18 Mar 2020
Our Head of Localities, Natalie Turner, suggests we don't always need huge technological innovations to futureproof our transport infrastructure to support our ageing population.
Transport is changing. From the massive leaps forward in self-driving cars to passenger drones, the way we move around our communities is set to rapidly transform in the coming years. These developments have rightly attracted huge popular interest: the kinds of transport available to us can have a major impact on our access to services, our ability to connect with the people in our lives, and our experience of the places where we live.
The boom in transport innovation is coinciding with another shift that will dramatically alter our society in the next few years: demographic changes mean that our population is ageing rapidly. Within the next 20 years, the number of people aged 65 and over is going to increase by more than 40%.
The future is mobile, yes – but it’s also older. As the government recognised in their urban strategy published earlier this year, that means that the future of transport, whatever else it is, must be accessible.
Some promising innovations have been developed in recent years based on exactly this principle. For example, the ‘Button’ app, which allows users to operate pedestrian crossings from their smartphone, was launched in 2016 to make it easier for people with mobility or visual impairments to cross the road.
Researchers on the FLOURISH programme recently completed a series of trials of self-driving cars with older people, including a demonstration of the technology with residents of a retirement village in Bristol in May. Their research found that older people are receptive to the idea of using autonomous vehicles as a solution to their mobility needs.
However, their findings also struck a chord with some of our findings on ageing and mobility, set out this week in a new paper: that innovation is useless unless people’s needs are properly considered at every stage of the development process.
For example, while researchers found that people in later life were open to using self-driving cars in a taxi-style service, they would be reluctant to use an Uber pool-style driverless car share with strangers.
We also know that often the most difficult portion of some people’s journey is the very first stage: getting from their front door to the vehicle. Innovative vehicles are only useful if people are able to get into them in the first place!
In fact, the most revolutionary changes to transport might not be the ones out of sci-fi movies – but much simpler adaptations, much closer to home.
In 2016, bus drivers on the Isle of Wight donned ‘simulation suits’ complete with vision-impairment glasses and hearing defenders. This was one part of an age-friendly training scheme to help them better understand the needs of those older people with physical and sensory impairments.
Since then, Southern Vectis, the Island’s main bus operator, has seen a reduction in incidents involving trips, slips and falls – and has one of the highest customer satisfaction rates in the country. One of the changes Southern Vectis made as a result of the training was to alter timetables to give people more time to get on board – even a delay of a single minute can make a difference, they found.
In Leeds, the Centre for Ageing Better has been working with Leeds City Council, West Yorkshire Combined Authority and others to work out how different community transport providers can come together to better use their vehicles to meet the needs of older people – so that there aren’t vehicles sitting in a depot while people are stuck at home, waiting for hours or calling three different numbers for a lift to the shops.
This is the kind of new thinking we really need to adapt our transport systems for a rapidly ageing population. We don’t always need huge technological innovations to futureproof our transport infrastructure – from making the most of community transport to adding a single minute to a bus journey, many of the answers are already in our hands.