Dunstable, for example, hybrid bicycles are being offered as part of a Wheels to Work scheme, so people can access their workplace until they have sufficient funds to buy their own bicycle.

We have to work with public services, to teach them about the impacts of their decisions on our services and budgets, and that social exclusion has a societal value often unmeasured in a benefit:cost analysis. We also need to go back to basics when tackling accessibility issues – don’t just think about buses, but about walking and cycling too.

Transport solutions to accessibility problems are known. Any transport professional who had Buchanan’s teachings rammed into their head during their training knows the importance of accessibility. Its disheartening to read that the accessibility agenda has lost its way since 2003. Its time for us public servants to Make the Connections again, otherwise we are failing in our basic duties to our residents.