Making public transport more accessible: Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport

The Commonwealth Department of Infrastructure has been leading an excellent consultation about how to improve the Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport. This law imposes requirements to make public transport more accessible for people with disabilities. It’s why Transport Canberra is retiring the last of the old orange Renault buses this year: from 2023, all buses must be step-free and wheelchair accessible.

The Standards date back to 2002, and the world has changed a lot since then. There’s greater awareness of how disabilities can affect mobility, and better technology and engineering to support people. There are also new modes of transport, such as rideshare, which aren’t covered by the new standards. So the consultation looked at 54 reform areas where revised Standards could make things more accessible.

Some of these reform areas are what you’d expect: access to lifts, level boarding, signage and audio information. But others were less obvious, like lighting or print sizes. A 390 page regulatory impact statement examined all these issues, and how to best address them.

PTCBR gets involved in a lot of consultations, and this one seemed very interesting to us. While we didn’t get much feedback from members or the community, we were keen to see what the Department had to say, so a PTCBR representative who works with the disability community attended a webinar hosted by the Department. He came away very impressed: the reforms were focused on ensuring uniform design across all parts of the journey to ensure people with disabilities can access the whole journey. Public transport is a series of connected movements, so if any one part of this is inaccessible, then the whole journey is inaccessible.

Ultimately, we didn’t have much to say on this one, which is surprising for us! However, we hope that other people out there were able to provide detailed feedback for the consultation. Sometimes consultations don’t reach the people they’re intended for, when it’s affecting some of the more vulnerable members of our community. Fortunately in this case, the consultation is being led by Graeme Innes, a former Disability Commissioner who has a keen interest in transport issues, so we’re confident the Department is going to be well informed.

ACT Budget 2022/23: Public transport is steady as she goes, but we can do better

Unlike previous years, this year’s ACT Budget isn’t a light rail budget. There are no new public transport initiatives in what is largely a housing and hospital focused budget.

This doesn’t mean that public transport is the loser here, but it isn’t the current focus of the Barr government at a time when population and housing pressures are impacting a territory coming out of Covid-19 uncertainty.

The public transport funding is all for previously announced projects, many of which have been rolled over to later years. So while existing public transport initiatives (such as zero emission buses) have not lost their funding, we can do better.

We’ve had a close look at the ACT Treasury Budget papers to see where the money’s gone. Looking at the Transport Canberra and Major Projects Canberra sections, the Government has confirmed funding for:

– The raising of London Circuit
– Light Rail Stage 2A
– Building the Woden Light Rail/Bus Interchange
– Building the Woden Bus Depot
– Electrification of the new Woden Depot
– The Zero Emission bus procurement program
– New ticketing technology to replace MyWay
– New buses to replace old buses

Where PTCBR has some concerns are about what is not in this year’s budget papers:

– There is no forward funding for any aspect of Light Rail Stage 2B
– There is only 1 year of funding for the Flexible Bus Service, which supports older and disabled Canberrans. This might be because the service is being reviewed, we’ll watch this space.
– Transport Canberra Operations is reducing staffing from 1016 in 20/21 to 981 in 22/23. We’d like to know how this lines up with the much publicised bus driver recruitment campaign to allow more weekend and peak services.
– No apparent funding for the Light Rail Network Plan refresh
– No funding for Light Rail Stage 3 (Belconnen) or 4 (Tuggeranong) feasibility studies
– No funding to expand the bus fleet. It looks like simple replacement of new buses for old buses
– No funding to expand Park and Ride to new locations

Several of these are quite cheap items with significant benefits to increasing passenger numbers and reducing the impact of private cars on the environment, and transport emissions overall.

What would PTCBR like to see? Major Projects Canberra still has light rail related projects as two of its top three strategic objectives in this year’s budget papers, but we would also like to see a serious approach to longer term light rail planning from MPC or TC. It is now over three years since Light Rail Stage One commenced operations, and we haven’t built another centimetre of rail since. We would also like to see the bus fleet expanded, including the Flexbus fleet, not a simple replacement of an old bus with a new bus. Of course expanding the bus fleet will mean an increase in driver numbers and a return to the promise of the Network 19 seven day network.

It is apparent that this is a mid-term budget from a government with new pressures to tackle. Hospitals and housing are the new(ish) political priorities, with a focus on housing a growing workforce in an expanding economy, without sprawling outside existing urban boundaries. These are great aspirations that PTCBR supports, but we need a world class public transport system to serve a world class city – and that requires funding.

The ACT Budget: why spending money is harder than you’d think

On the eve of the ACT Budget, PTCBR isn’t overly optimistic there will be new goodies for transport. The ACT Government has been pretty open about what its priorities are. This is before we get to the constraints of an inflationary environment, and the Territory’s funds only going so far.

Still, before the budget is prepared, there’s an annual consultation process, where ACT community organisations are invited to make submissions about where funds should go and how they should be spent.

PTCBR made a submission, as we do every year. There also aren’t any real surprises there, but it’s a good summary of what we think is important work, even if they aren’t big ticket items. Most of our items are actually requests for the ACT Government to deliver what it has promised in previous budgets. If you read the budget documents, particularly for Transport Canberra, you can see that there are a number of projects which are continually “re-profiled”. This means they had the money, wanted to spend it, but didn’t get around to doing so, and so wanted to try again the next year.

There can be a number of reasons for this. Sometimes, there are failed procurement processes, like what happened with the ticketing system. Other times these projects never go out to tender in the first place, because the bureaucracy’s priorities are elsewhere. The new Woden Bus Depot is the biggest example of this: it’s been on the budget books since 2016, and is only happening now! It might sound rather bland, but Transport Canberra won’t be able to buy more buses (including electric buses) to run more services until this depot is built.

It’s for this reason we’ve called on the ACT Government to invest in more project delivery capabilities to ensure these projects actually get out the door. Again, it’s not sexy, but it’s what we need to get a better transport system.