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Assessing the State of Accessible Public Transport in the UK

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Oak Tree Team

22nd February, 2024

The State of Accessible Public Transport in the UK

One of the key challenges elderly and disabled people face is easy access to public transport in the UK. Easily accessible public transport has been shown to be hugely beneficial to the environment, economy, and communities - but to what extent is our current public transport system accessible for everyone?

Improved public transport has the potential to be transformative for marginalised groups and communities across the UK. At present, it has been reported that 93% of disabled train travellers face accessibility challenges, highlighting just how essential it is that change is actioned. 

93% of disabled train travellers report accessibility challenges

Research demonstrates that inclusive change is positive for everyone, including businesses. According to the March 2023 Accessible and Inclusive Transport Report, more than 1 in 5 people have a disability and as a result of ignoring their needs, the transport sector loses around £42 million per month. The top three reasons elderly and disabled groups state for not using public transport include finding it inaccessible (25.5%), inconvenient (22.7%), and overwhelming (12.6%). 

To understand the current state of accessible public transport, Oak Tree Mobility has conducted research to further examine the obstacles the elderly and disabled individuals face, in addition to exploring the strategies coming into effect to improve accessibility in the UK.

Challenges and Impact

Scope UK's Travel Fair campaign highlights the challenges that the 14 million disabled people in the UK face when it comes to transport. Hassle-free transport feels out of reach for many, with disabled people often being required to book assistance in advance which can be restrictive and even lead to additional travel delays. An overwhelming 30% of people with disabilities reported that access to effective public transport has negatively impacted their independence, putting them at risk of isolation. Research has shown that 25% of disabled people in the UK have reported feelings of loneliness compared with 6% of non-disabled people. Functional transport is essential to combatting this and ensuring that everyone has access to employment, education and social activities.

2/3 of disabled passengers reported experiencing at least one problem during their rail journey.

In recent findings, it has been highlighted that 2/3 of disabled passengers reported that they experienced at least one problem during their rail journey. Bad experiences on trains rank highest among all modes of transportation, accounting for 23% of reported incidents. 

Physical Barriers

An overwhelming nine in ten disabled bus riders have reported difficulties with boarding. According to the Inclusive Transport Report conducted by Innovate UK, top concerns include difficulty getting on and off (52.3%), navigating to and from bus stops (40.8%), and securing adequate space for wheelchairs (38.2%). Other concerns include finding available seating, determining arrival points, manoeuvring around pushchairs obstructing pathways, and encountering obstacles in wheelchair-accessible areas. The process of commuting to and from work can have significant impacts on individuals with disabilities, leading more disabled people to be self-employed due to flexibility requirements for work schedules. 

9 in 10 disabled bus riders report difficulties with boarding. Finding wheelchair space is among top concerns.

Operational barriers

The Transport For All report highlighted that while participants often spoke highly of the staff they interacted with, generally finding them helpful and friendly, the negative attitudes and behaviour of some staff created barriers for 25% of respondents. This ranged from being ‘treated like a nuisance and a burden’ for requiring assistance, to staff using demeaning or offensive language towards them. 

Financial barriers

In addition to physical and operational barriers, there are added financial barriers and costs incurred for disabled people. Due to the fragmented nature of the public transport system, many people need to complete their journey via alternative means such as taking a taxi. This can heighten the financial pressure on already vulnerable people. Disabled households already face additional costs that significantly impact their standard of living compared to non-disabled households. Scope's 2023 report on the extra cost of disability indicates that disabled households need an additional £1,122 per month to maintain the same standard of living as non-disabled households.

In rural areas, limited access to transport means that many people are reliant on Community Transport (CT) services. In the absence of adequate public links, CTs are a huge support. These services often rely on sources such as donations, volunteers grant funding and support from the local authority and are not usually free to use. 

What are other countries doing?

Similarly to the UK, other countries (Australia, Canada, Sweden and the US) have introduced legislation, regulation standards or codes of practice to ensure accessibility in public transport. Hong Kong and Singapore have also put accessible features in place - including barrier-free entrances with lifts at train stations, tactile guidance systems and wheelchair-accessible toilets at bus interchanges. 

In the UK, concessions like the Disabled Persons Railcard provide discounts on rail fares, while local buses may offer free off-peak travel for elderly or disabled passengers. Taxis and private hire vehicles, particularly wheelchair-accessible ones, can be more expensive with limited subsidies available in some areas.

Disabled individual entering bus on ramp

How does the UK move forward?

To address these challenges and improve accessibility, transport businesses in the UK are undertaking several initiatives as part of the government's Inclusive Transport Strategy. This plan aims to transform the lives of disabled people, not just in terms of transport but across various aspects of society, including housing, education, and access to venues. The strategy was developed with input from over 14,000 disabled people, highlighting a thorough approach to tackling accessibility issues​​:

Awareness and enforcement of passenger rights

Raising awareness of the obligations of transport operators and the processes for raising concerns or complaints. All passengers should be clear on what service they can expect and be confident that reporting non-compliance will lead to enforcement.

Staff training

Ensure that all transport staff receive comprehensive training on disability awareness and how to effectively assist disabled and elderly passengers.

Information and support

Provide clear, accessible information on services and assistance available (online and at transport hubs) and Implement more intuitive booking systems for assistance and support.


Ensuring that vehicles, stations and public spaces are designed, built and operated so that they are easy to use for all. Upgrade facilities to ensure that all transport modes and stations are fully accessible, including step-free access, reliable lifts, and accessible toilets.

Engage and listen

It’s essential that disabled people are involved from the outset in the development of transport systems. A system built without lived experience and consultation cannot serve all those it needs to serve or be inclusive, which is acknowledged by the Government’s Inclusive Transport Strategy. Greater representation in transport and transport innovation employment is included within this, and a need to address the skills gap by engaging the next generation. Many transport bodies including airports and train operators will also have their own accessibility panels or forums.

Improving support services, alongside increasing training in disability are integral steps towards developing an inclusive transport environment. By addressing these key areas above, we can improve accessibility in UK transportation and meet the needs of all passengers, allowing for greater social inclusion and equality for everyone in society.

Verity Kick at Oak Tree Mobility comments, "While the UK has made notable strides in improving accessibility, with laws like the Equality Act and initiatives to make public transport more inclusive, significant gaps remain. The efforts to retrofit the London Underground for better access, and the introduction of more accessible digital platforms, show a commitment to change. Yet, stories from the media—of wheelchair users facing transport barriers, and people with sensory impairments struggling with inaccessible information—remind us that progress is uneven. These issues highlight the complexity of fully integrating accessibility into our infrastructure and digital life. It's clear that while we've come a long way, the journey towards complete accessibility is ongoing. The challenge now is to build on the successes, learn from the shortcomings, and ensure that accessibility is at the heart of future developments. This balanced approach, recognising both achievements and areas for improvement, is essential for creating a truly inclusive society." 

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