Nick Bauer of Gloucestershire County Council writes an account of the authority’s drive to make public transport more accessible for all travellers
Seen in action here, the GlosTalk app has been developed to help not only visually and hearing impaired passengers, but all bus users across Gloucestershire Credit: GCC
Local authorities across the country are under pressure to increase modal shift by convincing more citizens to ride the bus. At the same time, the onus is on public transport departments to enhance customers’ journeys through a range of initiatives, whether that includes making improvements to bus routes or revamping bus stations and stops.
This issue came into particular focus recently during the journey towards the Bus Services Act 2017, which officially came into existence in April of this year. When first introduced, as the Bus Services Bill 2016-17 in May 2016, the proposed legislation intended to give councils such as ourselves new powers to deliver better journeys for passengers. As stated within a House of Commons report into the Bill however, such improvements to accessibility would need to go beyond enhancing networks and scheduling (important as those are); they required the provision of “a service which different sections of society are able to use with confidence”. That means enabling passengers to easily keep up to date with service information and providing transport that is equipped to meet their requirements
The provision of on-board audiovisual technology is undoubtedly a step in the right direction to ensure that bus services are accessible for visually impaired passengers; but is it enough?
The phrase ‘different sections’ of course can incorporate a wide variety of social groups: older people, children, passengers with physical impairments, chronic health conditions or mental health issues, people with learning disabilities who may need extra support or simply those who may be unfamiliar with particular routes.
Promoting social inclusion through technology
The challenge undoubtedly lies in ensuring accessibility for all. This is an issue that prompted much concern during creation of the Bill, specifically in terms of whether the document would do enough to ensure social inclusion across the board. Let us take visually impaired passengers as an example; while the Public Service Vehicle Accessibility Regulations 2000 (PSVAR) had previously set down accessibility requirements such as low-floor boarding devices and provision for passengers using wheelchairs, at the time of initial publication there was no provision made for audiovisual (AV) equipment on buses which could help to empower visually and hearing impaired passengers.
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In the wake of a steady campaign led by Guide Dogs for the Blind, the Government indeed brought forward an amendment in autumn 2016 to enable the Secretary of State to impose regulations requiring local service operators to provide audio information on board their services. As stated within the House of Commons report, “the guidance makes clear that AV provision of information will be required in relation to route and direction, upcoming stopping place and diversions from the scheduled stopping place”.
The provision of on-board AV technology is undoubtedly a step in the right direction to ensure that bus services are accessible for visually impaired passengers; but is it enough? This type of technology has been welcomed in areas such as London and Nottingham, where ‘talking buses’ are already in operation. Though successful, the practicality (and benefits) for passengers seem somewhat restricted. Arguably, passengers throughout the UK – regardless of ability – could be presented with a more holistic solution, one that also takes into account elements such as the environment at either side of the actual bus journey.
An evolution in passenger information
At Gloucestershire County Council (GCC) we’re passionate about public transport and the role technology can play in making it accessible to all. For our bus services, the focus is always centred on providing the right information, in the right way, at every stage of the passenger’s journey. After all, reliable and accurate information gives people the confidence and ability to plan their journeys, and puts them in control – something which is vital to help increase independence for those with specific requirements.
In GCC’s drive to improve accessibility, initial plans explored the viability of installing audio equipment at bus stops to read out announcements when triggered by passengers’ purpose-made key fobs. But this presented us with a solution that was far from ideal. Discussions with local authorities who historically had implemented this technology revealed cases of specification changes which rendered key fobs inactive and required replacement of all fobs in circulation. And then there was the cost factor for both the fobs themselves and the audio equipment at the stops, which often resulted in only a partial rollout.
In improving accessibility for all passengers – not least those with visual impairment – we had to look towards finding a solution without high costs or risk; one that could be affordably delivered across the county and, crucially, one which would take into account every stage of a passenger’s journey – from finding the nearest bus stop and finding out when a bus is due, to getting off the bus.
By embracing technology as an enabler, public transport departments and local authorities can make life easier for everyone
Working alongside Trapeze, and with input from local disability group Gloucestershire Voices, we launched a talking app, GlosTalk, to assist both visually and hearing impaired bus users and the wider passenger community. GlosTalk, which has been shortlisted in the 2017 National Transport Awards, benefits users in three key ways: firstly, by using audio commands to guide them to their nearest stop; secondly, by telling them when their chosen bus is due to depart; and thirdly, by warning when they need to alight the bus. Such features have value for all users, but the convenient and user-friendly functionality we see in the app – favourite locations, regular journeys and so on – is absolutely essential for those with disabilities.
One element of our talking app which has proven particularly beneficial is its ‘hand-holding’ feature. By counting down to each stop, hand-holding enables passengers to understand precisely where they are within their route, thus delivering assurance and confidence for users. And best of all, the app, which is currently available for iOS, Android and Windows phones, can be accessed whenever and wherever required.
Technology such as GCC’s GlosTalk has the potential to offer essential budget savings for local authorities by helping to transition passengers from demand-responsive to mainstream services, without extensive travel training schemes. For example, user-led self-advocacy organisations for adults with disabilities – such as Gloucestershire Voices – often run buddy schemes to help people get used to bus travel.
Such is the intuitiveness of talking apps, there’s a real potential to reduce the number of buddy journeys needed before somebody can travel alone.
Travel information can be confusing for anyone, whether partially sighted or not. By embracing technology as an enabler, public transport departments and local authorities can make life easier for everyone, encouraging them to use the bus by making sure they can get from A to B with minimum fuss. If more organisations incorporate innovative solutions into their planning strategies, we’ll be a step closer to a more accessible and inclusive public transport system for all.