Getting around on public transport is something many of us take for granted, but for disabled users across the country it’s often a different story.
We all know that cuts to both local authority budgets and subsidies for bus companies have reduced the number of bus services and their frequency. But vanishing bus routes and services have had a particularly harsh impact on disabled people, who use buses more frequently than those without disabilities. In fact, 60 per cent of disabled people live in a household with no car, and so rely heavily on public transport to get about. Buses and other modes of public transport give disabled people the ability and freedom to travel to jobs, to connect with other members of their local community, to go shopping and to go to the hospital – in short to do all those things that can be taken for granted by those with cars. Labour recognised this, and introduced free concessionary travel in local authority areas from 2006 and nationally from 2008.
Yet in smaller towns and rural areas in particular, Conservative cuts mean that buses no longer play this vital connective role. This can mean the difference between someone going out and being part of their community or being stuck at home. Perhaps most shockingly, bus cuts have meant that only a third of hospital users have reasonable access to key services by public transport or walking. This leaves those without access to a car – over half of disabled people – isolated from medical help. The demand for travel is still there; the number of concessionary passes has increased. Yet the number of concessionary bus journeys has gone down. This proves a fundamental point – a bus pass is no good if there’s no bus on which to use it.
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Furthermore the statutory minimum of the Government’s bus pass currently only applies to off-peak travel when there is likely be unused operational capacity on buses. This means that disabled people trying to get to work can’t use their pass during rush hour, and if a shift finishes past 11.00pm – forget it. Some local authorities have prioritised the disabled bus pass and extended its eligibility to include peak hours. But the Government recently said ‘in the current economic climate there are no plans to extend the statutory scheme to include peak time travel.’
The problems for disabled public transport users don’t end when they find a bus to get on. Around a fifth of disabled people report having difficulties related to their impairment or disability in accessing transport, yet the Government are neglecting these issues in transport planning. For instance, less than a quarter of all buses in England had Audio-Visual (AV) announcements installed in 2012. These systems are vital for those with visual or hearing impairments, in order to avoid disorientation and ensure they know where they are going and when to get off the bus. Guide Dogs for the Blind tell us that almost 90 per cent of their service users have been left on a bus because a driver had forgotten to tell them they were at their stop.
As is often the case under this Government there is widespread regional inequality in service, with the vast majority of buses with AV systems found in London. Unfortunately the Government recently said that making ‘on-board systems a requirement on all new buses would be a significant cost to the industry’ and that they have ‘no current plans to mandate such systems through Regulation.’ While immediate retrofitting would be pricey, this could be circumvented by requiring AV systems on all new buses - meaning a gradual phasing in of this technology. And it isn’t just technology - disability awareness training for bus drivers is also not mandatory. But it seems the Government is far more committed to pinching the purse strings and protecting private bus operators than providing vital services to help the most vulnerable in our society get on.
Similarly, fewer than 1 in 5 railway stations are fully accessible. The Access for All programme improves accessibility at train stations nationwide by installing lifts and ramps, creating accessible routes for all passengers. Yet in the last Parliament the Government slashed Access for All rail funding by almost half – from £43 million to £25 million between 2015 and 2019. This Government claim they are the builders – but they aren’t building the things that really matter and for those who need them most.
A reliance on taxis can be a result of these inconsistent bus services, but there is no national legislative framework for taxi and private hire vehicles. The Department for Transport’s 2015 taxi survey showed that less than a third of licensing authorities in England and Wales (of those that responded) require taxi drivers to undergo disability awareness training. Guide Dogs has found that many guide dog owners have been refused access by a taxi driver.
While Transport for London requires all 22,500 London taxis to be wheelchair accessible, only 61 per cent councils outside London require wheelchair accessible vehicles for all or part of their taxi fleet. At the end of March 2013, there were 78,000 licensed taxis in England and Wales, with only 58 per cent wheelchair accessible. Moreover, in the private hire sector, which remains poorly regulated, we simply do not know how many vehicles are wheelchair accessible. While the fast-growing Uber app has launched its UberASSIST feature, aimed at those with access needs, only a tiny proportion of Uber vehicles can actually fit a wheelchair. The industry is changing rapidly, but the Government is stuck in the slow lane: in January, the Department for Transport said they are “still considering the case for imposing on drivers of wheelchair accessible taxis and Private Hire Vehicles duties to assist passengers who use wheelchairs.” Needless to say, as Christmas approaches, disabled passengers are still awaiting their ‘considerations’.
With cuts to funding, technological advances and devolution, the transport landscape is shifting. There have been improvements, but in recent times they have had to be dragged from Government, and there is a long way to go before disabled people get the transport system they deserve. The social model of disability tells us that the main problem for disabled people isn’t their disability, it is the barriers that they encounter day in, day out. It doesn’t have to be like this – we could create a transport system that works for everyone, but sadly, we are still some way from that.