Planning transport for people with disabilities as the population ages
The 2021 Transport Planning Day campaign focused on accessibility, equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI). It is good time to take a fresh look at disability, to know who these disabled people really are and to understand what this means for our profession.
Transport planning practitioners will be familiar with accessibility and EDI as concepts. Some practitioners will already be doing work in this field, for example writing equality impact assessments. However, not everybody will be fully aware of the range of different needs and how they’re evolving.
 Disability and impairment
The Equality Act 2010 defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that has a 'substantial and long-term negative effect on a person’s ability to do normal daily activities’. By this definition, it's estimated that there are around 14 million disabled people in the UK.
Although some will have been disabled since birth or early childhood, many more will have acquired their impairments through illness or injury. Others will have congenital conditions which have manifested themselves later in life or which have worsened with age. Some impairments will be the result of ageing itself.
But even wheelchair users are not one homogenous group; the needs of an otherwise healthy lower-limb amputee will be very different to somebody who's in the latter stages of a degenerative disease, such as multiple sclerosis, ataxia–telangiectasia or Huntington's disease.
For example, people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may walk completely unaided until their body shuts down the oxygen supply to their limbs and they then need to rest immediately.
The term ‘hidden disabilities’ covers cognitive impairments such as:
The population generally is ageing and, therefore, is more likely to suffer from diseases such as COPD, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and dementia. The COVID-19 pandemic has also presented many new challenges for disabled people.
Intersectionality describes people who not only have single or, often, multiple impairments, but may also belong to another demographic that’s disadvantaged as a result of their ethnicity, sex or gender, age, pregnancy or parenthood, or other status.
This can compound the barriers faced when attempting to access goods and services. Alice Wong has written on intersectionality, and Caroline Criado Perez has written about understanding some of the complex health and sociological intersectionality faced by women, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
 Disability exists everywhere, in multiple forms
Prior to the 19th century, disability would have been much more mainstream. Disease and serious injuries were so common that over 60% of the population would have been considered disabled by the modern Equality Act definition.
Disability exists everywhere and in multiple forms. It’s clearly not a minority issue, rather it’s an issue which will only grow as the population ages. The needs of each individual are different, complex and variable.
Transport, in the general sense, is a public good; it's there to enable all of us to play our part in society and the economy. Therefore, it's imperative that we plan, design and manage our transport environments in such a way that they're accessible and inclusive to as many users as possible.
- Sector-specific secondary regulation and technical design standards.
- Training and guidance that are intended to improve accessibility.
- Inclusivity in many aspects of streets and transport.
As a result:
- Buses and trains now not only have spaces for wheelchairs, but also have priority seating for ambulant passengers with additional needs.
- The blue badge parking scheme has been extended to people with some hidden disabilities. Many transport interchanges have step-free access to public areas.
- The attitudes of transport staff towards disabled passengers has improved and information provision is now much better. Even our streets and crossing facilities are more accessible than before.
- Mobility and other aids have been developed that are intended to improve accessibility, for example, new technology such as mobile phone apps.
 Where are we now?
Despite all the improvements listed above, it's still easy to find barriers to access, even in places which have been built to notionally accessible standards. Further, attempts to retrospectively improve access frequently result in compromises being made.
In 2018, the UK government unveiled its wide-ranging Inclusive Transport Strategy, which included many currently ongoing actions, such as the updating of Inclusive Mobility and the tactile paving guidance. Other improvements have been piecemeal, such as changes to the Bus Services Act 2017 to improve information provision.
 What can transport planning professionals do?
For example, step-free access within a station is of limited benefit unless there’s step-free access to the station itself; although the separate regulatory and funding constraints of each element conspire to make full, accessible integration very difficult.
Transport planners sit in the middle of a Venn diagram of overlapping skills, disciplines and interests in the planning, transport, highways and other sectors. It's up to us to ensure that the complex, diverse needs of all people are considered. Doing so will require user engagement, often with hard-to-reach people, and occasionally with those whose views will challenge us.
In the past, accessibility concerns were often trumped by other competing demands. I hope that I’ve demonstrated how the need for ‘universal’ design or operation should be integral to everything that we do.
This article originally appeared on The Civil Engineer Blog portion of the ICE website under the headline, '"Disability isn't a minority issue - it will only grow as the population ages"'. It was written by Jim Morey and published on 26 July 2021.
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- Access and inclusion in the built environment: policy and guidance.
- A-Z of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion.
- Designing for disability.
- Equality Act.
- Essential principles, Creating an accessible and inclusive environment.
- ICE articles on Designing Buildings Wiki.
- National Disability Strategy.
- Older people.
- Protected characteristics.