Barrier-free on the road

Day after day, millions of people use public transport. People with limited mobility are also dependent on buses and trains. They must not be disadvantaged and should therefore be able to use public transport as barrier-free as possible. A fundamental right to equal treatment or a prohibition of any discrimination already results from the Basic Law. In December 2012, three years after the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities came into force in Germany, the Bundestag took this into account with a new version of the Passenger Transportation Act (PBefG) and thus took the first step toward making local public transport plans disability-friendly. According to this, complete accessibility is to be achieved in local public transport by 2022 – a challenge for public transport authorities and planners.

About 30 percent affected

Disabilities are diverse and affect large segments of the population. According to the Road and Transportation Research Association (FGSV), almost one in three citizens can be counted among the group of people with limited mobility and disabilities at least some of the time. Accessibility does not only concern people with permanent sensory, mental or motor impairments: The elderly, parents with small children, or people returning from a skiing vacation with luggage, a stroller, or a cast on their leg can also be limited in their mobility.

The PBeFG grants them all barrier-free use of local public transport and stipulates that local transport plans must be designed accordingly: “The local transport plan must take into account the concerns of people with mobility or sensory impairments with the aim of achieving complete barrier-free accessibility for the use of local public transport by January 1, 2022.” This is the provision of § 8 para. 3 sentence 3 PBefG since December 2012.

Approaching an ideal

But how can complete accessibility be achieved? And what does the PBeFG amendment mean for public transport providers? The Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft ÖPNV der kommunalen Spitzenverbände (BAG ÖPNV) basically shares the goal associated with the amendment, but points out that the complete accessibility of public transport is merely a political target. Accessibility, according to the BAG’s position, continues to remain “a process of convergence towards an ideal and a compromise between the needs of different groups of people.” Barrier-free public transport “offers more comfort and accessibility for all passengers, regardless of special needs, temporary or permanent disabilities” finds Dirk Bräuer, head of an ad-hoc working group of the Federal Working Group of Local Public Transport of the municipal umbrella organizations and responsible for service planning and local transport plans in Chemnitz. Freedom from barriers for all forms of disabilities, however, is “not realistically achievable.” Since the PBeFG has not formulated any technical or content-related requirements, the definition of local standards for accessibility is the responsibility of “the responsible authorities in consultation with transport companies, building authorities and associations, representatives and advisory councils of those affected on the basis of the generally recognized rules of technology”.

According to § 4 PBeFG “buildings and other facilities, means of transport (…)” are barrier-free, “if they are accessible and usable for disabled people in the generally usual way, without particular difficulty and basically without outside assistance”. In order to achieve accessibility, it is first necessary to provide sufficient usable transport connections that can also be reached by those affected. On the traffic routes themselves, i.e. on paths and at road crossings, there must be evenness and cohesiveness. Contrasts and the comprehensibility of information according to the two-senses principle, for example through display panels and loudspeaker announcements, provide the necessary orientation.

New planning approach

“Barrier-free traffic facilities are to be declared standard for new construction and reconstruction,” the FGSV says, pointing out that, according to the PBeFG, approval of a traffic service can be prohibited “if it is not in line with the local traffic plan in terms of accessibility.” To achieve accessibility in public transportation, the research community proposes a shift from the current “sectoral planning approach” to a “holistic one based on an analysis of the needs and desires of all passengers and on user involvement at every stage of the development process.”

Barrier-free stops

Even though the PBeFG itself does not contain any explanations in this regard, planning for accessible public transport facilities is likely to be based on existing technical standards. An example of this is DIN 18040-3 for public transport stops and tracks. Stops must therefore be accessible and easy to find. Stops and means of transport must be coordinated in such a way that barrier-free use is possible. At transfer stations, path chains between means of transport are to be created, supported by orientation and Signage systems. The standard further recommends that bus stops be equipped with weather protection. Bus stop canopies, platforms and bus shelters can only be used barrier-free if there is seating available.

Still much to do

Five years after the amended PBeFG came into force, expert Johannes Wolf draws a differentiated conclusion in the renowned trade journal Straßenverkehrstechnik (SVT 4-2016): “Exemplary results” have been created, especially in the area of streetcars and in large cities. However, the mass of existing bus stops on public roads showed a considerable need to catch up with what had been achieved with streetcars. This was “not only due to a series of legislative inconsistencies, wrong decisions and a chain of omissions, but also attributable to a lack of initiative on the ground” and, not least, “also due to a difficult financial situation.”

Barrier-free bus stops help improve mobility for all, but they also need to be reached and served. And this requires a sufficient supply of transport services. However, this is declining in many rural areas due to declining student numbers. Citizens’ buses, call and shared cabs, and “other demand-responsive or flexible forms of service that supplement regular off-peak service or bridge the distance between the doorstep and the bus stop” could fill the gaps, according to one stakeholder. However, existing transportation models should not be weakened by decisions made by transit agencies. This refers to decisions to exclude e-scooters from transport on local buses (KOMMUNAL of 19.03.2015, article Unterwegs mit einem Rollstuhlfahrer).

One conclusion: whether complete accessibility in public transport will actually be achieved by 2022 or ever after seems rather doubtful in view of the complex requirements and the limited financial resources of the public transport authorities. Realists do not speak of approaching an ideal without reason. In addition to the will and commitment of those involved, the fact that the legislator’s wish has any prospect of being realized in the city and the country also presupposes the necessary financial resources. And last but not least, adequate transportation services.