Now that the national guidance has been finalised, will the new accessibility planning approaches deliver practical change on the ground?
The need for a new approach to accessibility planning has its roots in the basic administrative failure that nobody has been responsible for accessibility. Cross-sector delivery has therefore been too difficult, with no legislative, funding and administrative cultures to help practitioners overcome the inevitable obstacles delivering joint schemes.
Accessibility planning seeks to overcome this by making transport planners responsible, but the rate and effectiveness of progress is determined by several important factors.
Firstly, although, in the long term, accessibility planning should be able to draw largely from funding in different sectors, in the short term, to foster the new partnership culture, new funding needs to be made available specifically for multi-sector initiatives.
Secondly, it is not yet clear that all transport authorities appreciate their major new responsibilities. Being accountable for accessibility necessitates much more robust engagement with decision making in other sectors. Giving transport professionals new ‘rights’ to influence things such as hospital and college re-location decisions is matched with ‘responsibilities’ to ensure that accessibility change is managed effectively.
Thirdly, audits of performance need to measure what is valued locally. The early criticism of the national accessibility indicators in the draft guidance has demonstrated a widespread view that these national indicators could be the primary measures for auditing local progress. This was certainly not the intention when the guidance was drafted and the final version makes this clearer. Indeed non-modelled issues such as safety, comfort, cost, information and reliability may be more important local barriers to accessibility than travel time. Although it will be important to measure progress against the national indicators, success with accessibility planning should be largely based on the effectiveness in meeting specified local aims. Funding decisions by the DfT on this basis will be a powerful motivator for local action.
Fourthly, wider transport appraisal and investment decisions for all modes need to be closely related to the accessibility plan. It is increasingly unacceptable not to know who is affected by transport changes and whether the opportunity gaps between rich and poor are being closed or widened.
Also, in land use planning, requiring developers to demonstrate consistency with local accessibility planning objectives should ensure that long established but often ineffective accessibility policy principles translate into planning decisions.
Finally, best value audits need to demonstrate that the efficiency is not just within a single sector but involves effective joint delivery. The SEU identified that integrating socially necessary services for patient transport, social work transport, community transport and public transport was a particular priority, so this might be a good place for the best value auditors to start.
There are many reasons why authorities will embrace this new agenda. Equity aims are a powerful motivator, and accessibility planning is an action agenda where transport planners can see the differences they are making to people’s lives. Transport planners have not been good at communicating the benefits of transport investment but there can hardly be a more powerful way to make the case for a scheme than by describing impacts on different groups of people for access to jobs, health, learning and other trip purposes.
There are also substantial prizes through delivery on cross-cutting accessibility agendas: reducing patient non-attendance with substantial cost savings for the NHS, overcoming barriers to work for jobless people demonstrating practical links between transport investment and economic development, and developing markets for healthy fresh food increase through more accessible products.
A key debate in the transport planning community has been about how to model accessibility to build a local evidence base. Experience shows that modelling, using the many available approaches, is quick and inexpensive once the data are sourced. In contrast, the complexities of joint working to review problems, appraise options, assemble funding and plan improvements takes much more time and involves vastly more resources. Accessibility planning is not therefore a significant new transport modelling hurdle to be crossed, as some would argue, but is instead an opportunity to tackle cross sectoral delivery that has been in the ‘too difficult’ basket for too long. For those that tackle the hurdles there are major opportunities, but for those that do very little the problems will only grow into even greater challenges in the future.
This article was first published in Local Transport Today.