Throughout the western world the last ten years have seen a significant shift in societies' view of the difficulties faced by people with disabilities, and nowhere has this been brought into sharper focus than in the question of transport.
In the early part of the twentieth century, when most of our railway networks and many of our Underground or Metro systems were planned and conceived, it was widely believed that disabled people were outcasts and did not belong in what was seen as normal life. At that time, there was no understanding of disability or the ageing process so it is perhaps not surprising that attitudes were so different and that the train was no place for such people to be found!
The burgeoning development of public transport as a mass mover of workers in industrialised cities during the early years of tram and bus systems was also characterised by a "survival of the fittest" approach.
In the period between the two world wars, rapid advances in medical science changed the situation, both in terms of understanding the causes and effects of most disabilities and in bringing about a reduction in early death from many diseases now seen as entirely curable. But this did not change the perceptions of the majority of people, and no provision was made for the integration of those with disabilities into everyday life.
Arguably, in the U.K. and elsewhere, the immediate post-war period and the nineteen-fifties saw political concentration on restructuring of industry and development of some form of welfare state. Though unquestionably a good thing to see more radical approaches to health-care, this era produced almost too much of a caring approach to the needs of disabled and elderly people.
By the sixties, and with the strictures of war long gone and austerity a forgotten value, we began to see the development of lobby groups concerned with disability - both from the point of view of better recognition of the overall disadvantages faced by those whose mobility is restricted, and of their needs in areas like transport.
Society's response - generally - was to react in the caring way that was felt to be required.
By that I mean the "cotton wool" approach of misinterpreting what disabled people actually want, rather than asking for their views and changing things pragmatically to meet their needs.
From the 1980s a new dawn has emerged. Recognition of the rights of people with disabilities to play a full part in society does not come easily but come it will.
In the United States, the legislative route has been followed - as might be expected in a Country where "rights" have always been a more fundamental issue than in Europe.
The impact on public transport has been quite dramatic. With few exceptions, the developed world would not dream of building a new railway or metro without ensuring it is fully accessible. In most countries something has been done to improve the design of buses with the needs of elderly and disabled passengers in mind. Here, for example, the D.P.T.A.C. specification - though not mandatory - is followed for virtually all new buses.
Increasingly, transport operators see that the issue of better access is not just about small numbers of people. Many times the mistake has been made of thinking "wheelchair" when the requirements of disabled people are debated. Too often there has been a failure to recognise that elderly people make up a very substantial proportion of every transport operator's traffic. By and large the fact that these two groups represent a market opportunity has been totally overlooked.
Yet that is not all. How many of our passengers are encumbered by something or somebody while using our bus, tram, rail or metro systems? Their "disability" can be as much a problem in using public transport as the "average" disabled traveller.
Therein lies another key to the theme I want to present. There is no "average" and "disability" is almost impossible to define. Think of the substantial numbers of people with impaired hearing or partial sight, and of the thousands with arthritis or rheumatism, and of those who have had a stroke or a heart attack. Unlike wheelchair-users and blind people with white canes or guide-dogs, these groups carry no label or obvious sign that they may need more time to cope with steps or to get to a seat.
If we look at our passenger profile at off-peak periods, it is increasingly clear that people with some sort of mobility handicap (which can be as simple as a bag of shopping or a small child) make up the bulk of public transport users. For years, most of our design criteria have been based on the needs of peak-hour travellers, despite the fact that they are only with us on Mondays to Fridays for a couple of hours at most each morning and evening.
Designing for that overall majority, is, I contend, simpler than it might seem. Technologically, everything we need is now becoming available: the advent of low-floor buses and trains represents the greatest achievement in bettering access for all. The absence of steps gives real benefit to all passengers and, through reduced dwell time at stops, public transport is made more attractive to the car users we desperately need to wean away from their present mode.
The key question which will always be posed is "... that's all very well, but how do we pay for these expensive design changes?" Very simply, with new vehicles or infrastructure the additional cost is actually minimal. The notion that it would be cheaper to provide separate means of transport for wheelchair-users has been shown to be flawed. The incremental cost, over a sensible period of years, of producing fully accessible mainstream public transport will be far less than the cost of greatly-expanded Dial-a-Ride or accessible taxi schemes.
That is not to say that "paratransit" for disabled people does not have its place. There will always be a significant requirement for door-to-door transport for those who cannot get to the bus/tram stop or station. But these schemes are heavily oversubscribed. The total cost to society of providing domiciliary care and associated support for housebound disabled people could clearly be reduced if many more of them could get out and about through a proper mix of accessible bus and rail services plus, where required, the likes of Dial-a-Ride.
But in terms of low-floor trams and L.R.V.s, the price also has to come down. There are now more than a dozen different types of low-floor car within six specific design concepts. Almost every operating system has specified a variation. What began in Geneva, grew up in Grenoble and matured in Berne is not the same as what got added-in for Basel, Amsterdam and Freiburg - or what has taken-off in a big way in Bremen!
Standardisation will be essential if costs are to come down - it cannot be right that only four different designs of low-floor bus satisfy a substantially larger market and yet three times that number are now on offer to L.R.V. operators.
Above all, the development of accessible electric public transport brings numerous side benefits - particularly to the environment - but is achieved at the cost of some disruption. Once introduced, the obvious nature of the system more or less sells itself!
Accessibility must, however, be seen as a package involving stops and shelters and the general street infrastructure. The operators need to be more assertive in challenging policies which put public transport at a disadvantage compared to the car, and the travel experience in total must be "just right".
At this Conference, the key words are STREET TRAMS - accessibility follows naturally, for it is THE STREET that everyone comes from or wants to get to!