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Mind the Gap: understanding accessibility on public transport

accessibility interviews public-transport

Back in August we mentioned that Passio was one of five teams to receive funding from Innovate UK. The brief called for an app intended to help disabled people use public transport. To this end, we set out to answer one crucial question.

How do we best understand our users?

We briefly considered disability simulations. But soon realised that public transport is much too complex and our audience far too wide and varied. We would run the risk of painting an inaccurate picture of life with a disability. Moreover, we were concerned about evoking feelings of pity in the able-bodied people taking part in simulations, and generally reinforcing negative stereotypes. So we ruled them out, opting instead for interviews to help us get a better idea of people’s public transport experiences.

Now, when I say we carried out interviews, I don’t mean to describe a situation where we got together to exchange questions and answers. In fact, we decided early on that mere conversations between our team and members of the disabled community simply wouldn’t be sufficient. The resulting approach was much more hands-on. 

We conducted a series of shadowing sessions in London and Edinburgh, each lasting between four and five hours. They all began with standard question-answer interviews, which gave participants the chance to describe their experiences to us. Next, we accompanied our users on at least three different modes of public transport, allowing our team to witness these experiences first-hand. 

Team members Ashley and Tara with participant Aurora Constantin
Team members Ashley and Tara with participant Aurora Constantin.

With each interview, it became increasingly apparent that disabled people feel very strongly about public transport – and not necessarily in a positive way. Today, we’ll be discussing some of the key challenges faced by disabled public transport users.

Different definitions of “accessible”.

We came to realise that “accessible” doesn’t always really mean accessible. Something which is supposedly accessible might, in practice, turn out not to be. For instance, we visited several tube stations in London which were labelled as “step-free” from street to train. Except the wheelchair users we accompanied sometimes weren’t physically able to board. Some gaps between the train and the platform were simply too high. 

Participant Sam Jennings is unable to get onto a “step-free” Underground train in London.

That’s not to say that the gap would have been problematic to a manual wheelchair user with the ability to manoeuvre between the train and platform, or for someone whose chair was light enough to be pushed by another person. But this was not the case for our participants’ electric wheelchairs. In short, since there is no one size fits all solution, it turns out the term “accessible” is often misleading. For the most part, some amount of effort gets put into making something accessible, but only in the broadest sense of the word.

Uncertainty.

We found that our participants almost universally tried to plan their journeys in advance. As a general rule, this helps to reduce the inevitable anxiety that accompanies travelling. However, there are certain things that no amount of planning can help resolve. 

Importantly: knowing where you are, or what to do and when to do it.

Typically, the name of a stop or station is visible in some prominent location and serves as reassurance that you are in the right place. On arrival, you might check a timetable or departures board so you can identify the service you want to take. You would probably wait for your service to arrive, prepare to board when you see it approaching, then get on when the doors open. Once on board, you can sit down and relax until it is time for you to disembark at your destination. 

But what about those who simply aren’t able to do all of these things? The feeling of uncertainty creeps in, and it very well might persist for the duration of a journey.

With a visual impairment, you probably can’t make out what that sign says, or what’s written on the timetable and the departures board. You might not know when your service has arrived, or when you need to get ready to get off. Any supposedly helpful announcements are likely to have been drowned out by the bustling crowds. Regardless of any planning you may have done, these particular obstacles will remain. 

Staff-related issues.

You’d imagine it shouldn’t be too hard to reach out to a member of staff. Perhaps a station attendant could take you to the platform you need to be at and help you onto the train. Then the conductor should probably be able to alert you when your stop is next. As it turns out, station staff are a lot harder to find than you’d expect. And even once you’ve found them, it appears that assistance of any kind is generally given with caveats. 

“Someone should be able to meet you”

“There might be staff” 

“Sorry, we don’t have a ramp right now, come back this evening” 

We have many quotes like this said to almost all of our participants with seemingly minimal concern for what those words would mean to them. 

Still, there tends to be at least some degree of staff involvement in most disabled travellers’ journeys. Unfortunately, the need to book passenger assist in advance renders the notion of “turn up and go” a mere pipe dream. And yet, even doing so does not come with any guarantees. Wheelchair users, in particular, had multiple horror stories. From being asked to “come back this afternoon” when the person on duty didn’t have access to a ramp, to being left on a train until the end of the line because passenger assist were not ready to receive them at their intended destination.

Clearly, staff interactions can make or break a journey. But how do we use an app to alter staff behaviour? The not-so-obvious answer is that we don’t. 

Many of our participants recounted being forced into uncomfortable situations which caused them to want to steer clear of staff members entirely; things like incidents of ill-prepared passenger assist, or negative and dismissive attitudes. While others described being so dependent on staff assistance that they cannot help but avoid unmanned stations altogether. It seems like these are essentially two polar opposite coping mechanisms. Two drastic extremes which can be dealt with in the same way – by minimising the reliance on transport staff.

Crowdsourcing.

A key point we took away from our interviews was that, in general, members of the disabled community see themselves as having a responsibility to help others in their community. And what’s more, they tend to have a willingness to do so. In keeping with this, several participants cited their social media platforms as the best source of up-to-date, relevant public transport information. Many of them expressed a desire for some way of accessing and sharing information that is otherwise scarce, decentralised, and often inaccurate.

Broken induction loops. Out-of-order lifts. Problems with accessible toilets. Steep ramps. All potentially notable complications to different peoples’ journeys. All commonly discovered upon arrival, with no opportunity for the necessary adjustments to be made. And all easy to crowdsource from members of the public, both disabled and able-bodied. It would be as simple as users of the app dropping pins at specific locations with issues attached to them. Other users would be made aware of their existence, and potentially given the chance to validate them. 

Help-seeking.

Despite the many benefits of crowdsourcing, it is important to acknowledge that this approach has its limitations. Sometimes difficult situations arise that require outside assistance. The fact of the matter is, in a domain as complex as the public transport network, there will be levels of assistance which cannot be provided by a mere app. But what if the app could be used to source the help needed to fill in the gaps in its own capabilities?

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