Government calls on new transport technologies to be accessible to all

Accessibility must be at the heart of new transport tech

  • New transport technologies could be transformative and empowering for those with mobility issues
  • Disability organisations the National Autistic Society, Muscular Dystrophy UK, Scope, Blind Veterans UK and Whizz-Kidz on board with principle that future transport must be accessible for all
  • The Inclusive Transport Strategy sets out the Government’s aim to make the entire transport network accessible by 2030

New modes of transport and pioneering technologies should transform travel for older people and those with disabilities, the Government has made clear today (14 May 2019). Transport is vital in order to connect people right across the country, but those with disabilities or mobility issues can sometimes face unacceptable barriers to travel.


Speaking at the final media and showcase event for FLOURISH, a self-driving car project in Bristol aimed at improving the mobility of older people and those with mobility-related needs, the Future of Mobility Minister Jesse Norman has set out that new technologies including self-driving vehicles and the increased use of mobile apps have the potential to revolutionise everyday journeys for people with mobility issues, and this must be a key consideration for those companies developing future transport.

In their Future of Mobility: Urban Strategy, launched in March 2019, the Government declared that transport innovations must be accessible by design in order to empower independent travel, in line with the 2018 Inclusive Transport Strategy which stated that advances in technology should provide opportunities for all. The trend towards ride-sharing, for example, will need to cater for users of wheelchairs and mobility scooters, as well as those who might not feel comfortable sharing with strangers due to mental health or developmental conditions.

Speaking at the FLOURISH event at the University of Bristol, the Future of Mobility Minister Jesse Norman said:

“Self-driving technologies could greatly improve the mobility of vulnerable user groups, helping to address problems of isolation and loneliness across the country.

“The needs of older people, and those with visible or hidden disabilities, must be at the heart of all new modes of transport.”

This announcement follows the arrival of a range of exciting transport innovations, including the first trials of self-driving vehicles for blind veterans in the world. A joint venture launched by Blind Veterans UK and Aurrigo in April, the self-driving pods are equipped with accessible features including bright colour edges, door openings, and an external sounds system that changes tone and rate when objects in the path are detected. For a video of the first blind veteran to take a trial in a self-driving pod, click here.

The commitment in the Future of Mobility: Urban Strategy builds on wide-ranging work the Government has already undertaken to improve accessibility on public transport, including investing £300m to make rail stations more accessible for disabled passengers across Britain, and pushing transport operators to meet their legal obligations to design and deliver their services in a genuinely inclusive way. This includes showing greater recognition that less visible disabilities such as autism or dementia can be just as much of a barrier to travel as a visible disability.

In November 2018, the Government also announced a new partnership with the charity Muscular Dystrophy UK (MDUK) which will bring Changing Places toilets to the majority of motorway service areas — making journeys easier for disabled people across England.

Ruth Owen OBE, Chief Executive of Whizz-Kidz, said:

“Young wheelchair users tell us how important accessible transport is so they can be independent and make the most of their lives, and just how challenging travelling can sometimes be. It’s pointless booking a train ticket to go to work or attend a job interview if the right ramp isn’t available to get their wheelchair on the train.

“Improving accessibility is vital for the companies developing transport in the future if young disabled people are to be included and have access to the travel opportunities many others take for granted.”

Jane Harris, Director of External Affairs at the National Autistic Society, said:

“For far too many autistic people, going on public transport is overwhelming. Unexpected changes like delays or diversions, loud crowds and bright lights can trigger extreme levels of anxiety. Some people are so worried about this that they sometimes find it difficult to leave the house at all.

“The Government is right to prioritise making transport accessible for all. This must mean that all future plans, modes of transport and technologies are shaped by the experiences and often hidden needs of autistic people and their families. In particular, technology represents a real opportunity to help autistic people prepare for journeys deal with unexpected changes, like cancellations.”

 Rob Burley, Director of Campaigns, Care and Support at Muscular Dystrophy UK, said:

“When public transport is inaccessible, it takes away the independence of people living with disabilities. We regularly hear stories about people’s terrible experiences, such as being turned away by bus drivers or missing their stop on the train because no one is around to assist. It’s not acceptable.

“There is still a long way to go until people living with disabilities have full accessibility, but this announcement shows we are heading in the right direction. We welcome the Department for Transport’s commitment to making public transport fully accessible by 2030. We, along with our campaigners, look forward to engaging with Government to ensure that this happens.”

James Taylor, Head of Policy, Campaigns and Public Affairs at disability equality charity Scope said:

“Scope welcome this announcement and commitment from the Department for Transport.

“For too long disabled people have faced barriers to being able to travel and live independently.

“At Scope we know that technology has the potential to transform the world for disabled people and it’s absolutely right that all future transport modes and technologies need to accessible to everyone. However, disabled people must be involved in the design and testing of these technologies if they are to succeed.

“A genuinely inclusive transport network is one that makes it much easier for disabled people to get to work, see family, and be part of their community both now and in the future.

Chair of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee Keith Richards said:

“Self-driving vehicles offer increased independence and options for travel but accessibility has to be at the centre of the development of the technology.

“The diverse needs of users, both inside and out of the vehicle, need to be considered from the outset as not everyone will react to an automated vehicle in the same way. People with hearing or visual disabilities for example need to be properly recognised and safeguarded.

Miles Garner, Sales and Marketing Director at Aurrigo, said:

“Independence, that’s what it is all about. Either giving it back to people with a disability to making sure elderly individuals maintain it.

“That’s why we wholeheartedly welcome the Government’s Inclusive Transport Strategy and determination to make the entire transport network accessible by 2030. Our driverless pods have a crucial role to play in this, especially in providing first and last mile transport solutions – so crucial to providing a joined-up service.”

Case study: FLOURISH

FLOURISH is a multi-sector collaboration, helping to advance the successful implementation of connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) in the UK, by developing services and capabilities that link user needs and system requirements, maximising the benefits of CAVs for users and transport authorities.

The three-year project was worth £5.5 million and was co-funded between industry and the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV). It was delivered in partnership with Innovate UK. It is part of the government’s £100 million Intelligent Mobility Fund, supporting the Future of Mobility Grand Challenge, which aims to make everyday transport more accessible and reliable for passengers.

FLOURISH adopted a user-focused approach to best understand consumer expectations of CAV technology. The project explored how this technology can be harnessed to enhance and enable mobility for older adults and those with mobility-related conditions, contributing to the development of a stronger and more inclusive society. Participants were involved through workshops, and simulator and pod trials.

To learn more about the technology required to realise these user benefits, please see:

Case study: assist-Mi

Developed by a Sunderland-based company, assist-Mi is an assistance app that offers help to disabled users on the go, giving them more independence when accessing everyday goods and services.

Using a unique combination of location-based technologies and two-way messaging, assist-Mi removes traditional barriers by connecting the user directly with service providers to request real-time assistance at the touch of a button.

Case study: Humanising Autonomy

One of the UK companies helping to ensure self-driving vehicles are safe is Humanising Autonomy. Their technology is able to predict pedestrian intent across multiple cultures and urban contexts, improving interactions between self-driving vehicles and people and ultimately making self-driving vehicles safer.

They are designing their technology with the most vulnerable road users in mind: older people, disabled people, and children.

A lav affair: do we care enough about public toilets?

Deborah Fenney writing at The King’s Fund: When was the last time you used a public toilet? Not in a train station or a shopping centre bathroom – a local authority-maintained, public facility? For most of us, this is likely to be an increasingly rare event. Local authority spending on public toilets in England has declined by 50 per cent in the past 10 years and recent BBC analysis showed a significant drop in the number of public toilets across the UK.

While anyone can find themselves ‘caught short’, for some people this happens more than others. Women have more reasons and take longer to use a toilet than men, for example due to periods or pregnancy, and the lack of equality in toilet provision for women is well-recognised. For people living with bladder and bowel conditions, lack of facilities is a major concern. And if the toilet isn’t accessible then the impact is the same as no toilet at all. Transgender and gender non-conforming people, sometimes denied access or harassed in public toilets, may avoid them due to safety concerns. Additionally, disabled people frequently encounter inaccessible toilets, including those that are intended to be accessible. This is also about the infrastructure around the toilet, for example the signage and general accessibility of the building.

Toilet Signs

This issue is not yet getting the attention it deserves. Talking about toilets tends to provoke discomfort: for a variety of social and cultural reasons people are often reluctant to talk openly about toilets. But going to the loo is a universal human need, and the facilities available to us can have a significant impact on our health.

At an individual level, there are physical and mental health consequences when adequate public toilet facilities are not available. People report dealing with a lack of access to toilets by restricting fluid intake and ‘holding on’, leading to risk of dehydration, UTIs and potential kidney damage. For some disabled people, the lack of accessible toilets has led to otherwise preventable surgical interventions. There are also social impacts, where people are forced to plan ahead and restrict their outings to places they feel confident they will find a toilet. Others simply don’t go out, putting them at risk of social isolation.

A lack of adequate public toilets will therefore affect public health interventions that encourage people to go out and about locally, for example to increase physical activity and reduce obesity. Public toilets are a key part of our built environment and thus part of its impact as a wider determinant of health, an important feature of the places we live in, and having an influence on our health behaviours and lifestyles. It therefore makes sense that adequate public toilet facilities are part of efforts to improve population health.

In looking at this topic, I was struck by the number of organisations and campaigns calling for more and better public toilet provision, set against the steadily decreasing funding in local authorities. No one body holds overall responsibility for public toilets, and there is no compulsory provision in legislation. Campaigns have led to some additional national funding for Changing Places toilets (those with more space and equipment such as hoists) in sites such as motorway service stations and hospitals. With the exception of this, however, there appears to be very little activity on a national level from the relevant departments. There does not seem to be a coordinated approach to addressing the reduction in public toilet facilities across the country. This seems like a missed opportunity to address an issue with a significant health impact.

Many local authorities have looked for alternatives to publicly maintained facilities, for example, community toilet schemes where businesses make their toilets available for the public in return for a financial incentive from their local council. However, several researchers in this field have raised concerns that these schemes are not adequately accessible and do not meet the needs of a diverse population that includes people from different religious backgrounds, people of different ages and homeless people. There is a question of whether we need more toilets or more access to those that already exist – but there is little argument about the inadequacy of current provision.

All of this has prompted my interest in the role the health sector might have to play in supporting public toilet provision. I’m also keen to hear if the issues raised here reflect experiences of readers and I‘d be interested to know if there is anywhere public toilets are thriving. The Royal Society for Public Health is shortly releasing the findings of a survey that will give further insight into public toilet access across the UK. Researchers in urban planning and disability studies have created various guides for good practice in toilet provision. Ensuring public toilets are consistently on health agendas would seem to be a key part of ensuring decent access for all.