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: http://www.spacesyntax.com)

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

pteg visits…Dales Integrated Transport Alliance (DITA)

The pteg team outside the Grassington Hub

The pteg team visit the Grassington Hub (L-R: Rebecca Fuller, Saila Acton and Jonathan Bray – all pteg; Ann Wild, Grassington Hub; Randall Ghent, DITA; Pedro Abrantes, pteg)

On the 7th August, the pteg team travelled from Leeds to the beautiful Yorkshire Dales to visit Dales Integrated Transport Alliance (DITA). DITA is a community-led group of individuals and organisations who want to get better transport in the rural area of the Yorkshire Dales National Park and Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. DITA was formed to assist Metro (West Yorkshire PTE) to deliver the ‘Connecting the Dales’ project which secured £1.1 million from the Department for Transport’s Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF).

An on-train briefing

Our day began with a train journey to Skipton station (‘Gateway to the Dales’) during which time Connecting the Dales Project Leader Randall Ghent was able to fill us in on some more of the background to DITA.

He told us about the four strands of DITA’s work:

1. Local transport needs assessment – including a baseline survey of 1,200 local people conducted by sustainable transport charity, Sustrans complemented by a Visitor Survey to capture the travel needs of the many tourists who flock to the Dales.

2. Integrated service development – including trialling of new transport services; subsidies for bus (and sometimes rail) services; a fares initiative for young people; and improved coordination of the existing transport network through a network of local ‘hubs’.

3. Active Travel support – including through the hubs; printed leaflets; education work; support for cycle paths; and electric bike hire. Future plans include a series of accessible circular walks as well as activities linked to next year’s Tour De France Grand Départ, which will take place in Yorkshire.

4. Customer-facing marketing and information – delivered through the local hubs, online and via printed materials.

Randall is keen to stress the ‘bottom-up’ nature of the project – this is very much a community-led scheme which accepts bids for funding from local operators and communities who have identified a transport need and a sustainable approach to solving it.

Your Dales Hub Grassington

Train journey and initial briefing complete, we hop on a Pride of the Dales bus service to Grassington, which calls right outside Skipton Station. Later, we would visit the Pride of the Dales base in the village, however, our first stop is Your Dales Hub Grassington, one of the eight hubs across the Dales started with funding from DITA and a key delivery mechanism for DITA’s work.

Bespoke hub leaflets

Bespoke hub leaflets

Each hub provides the local community and visitors to the area with advice on all forms of transport. They can make bookings, access real time information and pick up helpful leaflets. All hubs have their own bespoke leaflet outlining travel options in the area – these are distributed to every address locally, often together with the parish magazine. Indeed, the idea is for hubs to have a hyper-local marketing and outreach role, building community capacity and ownership.

In common with all the hubs, Grassington’s is located within an existing community facility – in this case, the village library. Other locations include Tourist Information Centres, Community Offices, a museum and even the front room of a Bed and Breakfast!

With funding tight, multi-functional spaces – and people – are essential. The LSTF funding allows each hub to pay for a manager for one day per week. This person usually performs a number of other roles, with funding from a range of sources. In Grassington, that person is Ann Wild who we meet in a small office at the back of the library, together with Helen Flynn, Chair of DITA.

Ann provides advice on transport via the hub and works closely with the community and local operators to gather information on local transport services and needs. In common with every hub manager, she maintains a page on the DITA website for the area she covers, providing up-to-date transport information for Grassington. Together with the pages for the other hubs, the website provides a comprehensive picture of transport services across the Dales. Ann also maintains the twitter feed for the hub @GrassingtonHub (you can also follow the Dales Connect project on twitter @DalesConnect).

As well as transport, Ann’s role covers community development, outreach and fundraising (including submitting bids to funding bodies, a regular village movie night and a photocopying and printing service for local businesses).

Helping Hands

When we meet, Ann is in the midst of applying to the Big Lottery Reaching Communities fund for funding for a coordinator for the hub’s Helping Hands scheme that provides transport to medical appointments via a network of 40 volunteer drivers who use their own cars. The nearest big hospital is a 44 mile round trip from Grassington.

Given the distances and costs involved, transport to health facilities is a big issue in rural areas, particularly for those who do not qualify for free patient transport. Even those who do qualify experience a service that is over-stretched and can involve long journey times and waiting times at either end.

Ann and Helen agree that local providers could deliver a better, more responsive service but that they struggle to bid for NHS contracts. Helen tells us that the Social Value Act should mean that bid evaluation takes into account other factors that add value (e.g. that the bidder is a social enterprise) – however, the legislation is still new and seems not to have filtered through to decision making. There is also as yet untapped potential to consolidate hospital appointments to make patient transport more viable in rural areas.

It has been a long held ambition of DITA to get local transport and NHS stakeholders together to discuss the issues of access to healthcare and of more sustainable funding options. The Helping Hands service, for example, is reliant entirely on the goodwill of volunteers and donations from those who use the service. It would be in the interests of the NHS to support such schemes which, among other things, help avoid missed appointments. This is something we too have noted in our ‘Total Transport’ report of 2011.

One Way £1 for under 19s

Next on our itinerary is a visit to the Pride of the Dales bus garage, base for a small fleet of vehicles providing bus services between Buckden in the North, and Skipton and Ilkley in the South. The services are provided on behalf of North Yorkshire County Council. Here we meet Richard Dean, who – following the multi-functional theme – is both mechanic and occasional bus driver for Pride of the Dales.

The 'One Way £1' logo

The ‘One Way £1’ logo is displayed on all participating bus services

Richard fills us in on another strand of DITA’s work – the trial of a ‘One Way £1’ scheme for under 19s. As the name suggests, this scheme allows young people to travel for £1 on their outward journey and £1 on their return journey when travelling within the Dales area. This represents a considerable saving on the usual fares and is designed to make bus travel easier and more affordable for young people. During term-time, the scheme applies on weekday evenings after 5pm and at any time over the weekends. In the school holidays, the scheme is available at all times.

The scheme fits the simple, flat and consistent model for child fares that we know works (see, for example our ‘Moving On’ report) and is very popular with young people themselves – indeed, the local Youth Council were actively involved in developing this initiative. Since launching in October 2012, patronage among young people has grown – one operator is already intending to take forward the scheme commercially after the DITA funding runs out in October this year.

Evaluating success

Next up, a further chance to discuss the work of DITA with Randall, Ann and Helen over a wholesome lunch at The Retreat, a vegetarian café in the village. Conversation turns to the importance of evaluation and DITA’s plans to collect evidence of effectiveness for each strand of the project – evidence that will be vital in securing future funding for the scheme whether as a whole or for individual elements. We noted that the best practice guidance on LSTF monitoring and evaluation, produced for pteg by AECOM, might prove a useful resource as this work progresses.

After lunch, there was time to stock up on souvenir fudge before heading to the National Park Centre just outside the village which also serves as a small bus station. From here it was back on-board a Pride of the Dales bus to Skipton followed by a comfortable ride on the electrified Airedale line back to Leeds.

All in all a fascinating visit to an organisation that is very much led by the communities it serves and as such, delivers initiatives that meet the needs of residents and visitors alike. We would like to thank Randall Ghent for organising the visit and Ann Wild, Helen Flynn and Richard Dean for spending time with us on the day.

Rebecca Fuller