Covid-19: public transport and disabled passengers

A visually person waiting at a bus stop with his guide dog
28 Aug 2020

Over the past five months, it has become increasingly clear that the coronavirus pandemic is going to be with us for quite some time yet.

We are encouraged to return to our normal life routines where possible whilst at the same time being mindful of our own and others’ safety. For many people, this means using public transport.

We asked our panel of disabled and older people what their expectations and experiences were of using public transport and what would give them the confidence to return as passengers.

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64% of respondents who normally use public transport say they have not travelled by public transport at all since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reasons given for this centred around concerns about safety, a lack of trust with the information provided by the government, and a heightened feeling of vulnerability to the coronavirus.

 “It is not safe and there is no one making sure people wear masks, that includes staff and police, there needs to be extra staff and security”

There are concerns about recent infrastructure changes made to help protect the majority of the travelling public which can work against the needs of many disabled people.

As seen in our earlier surveys, with the use of face masks preventing people from lip-reading and pavement markings and signage designed to keep people socially distanced being inaccessible to blind and partially sighted people, changes made to help socially distance passengers adversely affect disabled people.

“The one-way system [on the underground] does not seem to be created with consideration to disabled people’s access needs”

These changes have impacted several areas of personal assistance that many disabled people find essential in order to travel safely such as guiding assistance for blind and partially sighted people, limiting guards on trains, and reduced staff at stations.  A worry expressed is that these changes could become permanent.

“I am gravely concerned about the lack of disabled access being the new normal”

When asked what would encourage our panel to use public transport in the future, the top three things were:

  1. Other passengers wearing PPE such as masks (29%)
  2. Social distancing on public transport (26%)

  3. The cleanliness of public transport (20%) 

Without confidence in staff and passengers to adhere to the government’s safety guidelines, there is a reluctance to use public transport. This is especially the case for the many people on our panel with increased vulnerability to the COVID-19.  

“Very little seems to be done to enforce wearing [of] face masks or social distancing”

9% of our respondents who have travelled by public transport during the pandemic said they have an exemption from wearing a mask because of their disability.

“I am exempt from wearing a mask but [was] refused boarding unless I did”

A picture of a government poster about wearing masks on public transport

This can cause problems with communicating their exempt status to other passengers and staff leading to have unwelcomed explanations of why they are exempt or having to endure stares and microaggression from fellow passengers.

“Despite the fact that I am technically exempt from wearing a mask because I’m autistic I try to make an effort … if you don’t wear a mask on public transport people will stare at you making you feel uncomfortable”

The government and media (social and mainstream) are trusted less than family & friends for providing advice about using public transport.

“I do not trust anything the government tells us about public transport safety”

A graph showing levels of trust in various sources relating to COVID-19 travel advice

52% of respondents said they were unsure about returning to using public transport after Covid-19 travel restrictions have been fully removed.

This reflects the general unease that our panel members reported about the safety of public transport. However, there is a willingness to return to using public transport with 39% of respondents saying they would return to using public transport, but it is fair to say their confidence in doing so is presently low.

For more information about this research please contact Gordon McCullough.