Public transport is about access – we need to measure it that way

9 Nov 2018 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 9 Nov 2018

NI’s official annual transport statistics were refined earlier this year. However, from the public perspective, they do not tell us enough.


“It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”

That is a paraphrase of the at-best moderately deep philosophical observation often attributed to American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thankfully, when it comes to public policy, things are often a little less nebulous.

Anyone using public transport is going from A to B. Public transport is about access, getting to a destination.

This can mean access to services, like schools or hospitals, getting to shops (and spending money which boosts the economy), or simply going wherever you want to go.

Health and education are, by far, the biggest parts of our state. They are also both more expensive than they need to be. Various reports in both sectors have identified not just savings but also service improvements – even before the money saved is then spent somewhere else, effectively as extra cash.

Aspects of these improvements involve some centralisation of services – fewer hospitals, fewer schools. This will leave people with further to travel, albeit better results when they arrive.

Transport is important precisely because it enables people to get places. When we are measuring our transport, especially public transport or transport for people with disabilities, it should be in that context (at least to some degree). Unfortunately, it is not.

The annual official Northern Ireland Ireland Transport Statistics are published around late September.

As things stand, the figures fall short of something truly insightful, failing to acknowledge transport’s role as fundamental infrastructure that glues everything – people, places, services, the lot – together.


The headline figures from the 2017/18 most recent edition are (when it comes to public transport and disability transport) are thus:

Public Transport

  • At the end of 2017-18, there were 1,087 Ulsterbuses and 296 Metro buses on the roads which were, on average, 9.4 years and 8.8 years old respectively.
  • During 2017-18, there were 38.1 million passenger journeys on Ulsterbus, a decrease of 1% from last year (38.4 million) and a decrease of 6% from 2013-14 (40.5 million).  For Metro services, 28.0 million passenger journeys were taken in 2017-18, an increase of 2% since 2016-17 (27.3 million) and an increase of 6% from 2013-14 (26.4 million).
  • There were 15.0 million rail passenger journeys made in 2017-18, an increase of 6% from 2016-17 (14.2 million).

Transport and Disability

  • At 31 March 2018, 316,880 SmartPasses were held by older people (60+ SmartPass and Senior (65+) SmartPass).  Comparing this to the 2017 mid-year population estimate of those persons aged 60 and over, there was an approximately 79% uptake of these SmartPasses.
  • At 31 March 2018, 1,246 buses and coaches were used as Public Service Vehicles in Northern Ireland, similar to 31 March 2017 (1,245).  Of these, 1,079 (87%) were low-floor wheelchair accessible buses and 137 (11%) were wheelchair accessible coaches.  143 railway carriages were used as Public Service Vehicles in Northern Ireland at 31 March 2018, the same since 31 March 2014.  Of these, all (100%) were wheelchair accessible carriages.
  • In 2014-2016, almost a fifth (18%) of persons aged 16 and over, who were surveyed, reported having a mobility difficulty. On average those with a mobility difficulty made 593 journeys per year in 2014-2016, 39% less than those without a mobility difficulty (980 journeys per year).

These figures, of course, have their uses.

The people designing Belfast’s rapid transit network will be pleased the usage of Metro services are up; they will hope further changes like the Gilder lead to a significant rise in next year’s stats.

There will also be a desire for the number of journeys made by people with a disability to get closer to the figure for the general population in future, as a further example.


Nevertheless, our official transport statistics tell us very little about gaps in transport services, or whether these gaps are growing or shrinking.

Who can get where? Or, rather, who cannot get where? And why not? Those are the broadest questions that need to be addressed. The answers we have now are to a different question - how do folk travel? – that tells us very little about gaps in services (and in accessing services).

How many disabled people live in rural areas, by area? How easy is it for them, by area, to access health services?

Questions like that blur the lines between transport (meaning Department for Infrastructure) and other areas of statutory service, in this case health.

Sometimes other figures are available, but these can run into similar problems – e.g. the December publication of Method of Travel to/from School By Pupils In Northern Ireland 2016/2017 by the Department of Education. It breaks down the type of transport pupils use to get to school, by percentage, but does not offer the context in which these choices are made.

In terms of health, things are even trickier – and also of more consequence. Schools have their own public transport in place, on top of existing services, which at least provide options.

For instance, the official guidance on the Hospital Travel Costs Scheme states:

“If you're on a relevant benefit or allowances you get back the full travel costs by using the cheapest form of public transport available, including any concessions or promotions.

“This applies to however you travel. For example, if you use a private car you can claim for petrol instead (and car parking charges where unavoidable) up to the cost of the same journey by public transport.

“The hospital should tell you the mileage rate for petrol costs for private transport.

“If public transport is unavailable or impractical (perhaps you can't get to your appointment on time or your mobility is restricted), you'll need to contact the hospital well ahead of your appointment. They will need to check your new travel arrangements are allowed.

“If you're on the Health Service Low Income Support Scheme you may get back all or some of your travel costs depending on which certificate you've been given.”

It does not sound that sympathetic for people with access difficulties. Given centralisation is a key part of health reform, this needs to change – or, ideally, transport options need to be sufficient for everyone to be able to get where they need to go.

Available figures tend to be a simple measurement of journeys that have taken place, broken down by different characteristics. Measuring accessibility is a lot more difficult. How do you measure things that didn’t happen, but perhaps should have?

It’s difficult, but it’s important, so we need to find a feasible solution.


The good folk at the Department for Infrastructure’s Analysis, Statistics and Research Branch (ASRB), who compile the transport statistics actually carried out a consultation earlier this year on the annual statistics publication.

They hoped to discontinue the report entirely, because much of it was duplication of information published elsewhere, but after consultation they have instead (as of September’s latest report) changed to a new, streamlined document that looks at public transport and transport for people with disabilities, as well as the road network.

None of the sections removed from the report dealt with any of the issues raised in this article – and the changes that have been made seem sensible.

Moreover, some of the ideas being suggested in this article will probably make heads pop at the ASRB and at the NI Statistics and Research Agency. Mapping accessibility on an ongoing basis is a huge amount of work – and progress and measuring progress are two very different things.

In terms of access, it is not the case that we have no initiatives in place – for instance, the Rural Transport Fund (RTF) is two decades old, and supports community transport schemes across NI. The Transport Programme for People with Disabilities has been in place even longer than that.

However, in August cuts were announced to the Disability Action Transport Scheme (DATS) – with Disability Action saying this would cause greater social isolation.

Back in 2016, Scope wrote a piece about the new ten-year Accessible Transport Strategy (running from 2015 to 2025) which highlights concerns about a lack of detail – this piece is well worth a read now, the idea of integrated transport still seems appealing, but the same question remains: how do we know if it’s working? How well is it working? How much better could, or should, it be? And so on.

Progress and measuring progress are very different things – but how do really know we’re getting anywhere without a baseline, and subsequent measurements against this baseline.

We need to look at transport in this context. Reports do not need to be every year – indeed, every five years would be easier and possibly just as instructive, as infrastructure changes are not quick – but there has to be some way to make more sense of this vital piece of infrastructure without pouring an impossible amount of resources into analysis.

Transport is about accessing services – or wherever we want to go, and whatever we want to do – in a practical way.

That word practical is important. If your local hospital is hours and hours and hours away, at its quickest (or cheapest), then that is not good enough.

In that sense, it is about the journey and the destination. Maybe Ralph Waldo Emerson (or whoever) isn’t so irrelevant after all.

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