Utilising design to support the mental wellbeing of bus passengers

Guest blog by Dawn Badminton-Capps, Director for England, Bus Users UK

How can operators utilise design to support the mental wellbeing of bus passengers, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic?

With the pressure on to reduce congestion and meet decarbonisation targets, there is an urgent need to get more people onto public transport. The Government’s new National Bus Strategy, ‘Bus Back Better’, will see a radical overhaul of how services are planned and delivered. But if we’re serious about increasing passenger numbers, we need to understand the barriers people face when it comes to getting on board.

As the official Alternative Dispute Resolution body for bus and coach travel, we understand the daily challenges of running reliable services in the face of congestion and bad parking. But for many passengers, the challenges don’t end there particularly if you are elderly, have a disability or mental health issue, or a chronic health condition. Accessible vehicles can be the difference between leading an active and independent life or being isolated, lonely and dependent on others. Whether a vehicle is accessible (and we mean this in the fullest sense of the word) is down to good design and while good design costs money, poor design costs more.

There are around seven million people of working age with a disability in the UK and disabled households have a combined spending power (the ‘Purple Pound’) of £249billion. That figure grows exponentially when you factor in unregistered accessibility needs. Disabled people are less likely to hold a driver’s licence or have access to a car (Department for Transport (DfT) Transport: Disability and Accessibility Statistics) and are therefore more reliant on public transport. But according to the ‘Travel Fair’ report from disability charity, Scope, 30% of disabled people say difficulties with public transport have reduced their independence and eight out of ten disabled people said they have felt stressed or anxious when travelling.

While service reliability and buses being able to pull into stops may be beyond the control of operators, improving vehicle accessibility is not. Designing and commissioning vehicles should be a genuine collaboration, not just with the people who currently use buses but, crucially, with those who don’t. Consultation with local disability and community groups, mental health charities and groups for older and vulnerable people, will ensure vehicles are actually fit-for-purpose both now and in the future. While meaningful consultation inevitably takes time and costs money, it can be offset against the potentially even higher costs of retrofitting, fines and penalties (not to mention inconvenience and reputational damage) that comes from failing to meet the needs of passengers.

A man with a accessibility difficulties using a smartphone to check bus times while standing at a bus stop.

We recently handled a complaint from a motorised wheelchair user unable to travel on a particular service, despite the vehicle being registered as Public Service Vehicles Accessibility Regulations (PSVAR) compliant. It turned out that while the passenger could board safely, he had no room to manoeuvre once on board. We are now calling for PSVAR to be fully implemented to address this issue which will require operators to re-think the design of their seating arrangements. This could have been avoided with proper consultation and by making the on-board space as flexible as possible to accommodate the broadest range of needs.

So what should we be considering when it comes to accessible design? For starters, we need to think about accessibility not just in physical terms but in mental and emotional ones. People need to feel safe and confident about using public transport and every passenger should be given the best experience good design can offer, because improving the journey for one person improves it for everyone. Not only will this help to retain existing customers, it will attract new ones and with bus use falling, and the need for accessible transport growing, good vehicle design should be seen as an investment. Added to which, the more operators demand greater accessibility options from manufacturers, the more available and affordable these options will become.

The look and feel of a bus are essential for wellbeing, particularly for people with autism, dementia, learning difficulties, sensory impairment or mental health issues, which alone counts for one in four of us. Lighting, flooring, seats and seat coverings, foot space, charging points, heating/air conditioning, Wi-Fi and unobscured windows, can have a profound effect on the quality of a journey for all of us.

A young woman in a wheelchair boarding a bus

Flexible space, as already mentioned, is critical. Too often wheelchair users are refused travel because a buggy or other wheelchair user is in the single, designated space. Simple measures such as fold up seats can increase the space available for wheelchair users, their companions, passengers with luggage and buggies, not to mention reduce the potential for conflict between passengers. Charging points for electric wheelchairs and mobility scooters in these areas is something else to consider.

On-board audio and visual announcements are a legal requirement that benefit everyone and at the risk of stating-the-obvious should be clear, visible and audible to everyone on board. Signage is also important and incorporating British Sign Language, for example, can go a long way towards making people feel welcome and safe on board.

Engaging women in the consultation process will also help in this regard, not least because women are more likely than men to use buses. They also have greater personal safety concerns, more diverse reasons for travelling, make more complex journeys and are more likely to travel with children and older relatives (CIVITAS ‘Gender equality and mobility: mind the gap!). Despite making up 47% of the UK workforce, just 20% of transport sector workers are women (Women in Transport). This has to change, particularly when it comes to decisions around design and vehicle commissioning.

The pandemic has brought with it a whole new set of challenges for operators including enhanced cleaning regimes and social distancing. Government messaging demonising public transport has reinforced old stereotypes and fuelled the move towards private cars with the cost of second-hand vehicles at an all-time high. To compete, buses need to be seen as a safe, clean and more attractive option.

Accessible transport reduces loneliness and isolation, increases access to life’s opportunities, and reduces pollution and congestion which, in turn, improves service reliability and increases passenger numbers - a virtuous circle.

Well-designed, accessible transport is not just good for business, it’s good for everyone.

Bus Users UK

Dawn Badminton-Capps is the Director for England for Bus Users UK, a registered charity and Approved Dispute Resolution Body for bus and coach passengers. Bus Users UK's vision is that all communities have access to the best possible transport links.