NI transport is at a crucial time – and has an opportunity
Last year saw the end of Northern Ireland’s first ten-year accessible transport strategy.
The model had been seen as successful, and had influenced policies elsewhere, such as in Scotland.
Accessibly transport has many strands, from having an effective public transport system – both as infrastructure driving the economy, and also enabling people generally to live their lives – to catering specifically for the most vulnerable individuals, who might be older or disabled, with this potentially compounded by living in isolation.
Northern Ireland has one large urban hub with another sizeable one in the North West, but otherwise is made up of a peppery patchwork of small towns, villages, hamlets and isolated dwellings.
A significant number of people live rurally and, outside of the corridor between Belfast and L’Derry, it is difficult to put together affordable and accessible transport.
In many of the most rural areas there are community transport organisations working hard to fill gaps in services as best they can, particularly for those most in need, due to disadvantage and/or isolation.
The 2005-15 strategy paper contains over 30 mentions of community transport. The consultation document for the new ten-year strategy contains none.
Is this a worry for community providers and the people they serve? It’s more complicated than that.
The main concern of CT providers is not the health of the sector but the existence of provision for the people they help, in whatever form.
The new AT strategy is light on detail, perhaps because it appears to hinge itself on Integrated Transport.
On enhancing accessibility of public transport, it says:
• maintaining and improving the accessibility of the public transport fleet, including examining the existing public transport infrastructure to identify potential projects to enhance accessibility;
• maintaining and improving the accessibility of the public transport fleet, including working towards step free public transport vehicles; and
• researching how to improve the coverage of the public transport network.
While on improving the accessibility of the wider transport network it says:
Taxis and specialised transport schemes were raised in the pre consultation engagement phase and by Imtac (Inclusive Mobility and Transport Advisory Committee) as important travel options for those who are older and those have a disability. Having dedicated parking spaces for those with a disability and ensuring that the pedestrian environment is without clutter and safe to traverse were all highlighted especially for those with sight difficulties or who use mobility aids.
We aim to deliver this theme by working with others to:
• improve the pedestrian environment especially around transport interchanges;
• promote the benefits offered by the Blue Badge Scheme
• ensure adequate car parking provision for those who have a disability; and
• continue to examine options to deliver integrated transport.
For people who are truly unable to connect themselves to the transport network – such as older or disabled people, living in isolation, with no access to a car – it is only the bit in bold that therefore applies to them. So, IT is at the heart of servicing the most needy.
This sounds reasonably sensible at first but the problem is that any IT strategy is far from up and running, with only a small pilot scheme extant currently. Therefore a consultation paper seeking to renew an existing strategy now is predicated on something set to happen at some undetermined point in the future. The risks are obvious.
Any integrated strategy put forward now would require input from DRD, DHSSPS (because many services would be aimed at ensuring people have access to healthcare), DARD (who are responsible for rural issues including isolation), DE (with their large fleet of buses that spend a lot of time idle), and possibly OFMdFM (who have responsibility for the needs of older people).
That is a complicated picture, without considering the upcoming rationalisation of departments, which is perhaps one reason why things remain vague.
Scope spoke with Kellie Armstrong, Director of the Community Transport Association in Northern Ireland, who said there are some concerns about investment in the sector.
“CTA is concerned that DRD isn’t invest in community transport, per se. Unlike England, Scotland and Wales where support is put in place to grow local, ground-up organisations to deliver local solutions.”
However, she said that integrated transport, done well, “makes sense” and could make improvements.
“The schools estate has more yellow buses than the entire fleet of Ulsterbus. It makes entire sense to get more use of those, for example they could be used to take kids in the morning, but for the rest of the day be used to take people to hospital, etc.
“Unfortunately the pressures on community transport keep growing. For example, if you look at Transforming Your Care, it states very clearly that, where people can get themselves to hospital they should do so. If you have to, use public transport; if you need taxis, use those; if you really need it, perhaps health can provide non-emergency transport. The other, final option is community and voluntary transport.
“However, in reality it’s actually flipped on its head and the first organisations community workers tell people about is CT. We get calls every day from people asking if they can get them to hospital or other clinics.
“That would be wonderful if there was funding for this to happen but health doesn’t invest in community transport.”
She said further that the current consultation document on Accessible Transport is too vague, with no targets making it impossible to measure – meaning that if literally nothing happens for five years it could still be called a success as there are no clearly specified achievements to be made.
But she is clear that, ultimately, fundamental reform – something a lot like a coherent integrated transport strategy – is needed.
“If we keep on doing what we have always done we will always get what we get. Our current community transport groups funded by DRD do a fantastic job, but do a fantastic job in an imperfect system.
“I believe we need fundamental change, we need better transport planning. For example, councils are doing community planning but none of them have to take transport into consideration of planning.”
She said transport considerations should be paramount across all relevant parts of government.
Ms Armstrong also said she would welcome regulation changes that would allow CT organisations to run routes and not necessarily be restricted to only carrying people who are members of their organisations.
However, there are some wider concerns about this in the sector – it could open up some of the provision to tendering and the private sector, but any attempt to use market solutions instead of CT would likely leave the most isolated people – i.e. least economically viable passengers – without the access they currently have.
When you look at the state of play – the population distribution in Northern Ireland, the fleet of buses owned by our schools – it is hard to deny that a properly integrated transport system is not the best endpoint.
That’s not a clever statement; integrated services, holistic approaches, these may be buzzwords but behind the clichés lies a simple, almost tautological, truth about efficiency and best practice.
However, it is difficult to look at the services offered by our community transport networks and think of any substantially different model that could do the same thing.
At their most crucial, they provide assistance for people in need for whom there is no affordable market solution.
Hopefully Northern Ireland can use its recent pilot schemes as a stepping stone to a well-run and integrated system.
However, a new Accessible Transport strategy is needed now and existing important services, such as community transport, need to be nurtured rather than allowed to wither on the vine in the interim.
The bottom line is not community transport itself but the people it serves, for whom there is no realistic alternative.
It’s a transition period, an opportunity, but also a difficult time for transport in Northern Ireland.
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