Transport CommitteeWritten evidence from Norfolk County Council (DAT 15)

1.1 Norfolk County Council is the County Authority for Norfolk delivering key services to the residents of Norfolk. Our Environment, Transport and Development Department delivers a wide range of services which are used by almost everyone in Norfolk on a regular basis; roads, passenger transport, waste disposal and recycling, public rights of way and trading standards. Other services are in place to protect the public interest and Norfolk’s environment; land use planning, landscape conservation, biodiversity and conservation of the built environment and emergency.

1.2 Our key areas of activity are:

Making travel and transport better.

Developing a thriving Norfolk economy.

Protecting and enhancing Norfolk’s environment.

Making Norfolk safer.

1.3 In 2010–11 Norfolk County Council, working in partnership with other public bodies in Norfolk who formed the Norfolk Community Cohesion Network, ran a project with disabled residents to identify key priorities for Norfolk’s disabled residents. Access to safe and accessible public transport was identified as a priority. As a result of this, in partnership with Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People (NCODP) we set up a programme of work with disabled residents and bus operators to gather further evidence on the issues relating to bus transport and to develop solutions in partnership. In October 2012 a mystery shopping exercise was conducted with one of our main operators. The conclusion to the report is replicated below along with the recommendations made by disabled residents working on the project team:

“The 59 journeys made during this project highlighted some of the experiences disabled people had whilst using First Buses across Norfolk.

The findings from this project allow some useful conclusions to be drawn, and also allows us to see where we need to gather more evidence, and where future work can take place.

The project shows that shoppers had a mainly good experience whilst out on the buses. However, it highlights that there are areas where this experience could be improved which could encourage more disabled people to use buses more frequently, travel to more places and be able to do so independently.

Timetables were highlighted as an issue by many of our shoppers. With the recent changes to routes and times the need to have up to date, accessible information is essential. From the experiences of the shoppers, there needs to be a review of how updates and changes are publicised. Bus operators have a process they follow, however this is clearly not reaching many of the people using the buses and is not accessible to some disabled people.

Timetables were reported as being, too high, to small, non existent, difficult to obtain, and the provision of online and texting options were also found to have access issues, which could have been avoided had they been developed with the disabled people that use them.

The shoppers who were wheelchair users experienced difficulties in getting on the bus, whilst on the bus and with getting off the bus, which does not make them confident independent passengers, and therefore they are less likely to make any more bus journeys than they have to.

The visually impaired shoppers reported that they rely on either other people to tell them which bus has arrived, where they are on their journey, and where to get off, or they know this by recognising familiar road surfaces, or familiar sounds and routes.

This means that it is difficult for visually impaired people to travel alone or in unfamiliar places, and therefore restricts their choice and independence.

An inconsistency of driver attitudes means that it is difficult for some people to have the confidence to ask for assistance. Further development of the driver training programmes with disabled people would lead to a greater understanding of the issues disabled people face, how to address them more effectively and of the limitations of the bus drivers. This needs to be embedded further through changes to driver contracts/job descriptions to ensure expectation that drivers are access, diversity and disability friendly.

Improvements in communication and provision of information, before, during and at the end of a journey, are significant if the overall experience is to be improved, and for disabled people to use the buses more often.

Due to negative past experiences some disabled people need to feel much more confident with the service they receive on buses before they start using them again.

Although the issue of making all buses/coaches for passengers with a disability fully accessible by 2020 was not an area we were able to look at in this project, it is essential that the experiences of disabled people are incorporated into this piece of work too.

From a drivers perspective, they cannot always automatically know what assistance someone might need, and can often be put in an awkward position because the driver can ask people to do things but then has no authority to insist they do; for example with the issue of wheelchair spaces being occupied by others or shopping.

There needs to be very clear guidance for the driver, about what they can and can’t do. It would also be useful if passengers knew what they could expect of a driver. Hopefully this can be addressed as a training need for the bus drivers in the future.

Recommendations of the Mystery Shoppers

The following are recommendations from the mystery shoppers that would improve their experience when using buses:

1.The shoppers prefer the driver to acknowledge that he had seen the bus pass.

2.The shoppers think it is important to have audio announcements on the bus (stating bus number, destination and the stops).

3.The shoppers would like better signage for timetables in rural areas and timetables displayed in a bigger font at bus stops.

4.The shoppers would like improved understanding and attitudes from drivers, and recommend they have training delivered by or with disabled people about how to help people and respond in emergencies.

5.The shoppers would like electric ramps installed on buses.

6.The shoppers said there was not enough warning about timetable changes.

7.Shoppers wanted timetables made available on buses.

8.Shoppers said buses need to be redesigned so that it is easier to get into the wheelchair space.

9.Shoppers said that drivers are reticent about moving ramps.

10.Shoppers said there needs to be more space for wheelchair users (not shared with people who have pushchairs).

11.Shoppers want better information on bus routes and large print timetables to be more easily available.

12.Shoppers want better training for drivers, making sure they know how to help people and how to respond in an emergency. Shoppers said that bus operators should have disabled people delivering the training.”

1.4 One of the key issues that came out of the mystery shopping exercise, was the legal requirements in relation to buses. There were a number of issues that people felt needed to be addressed:

(a)Most buses have one or sometimes two spaces at the front of the bus that can be used by wheelchair users. However, despite there being signs on the bus advising all passengers that these spaces are for wheelchair users, they are often filled up by people with buggies and prams and or shopping/suitcases etc. One of the key problems is that members of the public often do not move their luggage or buggies so that wheelchair users can board the bus, and although some drivers ask them to do so, they cannot compel them to do so. Also drivers often cannot leave their cab to assist in these situations, and they also face potential conflict with members of the public if they refuse to comply with the request to move. If those wheelchair spaces had a legal status of primary use for wheelchair users, this might enable bus companies and disabled people to challenge people when they do not make the space available.

(b)Many disabled people in Norfolk have found that although many buses do have lower floor access and ramps to access the bus, that the wheelchair space is difficult to manoeuvre into because of a safety pole being placed at the edge of the space. This has resulted in some disabled people not being able to use the space even if it is available, but also some disabled residents have had experiences of drivers or members of the public trying to move their wheelchair for them without being asked to do so. This is humiliating and upsetting for disabled people even though this was not the intention of the person. Therefore, although there are requirements in place to make buses accessible, better guidance needs to be produced, working with disabled people, about what an accessible bus actually is.

(c)Many bus operators cannot afford to buy new vehicles which are more accessible and so have to operate with old vehicles that are not fit for purpose. Without consideration by Government of how operators can afford to purchase more accessible vehicles, the legal requirements to provide accessible buses are unlikely to be met. Similarly, an issue for local authorities like Norfolk County Council is that to upgrade our many rural stops to be useable by wheelchair users we would need access to sufficient funding to enable us to do this. Without such funding, we are unable to afford to upgrade our infrastructure to enable disabled people to travel all over the county with confidence that the stops will be accessible.

1.5 Norfolk County Council has been successful in obtaining a significant amount of funding from the Better Bus Area Fund, which we are now using to work with disabled residents, especially Deaf and hearing impaired residents, Blind and visually impaired residents and residents with a learning disability to improve how we provide information about routes, services and delays to the public. However the funding only covers the Norwich area, so although we will be able to use the learning from this work in our wider network, we are still going to face significant challenges in ensuring that information provision about the whole network in Norfolk and links to other counties will be accessible to everyone.

1.6 Overall, research undertaken by Passenger Focus and Norfolk County Council shows that there are high levels of satisfaction with local bus services in Norfolk, with 87% of respondents indicating that they’re either very or fairly satisfied. However, there is less satisfaction with the provision of travel information, particularly for disabled people, and this has been mirrored in these studies. This shows, that despite the excellent reputation for public transport in Norfolk and the overall high satisfaction ratings, we haven’t quite got it right yet, particularly around travel information and how this is shared with disabled customers, which indicates that there is more work to do.

1.7 We believe that only by working closely with disabled people can Government and local authorities really ensure that the legislation and policies they introduce are effective in improving accessibility and use by disabled people of the bus network. We therefore urge Government to consider how to work with disabled people going forward.

January 2013

Prepared 13th September 2013