Transport accessibility – postcards from academia

Academics want to let policy-makers know what they’ve been researching and what they’ve learnt. Policy-makers want to hear from academics, but don’t want to plough through impenetrable journal articles and research papers. Instead, they’d like the equivalent of the occasional postcard – keeping them up-to-date on what’s going on and summarising the information likely to be of most interest to them.

A recent seminar hosted by UCL (in collaboration with the Department for Transport) attempted to do just that. It gathered together policy-makers and delivered a series of quick presentations (by Professor Peter Jones, Professor Roger Mackett, Dr Catherine Holloway and Dr Kayvan Karimiho) on the latest insights to have emerged from the University’s research into transport accessibility. Here are some of the key points that struck a chord with me.

Conceptualising accessibility

Transport accessibility is multi-faceted – it concerns the physical environment (can I board this bus? Can I use these stairs to reach the train platform?) but also the affordability (can I afford this journey?); acceptability (do I want to walk down this street?); and availability (can I get to my appointment in time?) of transport services (we explore each of these aspects in our report, ‘Transport and Social Inclusion: Have we made the connections in our cities?’).

Steep steps

Accessibility is a continuum. You may be able to climb these stairs 95% of the time – but add tiredness, heavy shopping or an injury and they become inaccessible.

Transport accessibility is an issue for all of us. Dr Catherine Holloway described accessibility as a continuum – all of us will experience inaccessibility at some point. The example of stairs was used – stairs might be accessible to you 95% of the time, but the other 5% they become inaccessible because you’re too tired to climb them, or you’re carrying something heavy. Fares are another example – if they become too expensive, some people will be priced out and that mode of transport will become inaccessible to them.

For Professor Peter Jones, transport accessibility can be broken down into three levels – macro, meso and micro.

Macro is the strategic level of accessibility. It looks at the big picture – the planning of transport networks that enable people to make the connections they need to get to the places they want to go at the times they want to go there.

Meso concerns the accessibility of the neighbourhood or street level – for example, are there busy roads that people are reluctant to cross? Are the streets well lit at night?

Finally, micro looks at the accessibility of things like vehicles and infrastructure – for example, are buses low floor? Are ticket machines user-friendly?

Beat the clock

Focusing in on the macro level, Professor Jones illustrated how timing constraints experienced by individuals have a big impact on their ability to access services using the transport network. He highlighted the packed schedules we keep – we have to fit in the many things we need to do with the hours that services operate. Think, for example, of a busy working parent. They’ll be at work most of the day and will also need to fit in taking children to and from childcare or school. This leaves very small windows to fit in things like hospital appointments, for example. The windows that are available in their schedule may not correspond to when services are open. These windows are smaller still if the person doesn’t have access to a car and is therefore further constrained by when, and where, public transport runs (and how long it takes).

Accessibility is as much about where, when and how services are delivered as it is about providing transport connections to those services. Professor Jones reminded us that one way to overcome people’s timing constraints is to bring the services to the people (rather than the people to the services).

Inside Hillingdon mobile library

A mobile library in Hillingdon – changes to how, where and when services are delivered are as important as transport links in promoting accessibility

Once upon a time we had to travel to collect water from a well, now we have it piped directly into our homes. A more up-to-date example is online grocery shopping where we can select a delivery slot that suits our schedule rather than travelling to the shop. Indeed the internet is allowing us to access a wide range of services remotely, such as attending appointments with hospital specialists remotely via local GP surgeries. Services can also be made mobile – by no means a new idea of course – I have fond memories of the mobile library van parking at the top of my street, not to mention ‘the freezer man’ with his van full of chocolate mousse, fish fingers and other frozen delights.

Gold age pensioners

One group that you might expect to be less time constrained than most is older, retired people – however, as Professor Roger Mackett’s presentation showed, this group are far from idle. Older people cost the nation £136bn but, according to a report by WRVS (called ‘Gold Age Pensioners’) they contribute £176bn. This contribution comes in the form of consumer spending, unpaid childcare and adult social care and a wealth of volunteering. Professor Mackett argued that the easier we can make it for this group to travel, the more contribution they can make.

The free bus pass for older people undoubtedly assists with this – offering freedom and confidence to travel further. It also, he points out, eases the transition from ‘driving’ to ‘not driving’ allowing people to take the bus for trips they no longer want to make by car (for example, they may wish to avoid night driving).

Older people on a station platform with their Grandchildren

The more journeys older people are able to make, the greater their potential contribution to the economy.

He showed data indicating that as people age, they make more shopping and leisure trips – trips that are of great value to the economy. When asked what sort of trips they would like to make more of, older people said visits to friends and family. According to surveys, a lack of direct transport options is what limits older people the most in making these trips. What could we do to facilitate these suburb-to-suburb, rather than suburb-to-centre trips?

Professor Mackett also noted that the majority of older people do not have an impairment and that those they do have are frequently ones we should easily be able to design for and accommodate. Older people may have difficulties with mobility, lifting and dexterity. How might we design ticket machines, for example, to be easy to use for people with limited dexterity? Such designs are likely to be easier for everybody.

Street life

Professor Mackett’s presentation also looked at the accessibility of the street environment. UCL conducted a study in St Albans, mapping the streets and identifying lots of small barriers that could be making a big difference to people’s mobility. This could be anything from a poorly lit street to an A-board obstructing the pavement.

Professor Jones added that people are prepared to walk, on average, an extra 2.2 minutes just to avoid crossing a busy road. People are prepared to walk three times further to avoid poorly lit streets (rising to five times further among women).

St Albans City and District Council took the findings of UCL’s street audit on board and used it to inform their Public Realm Delivery Strategy, which includes measures like installing benches every 100 metres to allow people rest stops along their journey.

St Albans’ approach chimes with the Dr Kayvan Karimiho’s belief that city planners should not just plan for accessibility, but use accessibility to plan, designing street layouts and transport networks that correspond to the way people naturally want to move about.

In his presentation, Karimiho described how, when walking or cycling, people prefer to take the smoothest, rather than the quickest route to their destination. When we look at a map, we choose a route with the most straight smooth lines, with fewer twists and turns down back streets. However, modelling of accessibility tends to be based on the shortest routes from A to B, rather than the way people actually move. Dr Karimiho’s methods and mapping reveal these real-world movements which can then inform street layouts and transport networks that maximise accessibility.

Pedestrian movement on a map

An example of Dr Karimiho’s approach to pedestrian movement analysis, showing the smooth paths people tend to take. (Source:

UCL’s work in this area is assisted by Pamela (Pedestrian Accessibility Movement Environment Laboratory). This is UCL’s artificial street environment where researchers can test how people interact with their environment in real world situations. It can be used to model, for example, passenger boarding and alighting from public transport vehicles, shared space schemes and even the effects of mobile phone use on pedestrians.

Next steps

The seminar ended with a determination to organise more such information sharing events, something that, along with the recent launch of the ‘What works’ initiative by the Government, seems part of a wider trend to bridge the gap between policy-making and academic study. The ‘What works’ evidence centres for social policy will produce and disseminate research to local decision-makers, supporting them to invest in the services known to produce the best outcomes. We can therefore look forward to receiving many more postcards from what can sometimes seem a faraway place.

Rebecca Fuller

How well did transport really do in the Spending Review? The fine print analysed

c. Images_of Money on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons

A clearer picture on Spending Review outcomes is emerging, but important questions remain.

The 2013 Spending Round (commonly referred to as the ‘Spending Review’) announced a step change in infrastructure investment , backed by an impressive array of specific commitments .

But although the key transport capital budgets have emerged as obvious winners, the picture is less clear when it comes to some of Department for Transport’s (DfT) smaller grants.

At the same time, the unexpected decision to pool a substantial proportion of local transport capital funding into the Single Local Growth Fund (SLGF) makes the long term outcome uncertain.

A clearer picture is unlikely to emerge until the DfT clarifies its detailed spending plans for 2015 onwards and the results of the first SLGF competition emerge in the second half of 2014. The key points from the Spending Round are summarised below.

Treasury big picture:

  • The June Spending Round did not entail any net change in overall government spending relative to the March budget.
  • In reality, the annual year-on-year growth in total government capital spending between 2014-15 and 2017-18 will most likely fall below the rate of inflation.
  • The Spending Round did include some new capital funding commitments beyond 2018, with HS2 and the Highways Agency emerging as the big winners.
  • Although overall capital expenditure will be higher in 2014/15 than originally set out in the 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), this will be at the expense of resource budgets, which will be 8.5% below original plans. This is of particular significance to local government funding, which has been the main source of savings.

DfT budget:

  • In 2015-16, the DfT’s budget will be 4.5% lower than in 2014-15 (as set out in the March 2013 budget).
  • Although DfT capital funding will increase by 6.7% (from £8.9 to £9.5 billion), its resource budget will go from £4.4 to £3.2 billion. The largest chunk of the saving will come from Transport for London’s (TfL) resource grant and assumed efficiency savings in Network Rail spending and DfT’s rolling stock procurement.
  • Our previous analysis of the 2010 CSR and subsequent budgetary announcements up to Autumn 2012 provides additional background information.

Local transport:

There will be a significant boost to key local transport capital grants in 2015-16:

  • +28% in real terms, relative to the 2014-15 budget
  • +16% in real terms relative to Labour’s 2010-11 budget

However, the unexpected decision to route a large proportion of local transport grants into Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) via competitive growth deals makes it difficult to anticipate what proportion of this money will end up funding transport schemes in PTE areas.

The Spending Round said nothing about what will become of smaller competitive grants such as the Pinchpoint Fund, the Green Bus Fund, the Cycle Ambition Grant or the DfT’s contribution to the Regional Growth Fund. However, even if these were to be scrapped altogether, local transport capital funding would still increase by around 15% (in real terms) between 2014-15 and 2015-16.

On the revenue side, the current rate of Bus Service Operators Grant (BSOG) has been protected until 2015-16 and we also know that the DfT will manage a considerable Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF) resource grant in 2015-16.

You can read our full analysis of the Spending Review on the pteg website.

Pedro Abrantes

Treasures of the pteg YouTube archive

Many rainy lunchtimes in the making, we are proud to present the treasures of the pteg YouTube archive…

YouTube is stuffed with archive train videos – there’s less out there on the buses, trams, ferries, trams and transit systems of our big regional cities. Well let me rephrase that – there’s less out there that’s interesting! But we’ve hunted down what we could find. So why not spend one of your rainy lunchtimes by joining us in an exploration of a world where people smoked at all times – including on wooden underground trains; where transport systems were built by men whose safety gear was flared trousers and check shirts, and of course a fag; and where pageants and festivals were held where grateful citizens would celebrate new rail connections.

We begin our tour in Liverpool with the wondrous Liverpool Overhead Railway. The world’s first overhead electric railway that glided over streets crowded with rail and road traffic from the UK’s second busiest port. Worn out by corrosion, wartime bombs and continuous use it was closed in 1956 and demolished the year after. It lives on however in a stunningly beautiful CGI recreation by Steven Wheeler.

Catching our breath we reach further back in time – right back to 1902 and one of Mitchell and Kenyon’s Edwardian rediscovered documentary films takes us on a tram ride through the Bradford of over a century ago. A double decker time machine on steel rails through streets of behatted cyclists and horse drawn goods wagons.

Five years before those scenes were filmed, the Glasgow Subway got some new trains. In the 1970s they were still running! Here a studiedly patronising home counties presenter makes an entertaining film about the eccentric and ramshackle  circular system that was shortly to be modernized.

There’s an equally whimsical video here where I’m sure the presenter says the Subway was the only one in the world to have its own boat if the tunnels flood!

And a more comprehensive effort here from 1977 to mark its last day before modernisation – complete with a set of characters as eccentric as the system itself.  There’s also some needling questions by the Edinburgh presenter about Glasgow’s perceived shortcomings.  However I’ve gone with the dramatic tension of having a condescending English public schoolboy who I’m surprised got out of Glasgow intact!

‘Last day’ films are a staple of the transport film documentary genre – and one of the best ones ever made was about the last day of Glasgow’s trams. ‘Nine Dalmuir West’ is a free wheeling, hand held grainy, black and white elegy to the last days of a tram system that was loved by the city – but not loved enough to buck the trend and spend the money to renew it. The film has all the latent restless energy of the early Sixties which was about to change British cities forever. And for all the fondness for the tram – it wasn’t going to be part of this new world. But the trams went out in style with one hell of a party in the tram depot on the last night (shown near the end of the film). And those women tram drivers are cool (they were out of a job too as the Corporation wouldn’t let them drive buses!). The men wearing their caps like guardsmen also cut a dash.

There’s a more stilted farewell to Sheffield’s trams in this 1960 documentary. The relentlessly chirpy, mustn’t grumble, know my place, tram driver narrator makes you want to clatter him with a tram pole after a while – but another steel railed, double decker, time machine. And a vivid reminder of what British cities were too quick to get rid of – especially the routes with dedicated tracks of their own. Though in the shots of the trams passing Sheffield’s new concrete and glass shopping centres you can see how the tram must have seemed like some elderly embarrassing relative that you may be fond of but now needed to be shuffled off to the retirement home as soon as was seemly.

Before we move on from the demise of the Tram here’s Alan Bennett’s closing words to a forword to ‘A Nostalgic Look at Leeds Trams since 1950’ by Graham Twidale:

‘Buses have never inspired the same affection, too comfortable and cushioned to have a moral dimension. Trams were bare and bony, transport reduced to its basic elements, and they had a song to sing, which buses never did. I was away at university when they started to phase them out, Leeds as always in too much of a hurry to get to the future, and so doing the wrong thing. I knew at the time that it was a mistake, just as Beeching was a mistake, and that life was starting to get nastier. If trams ever come back though, they should come back not as curiosities not, God help us, as part of the heritage, but as a cheap and sensible way of getting from point A to point B, and with a bit of poetry thrown in.’

Time for one more ‘last day’ film before we move on. This time Britain’s last trolleybus system which was to be found in Bradford before finally succumbing in 1972.  Not on YouTube but better than that – on the Yorkshire Film Archive.

The late Cllr Stanley King – proud Bradfordian, trolleybus advocate and former Chair of the West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Authority – can be heard near the end of the film. When the trolleybus returns to British streets it will again be in West Yorkshire (in Leeds in the form of NGT). There should be one named after him.

After all those seductively melancholy last day films lets take a more positive view of modernization and change! That’s what PTEs were set up to do. To turn round ailing public transport systems that had been battered by Beeching and hammered by the growth in private car use! Time to move on. Time to remake our cities and the transit systems that serve them. Time for Glasgow Transport 1980…

Everyone goes on about integrated transport nowadays but as the film shows in 1980 we had it! There’s even a transport pagent, march past and festival held at the end of the film to celebrate the Glasgow Transport 1980.

On a lighter note. Here’s an entertaining training film for bus crew from Tyne and Wear. If Oz from ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Pet’ had been a bus driver he would have been Animal Anderson…

And to end what better way to go out but with an all singing, all dancing finale – ladies and gentlemen I give you: Tyne and Wear Metro: the Musical!

If you enjoyed this selection from our YouTube archive there’s more to explore on our YouTube channel which can be found here

Jonathan Bray