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Small changes to transport systems could mean big benefits for older people

A new study has pinpointed how simple, low-cost measures could revolutionise older people's ability to use transport systems effectively, safely and with confidence.

Researchers at the University of Leeds and Leeds Metropolitan University believe the measures they have identified could eliminate many of the day-to-day problems that currently deter older people from using public transport and the pavements and roads in their locality.

Examples of potential measures include:

Provision of road crossings at a greater number of wide or busy junctions.

Provision of road crossings that allow pedestrians a longer time to cross.

Designing bus interiors to ensure secure handholds are provided in the wheelchair and buggy storage area, through which passengers boarding the bus have to pass.

Designing bus stops to ensure people sitting down inside them can easily see when their bus is coming, without repeatedly having to get up and down to check.

Introducing a system of accredited standards for taxi companies, to reassure older people that they will only be taken to their destination via the most direct route

Implementing such measures would make a major contribution to eliminating feelings of vulnerability, enhancing independence and boosting the quality of life experienced by the UK's ageing population.

The study was the first on transport related to be led by input from older people themselves rather than dictated by researchers. Undertaken as part of the SPARC (Strategic Promotion of Ageing Research Capacity) initiative, its findings will be discussed at this year's BA Festival of Science in Liverpool on Thursday 11th September. SPARC is supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Complementing input from public health and transport engineering specialists, a key role in the research was played by 10 focus groups, designed to capture the first-hand experiences and views of a total of 81 older people from the Leeds area.

Some focus group members also participated in unique, groundbreaking 'walk-rounds' of local districts, with researchers accompanying older people to see real-world transport-related difficulties through their eyes.

The findings from the focus groups and walk-rounds highlighted the fact that design guidance currently available to planners of transport infrastructure and services does not adequately take older people's requirements into account. The limitations of the transport planning software generally used by local authorities when developing transport systems also became clear. In particular, the research team concluded that the software does not reflect the length of time it actually takes older people to complete journeys by foot and by public transport.

The team also came to the view that training and awareness programmes for bus drivers etc focusing on the specific needs of older people (e.g. ensuring that buses do not pull off before everyone is safely seated) could have a beneficial impact.

"Older people want to use transport systems to help them maintain their independence", says Dr Greg Marsden, who led the research. "But it may only take one bad or frightening experience on a bus or crossing a road to put them off. Major changes are needed in the planning and delivery of transport infrastructure and services, with older people consulted and their needs taken more fully into account."

Dr Marsden and his team aim to continue exploring older people's transport-related experiences and to investigate how they manage the transition between car dependency and greater reliance on public transport as they grow older.

Natasha Richardson | EurekAlert!
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