How a focus on improving accessibility will encourage all passengers back to bus

It goes without saying that all customers should feel confident and welcome travelling by bus. While most people may take public transport for granted as something we do out of necessity, ease or habit, for others there are often barriers which can make the experience difficult or less than pleasant.

It’s important to note that accessibility isn’t necessarily reserved for those with a disability – this term also includes elderly people, those for whom English is not their first language, parents travelling with young children, etc.

As Accessibility and Inclusion Officer for Lothian Buses – the UK’s largest municipal bus company which serves communities in Edinburgh, East Lothian, West Lothian, and Midlothian – I’ve been working with teams across the business to evaluate our existing infrastructure and implement changes where required to help make our services are accessible as we possibly can.

People with additional accessibility needs unfortunately often encounter barriers when accessing services. While there has been improvement across the public transport sector, accessibility is sometimes overlooked, not prioritised, or penned down as ‘part of a bigger piece’ to be looked at in the future. With that in mind, it’s easy to understand why many people who are disabled or have accessibility requirements feel anxious when it comes to travelling by bus or train. There are too many things that can ‘go wrong’ which can have a profoundly negative impact on their day. In a worse case scenario, the ramifications can have longer term impacts for the individual.

Over the last 18 months the country has been somewhat devastated by the pandemic, and this concept of feeling completely vulnerable in public places is now felt amongst many more people in our communities. Where, in previous times, the non-disabled amongst us generally had the confidence to travel without fear of becoming ill, feeling uncomfortable around others or trying to avoid conflict, this is now a part of everyday life for many people regardless of disability or health status. Could it be that perhaps we are only now getting the smallest idea about how nerve-wracking it can be to travel with these anxieties; a feeling that our disabled communities know so well?

What have disabled people, chronically-ill people or families with young children been asking for over the last decade? Better communication between operators and the public, more support for those who require additional help planning and booking trips. Better informed, more patient and understanding staff. Put simply – acknowledgement and equal access. Now all our customers are asking for the same.

At Lothian, we are focussed on welcoming all of our customers back ‘on bus’ and are engaging with the community to improve their confidence in the business as a key transport provider in Edinburgh and the Lothians. 

Our Hidden Disabilities Campaign – which launched in July of this year – has taken real-life stories from customers with various accessibility needs, highlighting their lived experiences in a bid to foster better understanding amongst our colleagues and the wider public who use our services. In this set of stories, we meet Sarah who wasn’t diagnosed with autism until her late 20s, and travels by bus with assistance dog Millie by her side. We talk to Dave whose epilepsy is now so unpredictable that he no longer feels able to travel alone. Fred cannot understand why people with learning disabilities, like him, are not treated with the respect they deserve. 

To further the impact of our customer engagement we have been working with local organisations to arrange ‘Try a Bus’ events, where we provide a clean, empty bus at various locations across Edinburgh, accompanied by our friendly and knowledgeable staff. Customers with disabilities or accessibility needs can chat with our drivers, practise boarding the bus and navigating the interior, find an appropriate seat or space, alight in their own time and at their own pace. All of this is designed to give our customers the confidence to use our services regularly. We recently supported young school leavers from two Edinburgh schools – Pilrig Park School and Woodlands School – who all have mild to moderate learning disabilities, to explore how to travel independently on our buses to reach further education, go to job interviews, etc.

Operators need to open up a dialogue with their colleagues and customers, providing information about the changes they’ve made to their businesses but almost more importantly, what hasn’t changed. What elements of customers’ journeys are familiar, recognisable and therefore comforting for people who haven’t had the chance to travel in the last 18 months? It is imperative that we continue to push for understanding, patience and respect amongst customers and colleagues, providing appropriate training and support for our employees, and simplifying feedback procedures for customers. Most importantly, we must let our customers know what we are doing at each stage. This is what’s needed to give everyone the confidence to travel on public transport.

Without enough knowledge of disability and inclusion, we can easily be led to believe that accessibility is something that takes a lot of time and money to benefit only a handful of severely disabled customers. The truth is, by focusing on accessibility and truly taking the time to get it right, it benefits everyone. Some of my disabled friends refer to non-disabled individuals as ‘pre-disabled’, suggesting that the chances are that at some point in our lives it is likely we will have a disability. This could be due to sickness, injury or simply old age. It may sound morbid but it’s not necessarily the case. We will all reach a time where we are reliant on accessible services or facilities. The time and effort spent improving standards is not irrelevant to our own lives but it is actually an investment in our own futures.​

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