The 1995 Disability Discrimination Act and its successor the 2010 Equality Act have helped this nation take big strides forward in terms of disabled access requirements. The Acts have forced companies to adapt their services, access routes and provision so as not to discriminate. Whilst this has led to immeasurable improvements in equality of access for some, for others the challenge continues.
Take for instance our bus network. Across the last two decades travel providers have gradually introduced new models to their fleets that are wheelchair accessible, so much so that this form of mobility access is now the ‘default’ service offered on the majority of bus routes – and so it should be. Whilst parents with prams may praise this as a benefit of modern travel for anyone who has a mobility impairment, who uses a wheelchair or not, this opens up a whole transport network to them which for too many years was out of bounds.
Now it is time to metaphorically take bus travel to the next step. This is where audio-visual announcements, or as they are colloquially known ‘talking buses’ or ‘AV’, come in. It is time that bus companies widened their accessibility remit to incorporate improvements to increase ease of access for sensory impaired travellers. How many of you may have taken getting off at the correct stop for granted? What happens if you cannot see your stop coming up? You may have missed a stop in the past and used landmarks, street names or the local geography to find your way back. How possible do you think this would be with little or no vision?
According to the RNIB, there are as many as 3 million people living in the UK with significant sight loss, over a tenth of those defined as partially sighted or blind, but as yet there is no legal requirement for talking buses. Visual conditions mean for many a drivers licence is refused on health grounds, but most will feel the double jeopardy to having to rely on a public transport service that does not cater for them.
A survey conducted by the charity Guide Dogs found that 70% of bus passengers with vision loss have been forgotten about by the bus driver and subsequently missed stops. The impact of this happening is far reaching. It can completely demoralise a person’s belief in their ability to travel independently, inadvertently affecting their work, home and social lives through apprehension to travel, whilst in turn increasing their reliance on others, whether this be friends or family or social care support services.
Talking buses could solve this, but as yet only 19% of buses are fitted with AV, 90% of which vehicles are in London [Guide Dog study, 2011]. This is a feature that needs to be nationwide and mandatory in all new buses. A Bus Services Bill will pass through Parliament soon and it needs to ensure that any vote on said Bill would include a clause on the implementation of AV. The technology is not expensive, only increasing bus purchase price by a few percent and costs could be further reduced if entire new fleets had AV added.
It should also be highlighted that the extra costs can be recuperated through increased passenger numbers. Audio visual announcements were added to the Metro bus fleet in Belfast in March 2016 [Passenger Transport, Online], one of a number of new features celebrated for reversing passenger decline, leading to an overall percentage growth in passenger numbers. Whilst AV will always be welcomed by those with sensory loss the figures show that overall passenger confidence in a service can be increased by talking buses, so companies should consider the potential benefits to be gained from the initial outlay.
As with wheelchair accessible buses proving of benefit to pram pushing parents, AV similarly whilst improving accessibility for those with sensory impairments also offers benefits to the mainstream, making travel easier for tourists or anyone needing to travel in unfamiliar areas. In this way, talking buses should not just be viewed as an adaptation for the minority but a stride forward for the majority.
By Sam Heaton