Close-up of a bus with stickers on the subject of accessibility

Barrier-free travel

Day after day, millions of people use public transport (ÖPNV). People with reduced mobility also depend 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 kind of 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 Transport Act (PBefG), thus taking a first step towards making local public transport plans suitable for disabled persons. According to this law, public transport is to be completely barrier-free by 2022 – a challenge for public authorities and planners.

About 30 percent affected

Disabilities are manifold and affect large parts of the population. According to the Forschungsgesellschaft für Straßen- und Verkehrswesen (FGSV), almost one in three citizens can be counted among the group of people with limited mobility and disabilities, at least temporarily. Accessibility does not only affect people with permanent sensory, mental or motor impairments: Elderly people, parents with small children or people returning from a skiing holiday with luggage, prams or a plaster leg can also be restricted in their mobility.

The PBeFG grants all of them 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 reduced mobility or sensory impairments with the aim of achieving complete barrier-free use of local public transport by 1 January 2022. Thus, Section 8 (3) sentence 3 PBefG has provided for this 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 Federal Working Group on Public Transport of the Municipal Umbrella Associations (BAG ÖPNV) basically shares the goal of the amendment, but points out that the complete accessibility of public transport is only a political goal. Accessibility, according to the position of the BAG, remains “a process of approaching an ideal and a compromise between the needs of different groups of people”. A barrier-free public transport system “offers more comfort and accessibility for all passengers, regardless of special needs, temporary or permanent disabilities”, says Dirk Bräuer, head of an ad hoc working group of the Federal Working Group for Public Transport of the municipal umbrella organisations and responsible in Chemnitz for service planning and local transport plans. However, freedom from obstacles for all forms of disability is “realistically not achievable”. Since the PBeFG did not formulate any technical or content requirements, the definition of local standards for accessibility is incumbent on “the responsible bodies in coordination with transport companies, building authorities and associations, representatives and advisory boards of the affected persons on the basis of the generally recognised rules of technology”.

According to § 4 PBeFG “structural and other facilities, means of transport (…)” are barrier-free “if they are accessible and usable for disabled persons in the generally customary manner, without particular difficulty and basically without outside help”. In order to achieve barrier-free accessibility, there must first be sufficient usable transport connections available which can also be reached by those affected. On the traffic routes themselves, i.e. on paths and road crossings, there must be evenness and unity. Contrasts and the comprehensibility of information according to the two-sense principle, for example through display boards and loudspeaker announcements, serve as necessary orientation.

New planning approach

“Barrier-free traffic facilities are to be declared a standard for new buildings and conversions,” says the FGSV, pointing out that according to the PBeFG, the approval of a transport service can be prohibited “if it is not in line with the local transport plan in terms of barrier-free access”. In order to achieve accessibility in public transport, the research community proposes a departure from the previous “sectoral planning approach” to a “holistic one based on an analysis of the needs and wishes of all passengers and on the involvement of users at every stage of the development process”.

Barrier-free stops

Even if the PBeFG itself does not contain any comments on this, the planning of barrier-free public transport facilities is likely to be based on already existing technical standards. An example of this is DIN 18040-3 for public transport stops and track systems. According to this standard, stops must be easy to find and accessible. Stops and means of transport must be coordinated in such a way that barrier-free use is possible. At transfer points, chains of routes between means of transport should be created, supported by orientation and guidance systems. The standard also recommends equipping stops with weather protection. Stop shelters, platforms and bus shelters can only be used without barriers if there are seats available.

Still much to do

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

Accessible stops help to improve mobility for all, but they must also be accessible and served. And this requires a sufficient range of transport services. However, this is declining in many rural regions due to declining numbers of schoolchildren. Citizens’ buses, call and collective taxis and “other demand-oriented or flexible forms of service that supplement regular transport outside rush hours or bridge the distance between the front door and the bus stop” could, according to one affected person, close the gaps. However, existing transport models should not be weakened by decisions of the transport companies. This refers to decisions to exclude e-scooters from transport in local buses (KOMMUNAL of 19.03.2015, article “Unterwegs mit einem Wheelchairfahrer”).

In conclusion: Whether complete accessibility in public transport will actually be achieved by 2022 or ever thereafter seems rather questionable in view of the complex requirements and the limited financial means of the public transport authorities. Realists speak not without reason of approaching an ideal. For the legislator’s wish to have any prospect of realisation in town and country, it requires not only the will and commitment of those involved but also the necessary financial resources. And last but not least a sufficient offer of transport.

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