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How do we future-proof public transport for everyone?

October 12, 2023

By Adam Chan-Sew

Providing equal access for all people who use public transport is crucial for future-proofing the sector.

There’s no doubt that train station accessibility upgrades are a vital part of creating equity for users of all abilities. Enabling members of the community—such as people with limited mobility, seniors, parents with prams, or commuters with bikes—to connect and travel with ease should be business as usual today. When public transport offers a safer and more accessible option, fewer injuries are reported, and crime statistics dramatically decrease. Regardless of how you look at it, Australia has a growing and ageing population. So, station upgrades must continue to meet the access requirements of an ever-evolving patronage. When equity and access are prioritised, everyone benefits, and we go a long way to future-proofing public transport.

Guided by the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA) and the Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport 2002 (DSAPT), our team has planned and designed many railway station upgrades to improve accessibility. But it’s not just a matter of replacing steps with a ramp or installing lifts. Each project is deeply nuanced and requires research and development, extensive consideration, and a healthy budget. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach and each project requires a significantly different plan from the next.

So, what does future-proofing actually involve and how do we get there?

We consider the end user, first

Access to transport is critical to ensuring that people can engage in all aspects of community life, including education, employment, and recreation. However, we see all too often that people with disabilities encounter barriers when accessing public transport services. At the end of the day, all users benefit when there are improvements to train station accessibility. 

There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution, accessibility upgrades are unique to each station.

There are two primary demographics that we take into consideration when it comes to upgrading stations: people with disabilities and the ‘cautious traveller’. The latter refers to those who are reluctant to use public transport due to social and cultural factors that make it difficult or unsafe for them. Increased patronage from these demographic groups is a true measurement of success for station upgrades. Providing a positive experience with public transport for all patrons means having their needs front of mind throughout the process, which is why it’s imperative to understand their pain points.We ran an in-depth survey of a broad cross-section of public transport users to better understand the obstacles they face. Several factors emerged as deterrents for using public transport. These include difficulty moving around the station efficiently, feeling unsafe or uncomfortable, and being generally unattracted to the station.

Here are the findings of the end user survey:

We surveyed public transport users to uncover the top eight obstacles they face.

It’s clear that safety, security, and comfort for all end users, along with creating an inviting place to meet, is paramount. But how do you know that something is truly tailored to each client? And how can we test that we have delivered not just a good solution, but the best outcomes possible? With technology-based solutions.

Access to transport is critical to ensuring that people can engage in all aspects of community life, including education, employment, and recreation.

We leverage technology

Understanding and acting on the needs of the client are mammoth-sized parts of the puzzle. Every design consultant will be familiar with the challenges of effectively conveying solutions to the client and stakeholders. Although we proactively engage with all stakeholders throughout design development, we like to do things a little differently.

Enter three-dimensional (3D) laser scanning and virtual reality (VR) technology. What does this have to do with creating accessible train stations? By utilising this technology, we can scan the existing project site and build up a base model. Once that’s generated, we can start to move things around and show where inclusions like lifts, footbridges, or ramps will be placed and what they will look like.

After our team has completed the designs, we translate them into what is called a ‘unity model’, which is compatible with VR headsets. This is where the interactive fun really begins. During our next stakeholders meeting, we are able to take them on a tour of the proposed new station, showing them all the features before it is built. This gives them a chance to experience the additions—as well as potential limitations—and provides us with an opportunity to improve the design.

Using virtual reality allows our clients to ‘experience’ train station accessibility upgrades in action.

We consider every idea

Train station accessibility upgrades aren’t just about the tried and tested off-the-shelf solutions like 3D braille maps, touch-free bathrooms, and end-of-trip facilities. We need to push the concept of ‘smart stations’ as the status quo. This idea drives significant change through technology, infrastructure, and management to improve the overall customer experience and make stations more attractive, pleasant, and safe.

During a mass brainstorming session on a recent project, we came up with over 100 ideas that could drive innovation at public transport hubs. These ranged from app-integrated, in-platform LED strip lighting to convey train car utilisation information, to personalised autonomous vehicles (AV) that bring mobility-impaired patrons directly to the boarding point on a train platform.

But a personal favourite was a concept that involved harvesting kinetic energy from patron footsteps to power lighting within the stations. We proposed to lay down proprietary flooring that combines a system of springs, bearings, and flywheels that, while in motion, generated enough kinetic energy to power a series of lights. We investigated how these types of proprietary products have been used in football stadiums that experience a lot of foot traffic. We found that the same technology could be translated well into a public transport setting.

We plan for the future

To deliver long-lasting solutions, we have to ask: What does providing accessible public transport mean for generations to come? For many years, there has been a stigma around catching public transport. Why catch the train if you can drive your car wherever and whenever you want?

Increasing concerns around social and environmental impacts like climate change, lack of accessibility, cost of living, and rental prices are driving the decisions young people make. With high-density living developments expanding and parking availability decreasing, we need to encourage the next generation to be less car-dependent and more open to public transport. The key to changing behaviours is to provide everyone with safe, reliable, and accessible public transport.

Not only do well-designed accessible train stations provide equity for patrons, but there are also invaluable opportunities for impactful placemaking. An upgrade project offers major potential when it comes to designing spaces that people genuinely want to spend their time in. An accessible public transport hub is more likely to attract foot traffic for retail and hospitality spaces, bringing in vibrancy and bolstering the economy.

Well-designed accessible stations also provide invaluable opportunities for impactful placemaking.

We go above and beyond

Challenging the project scope means pushing the boundaries of a client's original plan. The current disability standards for accessible public transport are the minimum required for every related project. Queensland Rail’s Accessibility Focus Group—whose members include Guide Dogs Australia, MS Australia, Vision Australia, and Autism Australia—have advised designers to go above and beyond the code to ensure users have even greater ease of access to public transport, no matter their circumstances.

Although budget constraints and asset owner requirements can make this difficult, properly completing the project upfront increases the positive outcome for the end user. While there are several design improvements we’d like to see in every station accessibility upgrade project, we aim to engage with the end user as an integral part of the process.

To date, we have led the delivery of over 50 creative, intuitive, user-friendly public transport accessibility projects across Australia. One project that demonstrates our commitment to going beyond ‘box-ticking’ was the design of Transport for NSW’s Junee station upgrade.

If future-proofing is the name of the game, then accessibility and technology are the strategies for ongoing wins in this sector. Whether it’s going above and beyond with game-changing, user-friendly technology, or introducing clients to a new way of looking at a project, these upgrades are imperative to achieving 100% DSAPT compliance for our entire train network.

  • Adam Chan-Sew

    Adam is the market leader for Rail & Public Transport Infrastructure and balances design management for rail projects in Australia with growing and guiding the transport delivery team in New South Wales.

    Contact Adam
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