Changing Size, Changing Transport?

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We all know the population is shifting, with older people forming a significant proportion of the population.  But there is more than one type of change happening.  The phenomenon of increasing obesity levels in the UK has led to a raft of public health initiatives aimed at tackling the diet, health and well being of people of all ages.  It is well documented that changes in behaviour can be slow to happen and at the moment most initiatives appear to be stemming the tide rather than turning it, but there is no doubt that people’s body shapes are changing.  Less well documented are changes in height; Europeans are on average getting taller and the universal approved heights for everything from beds to transport is increasingly too small or short.

So, if the age, size and shape making up the average person in the UK is changing, how do we address the needs of this new society?  Design has a key role to play and the Crucible team at University College London are keen to explore this area.  Crucible is a multi-disciplinary project joint funded by the UK Research Councils, which aims to encourage research to meet the challenges of lifelong health and well being.
A one day event held in London on the 26th November 2009 examined the issue of transport and how it can be adapted to better meet the changing needs (and size) of its users.  The challenge is in creating a new public transport scheme within the confines of the current system and in a way which ensures accessibility for all.  A part of developing new transport is understanding the different needs of transport users, whether for commuting or leisure, in rural or urban centres. 
Passenger surveys and market research have identified that people are willing to be flexible with regard to their requirements.  This is particularly true for commuters who report that space is of the greatest importance and people would rather stand than be squashed into seats which are small and cramped.  There appears to be a space vs standing trade off which could support designers in making more functional and accessible services.  In addition issues of culture, attitudes and preferences also play a role e.g. attitudes to personal space, music, eating, mobility aids etc.  The key is building in flexibility which allows for these issues, particularly in terms of older users, given the strong links between age and disability (two thirds of disabled people are over the state retirement age).
For older people, seats are of vital importance as are access to doors and fear of falling.   Whilst being aware of these issues, it can be hard for designers to put themselves in other’s shoes and develop new systems which reflect the needs of a range of consumers.  One solution is to get the passenger involved in the design process.  This has worked well in Barcelona where designers invited blind passengers to design the ticket machines for the metro system.  This method ensured universal design, easy access and met the needs of all users.  Similarly passengers find the poor provision of information frustrating and should be involved in the development of new systems.
Underpinning all of these issues is law, namely entitlement, anti-discrimination law and the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).  There is much discussion over whether those with a very high Body Mass Index should qualify as disabled under the DDA, but this currently must be linked to a health condition.  Similarly an individual, who is becoming less mobile in older age, does not necessarily qualify as registered disabled.  Forward thinking companies are beginning to consider how best to address these issues, but that attitude is by no means universal.
Transport affects us all.  Regardless of our needs and requirements, we all have to get around.  However it is not an issue that can be solved in a day.  It must take into account: design, passenger perception and attitudes, the needs of all groups, age related issues, the changing size and shape of the population it supports and current legislation and law.  Those companies who are addressing these issues now are ahead of the game and the people we all want to be travelling with, but despite vast improvements, until we work out a way of ensuring universal access for all, transport will continue to be a challenge for many.
Lisa Wilson

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