Charting a route to truly accessible public transportation

Navigating public transport can be challenging for people with disabilities, particularly during the pandemic. How should transport providers respond?

For people with disabilities, travelling from A to B can be an anxiety-inducing experience. Social media feeds tell horror stories of people being abandoned on trains. Information can sometimes be inaccessible – such as the time when National Rail changed its website to black and white to mark Prince Philip’s death, making it unusable for those with visual impairments. 

While figures published by the Department for Transport state that 99% of buses are accessible and 92% of trains, this is not always reflected in the lived experiences of those with disabilities. 

“A lot of solutions in the transport industry can be described as being accessible on paper but actually the journey can still be very difficult and stress-inducing,” says Katie Pennick, campaigns lead for Transport for All, a pan-impairment campaign organisation aiming to improve the accessibility of London’s transport network.

These challenges can vary from a lack of accessible infrastructure to transport planning apps directing people to stations that aren’t step-free. “Disabled people face barriers, difficulties and inconveniences at every stage of the journey,” Pennick adds.

The pandemic has exacerbated many of these issues and has often created new challenges for those with disabilities. Pennick explains that in some instances contact assistance was “essentially scrapped” because of Covid restrictions, while the move to al fresco dining has left little room for wheelchair users to navigate city streets, an issue that Transport for All has campaigned on through its equal pavements pledge.

“Unfortunately what we’ve seen over the pandemic is a lot of schemes and initiatives rolled out very quickly that haven’t necessarily had accessibility in mind and have actually further excluded disabled people,” Pennick says “It’s all very well having an accessible bus fleet, but if the bus stop or if the pavement on the way to the bus stop is inaccessible, the buses are irrelevant.” 

Technological opportunities

A new passenger assistance app is one way that transport providers are hoping to improve the experience of those with accessibility needs. After initially designing an app to improve the customer experience of train passengers in general, Transreport founder Jay Shen soon realised the technology’s potential to improve the journeys of those with disabilities. 

While presenting the app to a panel of transport industry experts, Shen was approached by equality consultant Nick Goss, who is also a wheelchair user. He explained how the app could help people like himself, who have been left at stations without someone to assist in getting onboard the train.

We need to realise that people are not disabled because of their medical or physical conditions, they are disabled by the inaccessibility of the society around them

The conversation stuck with Shen. “As an able-bodied person, we can take travelling by train for granted. But for disabled people, the anxiety kicks in when they start planning the journey. They need to know whether the station is accessible, if they need a ramp to board, whether someone will be there to help and whether there’s an accessible toilet.

“This planning can take hours, not to mention the journey itself, which can be a stressful experience.”

Shen set about creating a passenger app which allowed people to plan their journey and notify rail operators of their accessibility requirements more easily. After three years of development, the Passenger Assistance app has been rolled out across all rail providers thanks to a partnership with National Rail. It’s been downloaded more than 3,000 times.

The slow pace of change is partly down to outdated technology, according to Shen. “In the past, staff relied on email and fax to see the booking information of people with accessibility issues, which can be hard to track at a busy station during peak hours. With the app, all this information is live and up-to-date.”

There are also plans to introduce new features for planning bus, taxi and underground journeys, as well as helping people navigate airports. “Our vision is to provide a truly, door-to-door, accessible travel experience,” Shen says. “We need to realise that people are not disabled because of their medical or physical conditions, they are disabled by the inaccessibility of the society around them.”

Improving understanding

This is an element of accessibility that Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), the UK’s busiest rail operator, is conscious of improving. Its newly appointed accessibility lead Carl Martin has been tasked with leading a cultural change within the rail provider and promoting the work it’s doing to improve accessibility.

Martin readily admits that accessibility was something that he hadn’t considered for the first 36 years of his life, but following a motorcycle accident that left him paralysed from the chest down, he started to see the world from a different perspective.

“I’m very focused on people and how people deliver our service because how you’re dealt with can make you feel valued as an individual within the community,” he says. Over 3,000 of GTR’s frontline staff have undergone disability awareness training.

“It’s really important that every assistance works: one failed assistance is one too many,” Martin adds. 

His role will also see him promote the successful journeys made by passengers, to help give confidence to other travellers with accessibility needs. “If in a year’s time I can say that we’ve increased the number of people with accessibility needs travelling on our network, I will have done what I set out to achieve.”

It’s important to remember that catering for those with disabilities is not a minority pursuit. Roughly a fifth of the UK population has a disability (14.1 million people) and it is estimated that the combined annual spending power of households with at least one disabled person totals £274bn

“Travel is a fundamental right and accessibility should be central to any system or infrastructure design,” says Pinnock. “It can no longer be thought of as a luxury or a ‘nice-to-have’.”