Managing progress and accessibility audits

The widest application of accessibility indicators has been where there are clear legislative and management structures to support their delivery. In The Netherlands there is a well-established culture of accessibility audits within land use planning (Government of The Netherlands 1994). Accessibility audits for low-mobility groups in place in many countries are underpinned by equity aims recognising the difficulties that people with physical disabilities face (FIA Foundation 2004). In contrast, where neighbourhood audits have been proposed to improve access to local services, but without a delivery framework, there has been limited action (Handy and Clifton 2001).

Recent approaches to accessibility planning in the UK have sought to close this gap by:

·         Making accessibility audits a core function of local transport planning (DfT 2004). These plans define how transport is integrated with other policies to deliver better access for all people and all trip purposes.

·         Segmenting the population to recognise accessibility varies significantly between different mobility groups. For each trip purpose, the groups of people most likely to face exclusion on grounds of accessibility are considered.

·         Introducing accessibility audit requirements to transport appraisal (Scottish Executive 2003) to ensure improvements in access for one group of travellers are packaged with measures to mitigate negative accessibility impacts on others (eg a new road might improve accessibility by car but can also sever communities requiring new pedestrian facilities).

New Zealand has recently developed guidance for undertaking integrated transport assessments (Abley et al 2010) and introduced the concept for undertaking accessibility audit requirements to transport appraisals. As noted above though, the greatest challenge for these accessibility audits is the impracticality of considering many hundreds of potential combinations of people groups, trip purposes and travel options in every assessment. Successful audits therefore require a high degree of skill by the auditor to target analysis and ask the right questions. Experience shows these are not strong skills within the transport sector, so some prescription is needed to ensure useful outcomes.

However, prescription within accessibility audit processes can potentially distort the aims of accessibility planning to ensure the needs of all people are met. Successful policies provide clarity on complex issues such as:

·         The need to package investment to ensure balance and equity in programme delivery raises questions about the scope and geographical level for the audits. It is not possible for every group to benefit from every change, but overall it is reasonable to expect the needs of all groups are considered and reasonable action is taken to mitigate adverse consequences of change.

·         The priority given to accessibility within different local neighbourhoods will vary. Rural dwellers choose to sacrifice accessibility for other benefits of rural life but in all neighbourhoods the greatest problems arise from unplanned or unexpected changes. For example, pressures within healthcare to provide specialised services at centralised locations often mean local centres will close. This can create accessibility problems for low-mobility groups. A neighbourhood accessibility planning process needs to foster cross-sector cooperation to ensure consistency and equity at local, regional and national levels.

·         At a project level, the needs of minority groups are only understood if detailed accessibility audits are undertaken (Litman 2012; Scottish Executive 2003) but an alternative easier goal achieves balance at a more strategic policy or programme level (DfT 2004).

·         Seeking to resolve issues about winners and losers at a project level can make the packaging of transport delivery very complex, and lead to poorer value programme delivery (small amounts of landscaping, shelters, road markings etc are disproportionately expensive). However, if equitable solutions are not delivered at a scheme level then it can be difficult to guarantee the parallel investment will take place at the same time.

·         Accountability and funding are managed within narrower boundaries than accessibility. Results of accessibility audits can therefore be more of a problem than an opportunity, unless the working partnership arrangements are in place to deliver multi-disciplinary solutions. In most countries, narrow high-level accountability means national or regional partnership structures have proved elusive. However, community and neighbourhood planning has proved to be a much more practical level to deliver partnership solutions.

Where top-down policies foster and support bottom-up action then accessibility planning can thrive. The UK approaches have moved some way towards this but experience is growing internationally and current practice has substantial room for improvement.