A summary of the state of play of Australian transport systems for disabled travelers during the 1980s

21 May 1989 speech to be given at the 5th International Congress on Mobility and Transport for Elderly and Disabled Persons, Älvsjö, Sweden

Social justice and transport

I would first like to congratulate this conference’s organisers on choosing the theme ‘Mobility and Transport for Elderly and Disabled Persons’. It is my hope that this Conference will act as a catalyst for increased world action towards addressing the transport interests of this group of people.

My paper has an emphasis on the concerns of people with disabilities, although in our Australian culture, most people with disabilities are also aged (over the age of 65 years). I also want to concentrate on one strategy which we have adopted in South Australia to enhance the mobility options of these people.

Without mobility in today’s fast-paced world, people become isolated, dependent and unable to participate in our community’s activities. In fact, it may be argued that a nation’s values towards social justice may be measured by the attention paid to the transport needs of aged and disabled persons.

Consumer involvement in transport planning

As there is no one perfect transport solution, aged and disabled persons, particularly those using wheelchairs, will continue to pose both challenges and opportunities to the planners and builders of transport systems throughout the world.

We Australians have found that having end-users involved in planning, design and evaluation, creates a more workable product for everyone. Essential to the success of such a planning model is the negotiation of a balance of players’ interests.

Background on Australia

Because many people are not familiar with Australia some pertinent facts may be helpful. Australia itself presents plenty of transport challenges. It is an island continent of vast distances. It is some 4000 kms from the Eastern to the Western seaboards and 3680 kms from the North to South.

Australia has a three-tiered political structure of Commonwealth, State and Local Government. There are seven State Governments and an Australian Capital Territory. Our population is around 16 million. In 1987 the proportion of aged persons over the age of 65 years was 10.7%. It is also estimated that approximately 8% of Australians have a disability resulting from an impairment. Of particular concern to planners is the prediction by the Australian Bureau of Statistics that our aged population could increase to 21.5% by the year 2031. Accidents and environmental factors are almost certain to also increase the numbers of people with disabilities.

Another factor to be taken into consideration is that net migration has contributed 34% of the total population from white settlement in 1788 to 1980. Cultural differences and language barriers need careful consideration, especially in planning services for aged and disabled members of our communities.

My own State of South Australia is in the southern centre of the continent. It is a dry, relatively flat area with most of its 1.4 million people living in our beautiful capital city, Adelaide, (population 1 million).

Context for changes in transport

In general, public transport systems are the responsibility of State Governments with very little attention being paid to the mobility requirements of aged and disabled persons. Until the beginning of the 1980’s, there were no special vehicles in Australia outside of institutional or medical settings. The mobility of wheelchair users for example was mostly dependent on their own private vehicles and few travelled on airlines or trains.

In the 1970’s, North American transport models stimulated some debate about whether mobility for people in wheelchairs should be provided via special services or the modification of the general public transport systems. Although minor improvements for frail aged people were introduced, cost and lack of strong consumer lobbies for change meant that the status quo mostly remained.

Emergence of a disability consumer network

The United Nations International Year of Disabled Persons -IYDP- 1981 was the major stimulus for change in Australia. IYDP was promoted widely by the Federal and State Governments. Disability awareness campaigns, involving television, posters, songs and events, began to stimulate grassroots action projects.

One of the reasons for this action was that for the first time, the Federal Government funded a committee of those most concerned with IYDP, people with disabilities. I was privileged to be a member of that IYDP Committee, and we travelled throughout Australia during 1982. In conjunction with other organisations this Committee, connected the disabled community together in new ways.

People with disabilities started talking and listening to each other’s stories. They shared and compared information with each other and then went back to their own communities to initiate change from the knowledge of this wider support base.

As a direct result in 1983, Disabled Peoples’ International (DPI-Australia) was formed. It was the first national non-diagnostic based lobby group of and for disabled Australians. The Federal Government, recognising the success of the IYDP experience, re-constituted its major ongoing disability advisory body and appointed a significant number of people with disabilities to form a new Disability Advisory Council of Australia. (DACA)

The movement towards involving people with disabilities was partly reflected in South Australia by my appointment as Disability Adviser to the Premier in 1984. This unique position provides a focal point for disability matters at a high level of government activity. I believe this structure has been able to act as a catalyst for shifting action into mainstream government structures and safeguarding the interests of people with disabilities. In 1985, a Commissioner for the Aging was appointed to perform a similar role for aged persons.

IYPD marked a shift in the way the community saw people with disabilities and how disabled people saw themselves. It had given the old medical and charity based models a good shove towards a ‘rights’ and self-determination concept.

Progress in air travel

With more disabled people choosing to fly, airlines were forced to consider new methods of handling and loading aged and disabled people, particularly those using wheelchairs. Qantas, the Australian international carrier, was a leader in the process of end-user consultation and following through with the advice obtained.

Qantas produced a 12 minute training video for staff training at all levels, made jointly by the Australian airlines with consumer input. The video de-mystifies unwarranted fears airline staff may have with clear facts, modelling of normal working practices and reinforcing positive attitudes towards disabled travelers.

Most airports without airbridges have fitted weather-proofed capsules to forklifts for loading people unable to use aircraft stairs. Specially-built aisle chairs are then used to get people to their seats. Most airport terminals have separate unisex toilets designed according to the Australian Standard (A.S. 1428). Telephone facilities for people with hearing impairments and low access phones are also usually available. Seeing eye dogs travel free with the passenger.

The Adelaide airport manager now estimates that on average two people per flight use these improved disability facilities. The motivation has shifted from purely humanitarian, towards servicing paying customers.

Progress in rail travel

Most State Governments operate their own suburban train systems. Local geography plays a large part in shaping access to those rail systems. In our relatively flat Adelaide network, access ramps are now provided at most suburban stations. Newer trains have signed positions available at entry points for people in wheelchairs.

Australian National (AN) is our only national rail passenger carrier. It operates a number of long-distance trains, including one of the world’s most luxurious, the Indian Pacific. The four-day journey takes passengers from Sydney to Perth, a journey which is the equivalent of going from London to Jerusalem. As part of a Federal Social Security benefit, railways are reimbursed for one free rail trip per year by any pensioner.

Australian National is beginning to address the requirements of people with disabilities as potential travelers. At its Adelaide terminal, AN provides people with disabilities with special car parks, curb ramp access, unisex toilets and symbol signage. The latter helps all people unable to read or understand signs written in English. It is estimated that 4% of Australians have a reading difficulty.

I recently had first-hand experience of the difficulties for people using wheelchairs onboard train. As part of developing their disability policy and gaining consumer feedback for long distance travel, AN asked me to use their Ghan train to return home from a family driving holiday to Ayers Rock and Alice Springs in the centre of Australia. At Alice our vehicle was loaded onto a flat-top freight car, while I was loaded by forklift to my twinette cabin for the 1600 km ride to Adelaide. This is another example of consumer consultation during planning stages.

The elephant in the room – public transport

I turn now to the complex area of public transport for aged and disabled persons within our major cities. Transport authorities have to a degree addressed vehicle entrance design to buses, trains and trams with lower step and floor heights, hand grips, larger signs but there is still a very long way to go with many vehicles having three or more steps to enter. Besides inaccessible vehicles, bus and tram stops and train stations all present a variety of barriers. We call it public transport, but if you are a taxpayer and a person with physical impairments, you are not getting much for your tax dollar.

Taxi voucher schemes begin in NSW

Throughout Australia, State Governments have generally opted for a mix of para-transit solutions with subsidies to certified travelers. At the end of 1981, the New South Wales Government pioneered a voucher system to subsidise taxi fares by 50% to eligible people with disabilities. Since then, all State Governments have introduced variations on this scheme in recognition that public transport disadvantaged many elderly and disabled people from travelling.

South Australia – Access Cab Scheme

The Access Cab Scheme began operations in South Australia in May 1987 as a result of an early initiative following the establishment of my Office. The Scheme represents an interesting coalition of government, private enterprise (taxi industry) and people with disabilities. It offers a 50% subsidy to people who, because of an impairment, are unable to access public transport. Subsidy at December 1988 is limited to 10 rides per month for social and recreational purposes at a maximum subsidy of $15 per trip. If you use a mobility aid, you are eligible for a 75% subsidy, based on the longer loading time to get in and out of the taxi vehicle.

Our assessment criteria rejected the word ‘handicapped’ and utilised the word ‘disability’. Disability is a measurable consequence of an impairment and its use is essential for confining eligibility. Users of Access Cab Scheme are separated into three categories:

  • Type 40 – those who can use a normal taxi
  • Type 50 – those who can only use a modified taxi vehicle
  • Type 60 – those whose mobility equipment of physical impairment will only permit them to enter a van with a hoist. These people are serviced by vehicles outside the taxi industry.

Initially ten vehicles were purchased to meet the needs of the Type 50 users. The chosen vehicle was a normal production line Ford Falcon, which was then stretched by 1200 mm. An additional central door opening a full 90 degrees allows wheelchair access. The vehicles are licensed to carry two wheelchair occupants and four other passengers plus driver. A foldaway seat provides another option of six passengers plus driver. Only one fare is charged which is an important saving for many people. These vehicles operate as normal taxis when not required by people with disabilities.

Consumer consultation introduced other features, including:

  • An elevated roof giving a 1400 mm clearance from the floor.
  • A lightweight fallout ramp, stored in the central door entrance.
  • A sliding floor panel for easy manoeuvring of heavy wheelchairs into the transporting position.
  • Improved restraint systems for chairs and occupants
  • Improved vision for travelers through three upper windows.

Access Cabs began with 800 members in May 1987. Membership has increased at the rate of about 300 people per month to 4000 at June 1988. At that time, the users were 71% female with 84% over 60 years of age. 21% of the over 60 years users use wheelchairs. The average cost, per trip was $3.80.

The subsidy cost to the South Australian Government in 1987/88 was $260,697. Wheelchair users (Type 50s) accounted for 34% of that amount. To put these figures into a perspective, in the same period of time, public transport cost the State $97 million. This represents an annual subsidy by each South Australian of $98.65 compared with $0.56 for the Access Cab Scheme.

The Access Cab Scheme provides service over an area of 780 sq. kms. Recently, a further ten special vehicles were introduced to help overcome delays and cope with increasing demand. As part of a Review in December 1988, users were widely consulted on how the current Scheme could be improved and possibly extended to country areas.

Consumer inclusive model for transport planning

Many players were involved in the introduction of the Access Cab Scheme. It has been an exercise of spreading responsibilities and ensuring that all interested parties were winners. The Federal Government assisted in the purchase of the special vehicles and solved an equity problem. The South Australian Government and its Department of Transport formulated and administered the Scheme and its subsidies. It has gained considerable popularity and other political benefits.

The taxi industry has operated the system and in 1987/88 gained $690,000 in revenue. People with disabilities have contributed ideas and advice and given 4000 people new mobility.

The ongoing independent advisory committee of users, besides monitoring the system, has been crucial in negotiating with differing interests within the disability field. Some of the more mobile paraplegics, for instance, were more interested in making mainstream bus systems wheelchair accessible.

While that was an admirable but costly goal, it took no account of how those without independent mobility would reach set bus routes. The panel also helped other disability groups to see that their interests were better served by using training programs which enable the independent use of public transport systems.

New potentials in focus on disability

Finally in this extremely brief review of developments in Australia, what lessons can be learned?

  • Designers and planners should think disability.
  • By planning and designing for dependent wheelchair users, most people with disabilities will benefit.
  • Non-token consultation with informed consumers benefits everyone.
  • Governments doing nothing about transport for aged and disabled persons is not cost effective. Other areas of government responsibility always reap any harvest of neglect.

In Adelaide, a small firm is now working on the design of a second-generation, multipurpose vehicle for the taxi industry. If adopted, this vehicle could revolutionise the way the taxi industry organises the transportation of people and freight. We are proud that this innovation, which has been spearheaded by people with disabilities, could earn export income for our State.

I hope you can all take away from this seminar an enthusiasm for involving all people in your work, including people who are aged and people with disabilities. When we travel, everyone benefits.