Blog Type, IPT Blog, Industry Sector, IPT, Transport, Health | May 2016

Access to Transport: The Road Ahead

Older people’s mental and physical well-being has been shown to be strongly linked to their ability to travel independently. In time, technological innovations will make it possible for more to be done from home. Future generations of older people will be familiar with on-line shopping and social media. Further developments could make the virtual more reflective of the physical – for example, by allowing those doing on-line grocery shopping at the same time to interact as though they were in the same physical store, or by blowing the smell of fresh bread from the device. There is though a wealth of evidence which suggests that whilst being able to meet practical needs is important, the benefits of leaving the house just because you can, to enjoy chance encounters, to have a change of scene, or to feel the sun on your face are equally important. Giving older people the choice, by designing services, vehicles and infrastructure which make journeys possible has to be a better approach than tolerating ones which we know will cause difficulty.

We know much about what makes it difficult for older people to make journeys safely and with confidence. Whilst the ageing process is not one which affects everyone at the same time, at the same pace, or in the same ways, some common features can be identified. These include –

  • Deterioration in muscles and joints, increasing the susceptibility to injury, making it more difficult to look around to check for cars, and increasing the difficulty of maintaining balance or gripping the rails of a moving bus;
  • Deterioration in eye sight and hearing, again affecting road crossing, but also making it more difficult to confidently identify the correct stop at which to leave public transport & increasing feelings of vulnerability;
  • Dulling of the reflexes, leading to increased reaction times and difficulty processing information.
  • Onset of age-related disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia-type illness, causing disorientation, decreased judgement and loss of initiative.

Complex traffic conditions such as large, multi-lane roundabouts require the processing of large volumes of information in order to make safety-critical decisions under time pressure. Users must judge the speed, distance and path of on-coming traffic before deciding when it is safe for them to enter or cross the traffic. Partially signalised roundabouts require drivers to do all of this whilst also observing traffic lights. Having to observe signals and yield to on-coming traffic (also common at signalised right turns) has been shown to be a particularly difficult task for older drivers, and one which is exacerbated by high vehicle speeds.

Problems which affect pedestrians include road crossing provision, footpath quality and maintenance, intrusion from hedges or trees, and the provision of seating and shelter. They can affect older people’s anxiety about the journey, as well as adding to hazards, presenting both a psychological and a physical barrier.

A number of features make crossing the road more difficult. These include;

  • The speed of on-coming traffic, which makes it harder to make accurate judgements about safe gaps, and increases the degree to which traffic feels intimidating.
  • The number of lanes of traffic to be crossed, with judgements about gap acceptance being more difficult where there are several lanes. The likely reduced walk speed of older adults makes wide roads with several lanes significantly more difficult to cross.
  • Changes of level, for example because of subways or over-bridges. The physical difficulty of climbing steps (especially in poor weather) is one factor, but the perception of subways as unsafe spaces represents a psychological barrier which is not confined to older users.
  • Gaps between the desire-line (where pedestrians really want to go) and the safe crossing provision, or long waits for the pedestrian crossing phase increase the time taken for the journey, making it more difficult for some pedestrians.

These issues do not just affect older people, and do not only affect pedestrians: since most bus passengers are, at some stage in their journey, also pedestrians, these features can be as big a barrier to a public transport journey as limitations in the service itself. Outside London, public transport bodies have little influence over the design or maintenance of the road infrastructure, and there is no evidence it is even on the radar of bus operators. This may be because key decision-makers do not make the journeys their passengers make, and if they did, would be unlikely to do so whilst experiencing the same age-related limitations. The design of the vehicle has become less of a concern, thanks in part to legislation aimed at removing barriers to mobility for people with impairments. Accessible vehicles are now increasingly “the norm”. This, unfortunately, does not always mean the service is usable.

Similarly, whilst the Concessionary Pass scheme may have removed financial barriers to public transport use for some older people, without frequent, reliable services, safe walking routes to, and seating and shelter at stops, the pass is worth little. Again, the service may be (financially) accessible whilst not being usable. This is a problem which is particularly acute in rural areas, if not necessarily confined to them.

So what should be done to ensure that the transport needs of the ageing population can be met?

An important first step would be to consistently apply what we already know. Research has taught us a great deal about what makes the transport system difficult for older people to use. What we have not done is to apply this knowledge in a consistent and systematic way, or to make incorporation of older users’ needs a key requirement of schemes. One way to make this easier would be to adopt a more holistic, inter-disciplinary approach. If we monitored road casualty totals in conjunction with other health measures we could begin to see whether reductions in pedestrian fatalities had been won at the expense of increasing levels of isolation and depression resulting from people feeling trapped by a hostile walking environment and so deciding not to go out. Better training of practitioners also has a role to play: If decisions are taken by fit, young professionals, it is not hugely surprising that they do not always appreciate the difficulties other people experience. They should develop mechanisms by which they can seek the views of older users.

Technological innovations may provide some of the solutions, with driverless cars offering the potential to improve the safety and mobility of both older drivers and pedestrians. In addition, smart phone “apps” might help to make conventional public transport more usable, or demand responsive transport such as “ring and ride” services more viable.

This, however, will not address the over-arching issue of older people’s needs not being a sufficiently high priority for the range of bodies which fund, organise and deliver transport services and infrastructure. What is really required is a genuine commitment to understand and cater for their needs, backed up with the funding necessary to deliver.

Dr Lucy Rackliff, Engineering Systems & Management, Aston University