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Transport Provision for Disabled People in Scotland - Research Findings

DescriptionThis report aimed to examine the prevalence of disability in Scotland, the transport needs of disabled people, the pattern of public transport in Scotland and the current gaps in provision.
Official Print Publication Date
Website Publication DateMarch 13, 2000
Development Department Research Programme Research Findings No 76
1999Transport Provision for Disabled People in Scotland

Sheila & Brian Henderson, Reid-Howie Associates

Central to the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act is the need to address existing barriers to services including transport. It provides a statutory framework which, broadly, requires all forms of land based public transport to be accessible to disabled people. Because no consistent, national, picture of accessible transport was available, in 1998 The Scottish Office commissioned Reid-Howie Associates to undertake research to examine the prevalence of disability in Scotland, the transport needs of disabled people, the pattern of public transport in Scotland and the current gaps in provision. The research will form a basis for strategic forward planning of services and includes recommendations on how the level and quality of services available to disabled people can be improved.

Main Findings

  • Approximately 640,000 people in Scotland (12% of the total population) are estimated to have some form of impairment. Amongst these, approximately 260,000 (5%) are likely to have significant difficulty in using public transport, while the remainder may, at some time, experience some level of difficulty.
  • Service provision for the disabled varies widely. For example only 15% of Scotland's bus fleet has a low floor and some strategically important bus stations are inaccessible to disabled people; many trains are inaccessible due to lack of ramps and only 51 of over 300 stations are accessible to all areas for wheelchair users; ferry terminals are fairly accessible but means of boarding some vessels is particularly difficult for disabled people; means of boarding aircraft at some airports involves physical lifting of a disabled person up the aircraft steps and no aircraft in Scotland is large enough to carry on-board wheelchairs; outside major cities there are few accessible taxis; Glasgow Underground is inaccessible to people with reduced mobility; and many community transport providers' vehicles are not accessible.
  • Disabled people's needs in terms of public transport fall into 5 main areas: that overall policy must take account of their needs, with services co-ordinated in a way which allows them to travel independently; that the built environment, vehicles and buildings should be accessible; that staff employed by transport providers should be adequately trained; that information should be available on a multi-modal basis, in appropriate forms, and covering all aspects of accessibility; and that transport providers and local authorities should consult regularly with disabled people as the best means of ensuring that their needs are met.
  • While the Disability Discrimination Act will go some way towards addressing these issues, particularly in relation to bus, rail and taxi vehicles, some forms of transport and many of the policy issues are not covered by this legislation.


Over the last 15 years, there has been an increasing focus on the issue of access to public transport for disabled people. This largely results from pressure from disabled people themselves, legislative and policy initiatives at national and local government level, increased knowledge and understanding of accessibility issues among administrators and transport providers and technological innovations in a number of areas. In 1998, the government published its White Paper 'Travel Choices for Scotland', in which it reiterated its commitment to the implementation of the Disability Discrimination Act with its provisions for providing minimum standards of access to new public transport vehicles, a statutory requirement that some forms of transport and associated infrastructure are accessible within the framework of integrated and accessible public transport in Scotland.

It was in this context that research was commissioned to obtain information on the extent and type of transport provision available in Scotland which meets the needs of disabled users, and to identify gaps in provision.

For the purpose of the study, disability was defined as any substantial, long-term physical or sensory condition which renders it difficult, if not impossible, to access mainstream transport; and transport was defined as any form of public or voluntary transport, other than the private car, which is used by travellers in Scotland.


The research was conducted between June 1998 and April 1999. A wide range of information sources and existing statistical data were first used to estimate the prevalence of disability in Scotland. Direct contact with disability organisations and review of existing literature identified the transport needs of disabled people and potential barriers to accessibility..

A pro-forma was then sent to all transport providers in Scotland. The responses provided contacts for all key providers of transport services, and a detailed questionnaire was issued covering the types of services provided and transport infrastructure together with information on transport accessibility. A separate survey of all local authorities and Strathclyde Passenger Transport was carried out to assess strategic policies towards accessible public transport.

Data on accessible transport was mapped and a database developed with key information on aspects on access to transport and including availability of staff trained in disability issues, consultation with disabled people and details of planned initiatives.

Good or innovative practice was identified from a range of visits to transport providers and disability groups. Finally, a series of recommendations was developed covering a range of policy, structural and service provision issues, to assist in ensuring that transport provision in Scotland develops to address key areas of need for disabled people in the future.

The prevalence of disability in Scotland

It is difficult to measure accurately the prevalence of disability in Scotland for a number of reasons including problems in finding a consistent definition, the use by previous studies of incompatible research methodologies, and the UK rather than Scotland being the unit of study. A number of estimates are, however, available. Research undertaken by OPCS in the mid-1980s, involving the screening of 14,000 people living both in the community and in residential care, estimated that approximately 612,000 people in Scotland experienced some form of impairment, ranging from very slight, to severe. Changes to the demographic profile of Scotland since 1985 would suggest that this estimate should be increased by approximately 3%, to provide a current estimate of the number of disabled people in Scotland of approximately 640,000, or 12% of the population.

Most, if not all of these people may have some difficulty in using public transport in certain circumstances, but at least 260,000 people (5% of the population) are likely to have a substantial measure of difficulty. Using evidence from both the OPCS study and relevant organisations it is estimated that approximately 15,000 people in Scotland (0.3%) are likely to use a wheelchair at all times, as many as 135,000 (2.5%) may have difficult walking 50 yards, and a similar number difficulty in standing for more than 5 minutes and are therefore likely to use a wheelchair some of the time. Approximately 67,000 people in Scotland (1%) may have some form of visual impairment and 55,000 (1%) are severely or profoundly deaf. Many people will experience more than one form of impairment.

There is a strong correlation between age and disability, and there are also significant differences in the numbers of older people across Scotland's local authorities. The proportion of older people in an area is not, however, a useful predictor of rates of disability in itself, as it takes no account, firstly of the prevalence of disability amongst younger people, and secondly, of the level of dependency among these older people.

In the light of the evidence available, the research concluded that it is currently safest to apply Scotland-wide estimates of impairment to each local area.

The transport needs of disabled people

The overall needs of disabled people in terms of public transport fall into five broad categories.

1 Public transport policy and co-ordination should be sensitive to the needs of disabled people. Disabled people are reliant on all aspects of public transport infrastructure and service provision being appropriate to their needs and public transport policy and co-ordination should be sensitive to these needs. This goes beyond physical access to vehicles and facilities, relating to issues such as the built environment, the co-ordination and scheduling of different modes of transport, the availability of transport information on a multi-modal basis (both for services and accessibility) and the provision of assistance from staff in an appropriate manner.

2 Physical access to facilities and services in terms, for example, of the need to be able to board vehicles easily and safely, to maintain this level of comfort and safety while travelling, and to be able to use appropriate facilities independently and privately.

3 The availability of staff with an understanding of disability issues, as the influence of staff attitudes and actions on the experiences of disabled people is considerable.

4 Clear information, both in relation to services themselves and to their accessibility. This is required in a range of appropriate formats and must be accurate, up to date and to reflect the needs of the widest possible range of disabled people. There is also a need for information at all stages during a journey, again in a range of formats to meet a range of needs.

5 Consultation with transport and infrastructure providers and policy makers was identified by disabled people as the main means by which accessible public transport could be developed and provided.

Gaps in Provision

1 Public transport policy and co-ordination - the Government is committed to the implementation of the provisions of the DDA 1995 including setting minimum criteria for disabled people's access to public transport vehicles. In addition, the White Paper 'Travel Choices for Scotland' provides a framework for the Government's objectives and priorities in the development of accessible public transport in Scotland. At a national level however, there is no overall strategy, objectives or priorities guiding the development of accessible public transport in Scotland. At a local level, there are few existing strategies to promote accessible public transport, or of policies to support their implementation. Many local authorities are however now preparing local transport strategies setting out the ways in which partners in local areas will bring about the overall objectives of the White Paper relating to integrating public transport.

2 Access to services and facilities - barriers were found relating to all modes of transport studied. Only 15% of Scotland's bus fleet, for example, has a low floor, and some strategically important bus stations are inaccessible. While most ScotRail trains are accessible, many are rendered inaccessible as a consequence of the lack of ramps at stations. Only 51 of over 300 stations in Scotland are accessible in all areas for wheelchair users. Although ferry terminals present relatively few access problems, the means of boarding some vessels is particularly difficult for some disabled people, and some older vessels have no means of allowing people with reduced mobility to move independently between decks. Similarly, although airports are generally accessible, the means of boarding the aircraft at some of these facilities involves the physical lifting of a disabled person up aircraft steps. None of the aircraft in service in Scotland are large enough to carry on-board wheelchairs, and all have toilets which may prove to be difficult to use for people with a range of loco-motor impairments. Outside the major cities there are few accessible taxis, and, in some areas, there are no subsidies available to disabled people using taxis. The Glasgow Underground is effectively inaccessible to people with reduced mobility, although a range of improvements have been made relating to facilities for other disabled people. Finally, although most door-to-door transport provided by local authorities is accessible, many community transport providers' vehicles are not.

At terminals there was also found to be a considerable number of inaccessible public toilets, telephones and ticket counters. Induction loops are still relatively rare, and the research found relatively few facilities for people with sensory impairments.

3 Staff training - significant gaps were found in relation to disability issues, and, in a few cases, the policies of transport providers were found to militate against the independent use of their services by disabled people.

4 Availability of information is increasing, although there is also still a lack of information relating to physical access and facilities, and to assist multi-modal journey planning.

5 Finally, few transport providers were found to undertake extensive or proactive consultation with disabled people.


A wide range of recommendations are made by the study authors including the following:

  • a national group comprising transport providers, disabled people and policy makers should be established to develop a strategy, objectives and priorities for the development of accessible public transport across Scotland
  • at a local level, strategies reflecting local needs should be developed to encourage the co-ordination and development of public transport in a way which ensures that disabled people can travel independently, at the times and using the modes of transport of their choice
  • transport providers are encouraged to adopt an audit based approach to assessing the accessibility of their facilities, and to develop action plans which have, as their objective, the development of full accessibility, meeting the needs of the widest possible range of disabled people.
  • General awareness relating to transport and disability issues should be developed through the use of a range of media and organisations, and transport and infrastructure providers should identify the appropriate training needs of their staff.
  • Multi-modal information systems should be developed at a national and local level, providing information relating to the accessibility of a range of forms of transport.
  • Mechanisms should be identified for regular consultation with disabled people in the formulation of national and local transport policy.

The authors conclude that, through all of these means, a framework for the development of a system of public transport in Scotland which recognises and meets the needs of disabled people, can be developed.

'Transport Provision for Disabled People in Scotland', the research report summarised in this Research Findings, is available in the form of a Summary Report priced £5.00 and a Full Report priced £10.00. Cheques should be made payable to The Stationery Office and addressed to:

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