Society is getting older and this will bring new expectations. What will it mean for the mobility industry and are we ready?



In a changing world where almost all businesses are facing multiple disruptions, new local, regional and even global competitors and the need to justify their continued role to public authorities, stakeholders, shareholders and customers, the public transport industry is facing challenges on multiple fronts. While much progress is being made – particularly in markets where investment levels are increasing – more will always need to be done.

One of these numerous challenges, particularly in the context of growing urbanisation on a global scale, as well as the rise of multiple new transport business models from shared vehicles/taxis/cycles/scooters to autonomous vehicles, is the fundamental ageing in the population of most cities and around the world.

The statistics are stark, clearly progressing, and will change much of the way that we think about society in terms of transport as well as many other aspects of life. Being ‘older’ will not be a quaint, fringe or dismissive lifestyle, but an obvious and significant part of the experience all around us. This is a human health success story, but a story businesses must consider and be prepared for.

In the UK the proportion of the working age population aged between 50 and approximately mid-60s will increase from 26% in 2012 to 35% in 2050 – an increase of approximately eight million people. The robustness of the UK economy will thus, increasingly be tied to its ageing workforce, and enabling these people to be able to stay in work longer.

In 2014, the median age of the UK population exceeded 40 for the first time, up from 33.9 years in 1974. The over 60 age group is expected to increase from approximately 15 to 22 million between 2014 and 2039.

Ageing in society isn’t about a pervasive or universal “retirement” lifestyle of holidays, seeing friends and family, and leisurely having daily coffees and teas in town. While there will be significant increases in the centenarian and very old proportions of the population, the increases in the proportions of 50s, 60s and 70-year-olds in most economies will be significant.

Approximately, one in seven people over 50 years old in the UK in 2014 had no savings and thus, were at particular risk of having an indefinite work life. These statistics will only rise in the future, as younger workers move through the labour market with cost pressures of housing, university/college debt, and requirements to support their own parents in an under-funded old age.

For many, being old, or older, will be about the need to be in work and at work. For some this will be a choice or offer the ability to adopt more flexible perhaps out of peak hours travel options, while for many others it will mean a daily commute in the peaks which reflect the needs of, for example, the retail industry.

So, what does this mean for the mobility industry and are we ready?

We need to consider the transport user experience today and the expectations and capabilities of an ageing population

Firstly, we need to consider the transport user experience today and the expectations and capabilities of an ageing population. In some ways it is easiest to consider those with extreme mobility limitations and concentrate only on issues of lifts, level access, dedicated passenger assistance by staff and even dedicated parallel transport services. This, however, misses the breadth of the pending set of challenges.

Are our information services – largely online today – capturing the needs of people who may have issues standing for long periods and with poorer eyesight or even with significant concerns about carrying luggage and navigating complex station interchanges? We could get side-tracked into alternative information channels such as print and telephone which, while useful, it is suggested will inevitably decline as people who have spent many years working with technology move through society. Some of these issues would be less of a concern for the rest of the population, but can make a transport journey greatly problematic for an older traveller. Thus, quality advance information should be assessed as critical.

Within stations, and particularly rail stations, in the UK we are still living with the substantial inheritance from the Victorian era. This provides us with an enviable legacy of a fairly comprehensive rail network. However, while part of the fabric of our society and our landscape, many parts of the journey experience are increasingly problematic for ageing travellers.

Issues abound on vehicles. Starting with rail services, a common and almost iconic aspect of the UK rail network is the ubiquitous “mind the gap” message. While amusing, it highlights a fundamental concern in the state of the network. Some of the rail to platform interfaces are simply not workable for an ageing population and pose significant issues to older customers. This might include, not being able to independently manage luggage, and the simple humiliation of not being able to independently get on or off the train. While significant spending is going into the UK rail network to bring into service new rolling stock, I see limited effort being made to address this issue. Of note, however, is London’s new Underground rolling stock which has over the last few years eliminated substantial gaps on many of the lines, including historic sub-surface lines such as the District and Circle.

Within vehicles, clearly most people want a seat, but this is not feasible in many cases. So, how can space be allocated for capacity as well as navigability through the vehicle? Also, for people with a range of types of luggage as well as to enable people to have a clear understanding of where they are on the network and when they may need to move towards the exit doors? There are many competing narratives and the industry has made many improvements in the interior design of train vehicles over the last few years as new rolling stock has come into service.

Not having a seat on a train may be a practical necessity, but are we providing spaces that can be leaned against or held in a way that practically allows for the needs of all passengers including older people. High bucket seats provide privacy and comfort for many but, pose a problem of the issue of having sufficient core strength to stand up and navigate your way out of a relatively confined narrow space. This is also an issue in exiting from seats with fully fixed tables and no doubt other locations in trains. Designing interior spaces within trains is an art of compromises, but work needs to continue.

Lifts within stations to meet the needs of all passengers including older people, parents with children, and those with luggage, and bicycles, as well as physical conditions that dissuade or prevent the use of stairs are a core part of this story and clearly much is being done. It should be noted though, that prompt, high quality, clean, safe and working lifts are increasingly not an optional extra but a core part of the transport system. The lack of lifts or expectations that a customer can and will use stairs will be an increasingly critical barrier to access. The fact that lifts may be out of service is not simply an inconvenience, but a real problem for increasing numbers of customers.

Can the double deck bus really be designed with an inclusive design that accepts the needs of older passengers as well as for the capacity of the system?

In terms of the buses, while vehicles are generally newer, assumptions about the capabilities of older passengers are equally challenging. What are the realistic expectations of older customers to navigate up and down staircases on moving double deck vehicles? It could thus, be argued that these customers should stay downstairs, but is there sufficient space for their needs versus other customers who don’t want to use the stairs such as parents with prams, others with luggage, etc? Can the double deck bus really be designed with an inclusive design that accepts the needs of older passengers as well as for the capacity of the system?

The experience on a bus can be a stop-start often jerky experience, with a need to quickly navigate your way through a crowd of people to the single front door. There is often a lack of space for luggage and shopping and comprehensive guiderail supports. All of these issues pose problems for older passengers and particularly busy peak services where you have a mix of customers and older passengers who don’t want to be segregated, or isolated, but are struggling to effectively use the current service design. Furthermore, particularly outside of London, most bus services use single front door designs and thus, the need for the passenger to be able to move promptly and forcefully to the front exit is key.

When delays or service alterations occur are passengers given sufficient notice in a way that enables older people who may be slightly less agile to get to the place where they are supposed to now be? Not that they won’t be able to get there, but to expect everyone to pick up their things run up a set of stairs and down to the next platform in two minutes is not realistic or fair. How much notice and how can this notice be provided that is universally clear?

Will new technologies and mobility solutions offer the way forward for older travellers? We are seeing a multitude of new mobility solutions coming to the market that focus on a particular niche of consumers. However, are too many of these innovations focussed on active, young and able bodied markets?

It is also interesting to see the rise in cycling and cycle hire schemes which bring active modes back to the centre of the transport debate. However, cycling should also not only be considered a choice for the young. A trip to the Netherlands will highlight the range of people who choose to embrace cycling as a valuable travel choice if given comprehensive options, and this includes older travellers. However, the UK still lacks much dedicated cycling infrastructure including cycle routes that are comprehensive, direct, and largely separate or at least protected from other road users. These issues can only become more acute as cyclists who may have now used their bikes for years, experience frustration at the lack of “safer” spaces as they age and perhaps want to cycle in a more secure environment.

So, is the realistic solution for older people to depend on their cars – if they have one? One aspect of the steady march of technology into the vehicle and the eventual autonomous vehicle is to decrease the role of the driver through progressive driver assistance technologies. This could be a great benefit to the older driver and for road safety more generally. This is certainly the case for car dependent cultures such as in much of my home – North America. But, in a European and UK context where the public transport focus is much higher, a public solution to mobility remains central. In fact, without the increases in technology, older drivers pose a progressive danger to themselves and other road users and pedestrians. There is also a fairness and equity issue of wealth being a barrier to mobility for the older consumer.

Public transport needs to remain at the core of mobility in our cities. However, it needs to remain inclusive and accessible in a changing world and in an era of business disruption. Assumptions about the needs of customers will rapidly evolve in an ageing world. Has the mobility industry prepared itself for this revolution?


About the author:

Giles K Bailey is a Director at Stratageeb, a London based consultancy assisting businesses think about their strategic vision and innovation. Previously, he had spent nine years as Head of Marketing Strategy at Transport for London.


This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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