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VIP Transport Focus Group

Conducted as part of the AUNT project which is funded by the EPSRC.

By Sylvie Perera
June 2003

This report will summarise the issues and problems that visually impaired people (VIP) encounter in relation to urban transport. Input from contacts who were unable to travel to the focus group are also included throughout the report.

The VIP Focus Group

On Tuesday 20th May 2003, a focus group to determine visually impaired people's problems with transport was held at RNIB, 105 Judd Street, in meeting Room 5. Over 60 VIP were contacted and invited to attend. A script used by the facilitator is provided in appendix 2.

Visually Impaired People: Details in appendix 1.
Due to reasons unknown, these VIP were not present:

Representing VIP:

RNIB Scientific Research Unit:
John Gill
Linda Newson
Sylvie Perera


In addition to those who attended on the day, 25 VIP responded via email or telephone to reveal their problems within the transport arena. This was thought to be necessary to, supplement the issues raised by the limited number of people that did attend, and to reach those who might provide obscure insights because they were unable to attend due to mobility reasons. It was revealed that despite a poor turnout, the attendees provided a respectable range of issues for discussion and highlighted the main problems which were mainly reiterated by input from more people.

Transport Problems VIP Encounter

Where do you travel to Regularly?
When asked where they tend to travel to regularly and at what time of day these journeys were taken, the main responses encompassed work - paid and voluntary - local meetings, shopping and for some people hospitals were visited often. Local journeys were favoured because the geography is familiar and can be done on foot. Regular travel tended to be during the day, avoiding rush hours if possible.

Where do you travel to Rarely?
When asked similar questions about rare journeys, more variety was reported. Hospital or GP surgeries, hairdressers, banks/building societies, pubs, council offices, leisure centres featured amongst the places that are visited rarely. Some VIP mentioned conferences or overseas travel. Again these were taken whilst avoiding the rush hour. They also tended not to venture out in the evenings.

Way Finding

Prior to a journey
Planning a route prior to disembarking was essential for unfamiliar journeys "to find difficulties along route before they find me". This involves a great deal of time looking at maps and timetables. So the route, times, possible problems, and contingency plans are determine then assistance is booked from the transport operator. Some VIP thought that they were assumed to be fluent Internet users but they were not because they viewed the web as inaccessible so they were not able to obtain information through that means. This left them with the option of calling National Enquiries to plan their route or relying on a sighted person to help them. But as pointed out at the focus group, things do not always go according to plan.

Transport information
Transport information on route was thought to be generally inaccessible. Timetables and travel information was thought to be presented in text that is too small for partially sighted people. Signs in red writing can be illegible for sectors of VIP e.g. retinitis pigmentosa. Braille timetables are not readily available. Audio information is essential to totally blind people but it is rarely clearly provided when needed. IT need not be only in the form of speech but tones are also be useful i.e. perhaps 3 beeps for an escalator. Booked assistance can be late so the VIP's journey is in turn delayed.

Coping with way finding
To cope with the lack of available information, transport staff were asked to help. Sometimes it can be difficult to find them though so the ticket office was usually sought. Transitions between different modes of transport are a major source of unresolved problems for VIP. Companies policies where staff are not insured to aid a person beyond the bounds of their domain e.g. from the Manchester train to metro are not appreciated. So VIP are reliant on members of the public.

The easiest way to tell where you are is ask a member of the public. VIP's white canes become indispensable to find obstacles in the environment. Also learnt clues about the area provided some indication of position e.g. using smells of coffee bars, burger joints etc. Knowing this problem arises frequently, VIP might have to ask a sighted person to accompany them on the journey. SP commented that when information is inaccessible to her while on route, she just hopes for the best.

Improvements to way finding
To obtain travel/navigation information, a VIP has to maintain a heavy reliance on other people but this is not always accurate! When asked how way finding could be improved, co-operation from transport staff was deemed important. Audio timetables could be available from an information point or specific telephone number. Audible and tactile solutions would be needed e.g. directional information for a lift/stairs, exit and textured walls, floors help too. The lack of consistency was confusing e.g. some trains only provide visual information with no announcements. Not only are unfamiliar environments difficult to navigate around but also changes to familiar places can be disorientating. A tactile map or help should be available to aid learning of the new surroundings. There is no prior information to warn of possible barriers that VIP might face. It was thought to be helpful to have accessible information about road works, moving bus stops etc.

Way finding priorities
When requested to prioritise their issues in relation to way finding, the importance varied for each person. Accessible information - audible and large print - and training for staff with liaison and co-operation between companies were pointed out.

Environmental Issues

Obstacles in the street cause the most problems in the environment. The shear number of obstacles and their positions are the main cause of the problem. The shape and size of some obstacles can also cause safety issues resulting in injury. At times the consequences of these can be quite serious e.g. a VIP wandering into the road because the pavement is blocked as a quiet cyclist approaches. Sometimes longer routes may be taken because assistance is more likely to be available e.g. avoidance of Waterloo where it is harder to find staff or trying to avoid buses.

Obstacles in the environment

Above Overhanging bushes,
Below Uneven pavements, Holes in the pavement, Sloped paving stones, Very high kerbs, Drains that are overflowing can leave VIP with soaked feet. Also when kerb stones are dropped, tactile paving can easily become flooded.
Permanent Street Furniture Poles, Signs, Lamp posts, Benches, Bike racks, Telephone boxes, Post boxes, Bollards - especially low ones
Temporary Street Furniture Rubbish bags, Wheelie bins, Cones, Kids leaving bikes across the pavement, Push chairs, Ladders, Shop sandwich boards / Free standing signs, Stalls, Christmas trees across the pavement,
Road works Fencing around road works can easily be missed by a stick and flimsy so can be knocked over and a VIP can end up horizontal.
Building sites Building sites sometimes encroach onto the pavement. Their fencing with tripod feet that stick out can be particularly perilous. Scaffolding can appear 'scary' to a VIP and they may often feel unsafe and that they should not be walking underneath it.

Other problems include:
· Sideways bushes that encroach onto the pavement can wet trousers as VIP walk past.
· Parked vehicles e.g. motorbikes on the pavement parallel to it or sticking out of driveways.
· Cafés on the pavement who alter their arrangements - making it impossible to learn the configuration - and they drive pedestrians closer to the kerb.
· Different combinations of bus stop, lamp post with a bin and bus shelter make it difficult to manoeuvre around all three.
· Signs and road names half way up buildings are useless to totally blind people and partially sighted people can find them difficult to locate and read.
· VIP have problems getting to remote stations especially if they are in unfamiliar areas.

A bad Camden street: Centre of Camden Town or Kentish Town. The accessibility around Kings Cross station is particularly poor. Camden's VIP group used to have their meetings at the RNIB but they moved because people had to cross the Euston Road so people found it difficult to get there.
A good Camden street: West hampstead - tactile paving.

It was also retorted that VIP may find it harder to travel in provincial areas rather than urban ones.

Where VIP's aids fail
If there are obstructions across a pavement a guide dog will just stop and the owner is at a loss to understand why. Although a white stick can find the lamp posts, they give no information about whether there is a bin attached at chest height. Bus stops designs are not consistent and are not clearly marked, or can be in bad positions i.e. on telephone poles. A solution could be to place tactile paving around the bus stops or on the actual stop. But could this lead to an over use of tactile paving? Tactile paving can be confusing because a VIP may not be sure what is being marked e.g. if there are two crossings, which is which. SP is currently having problems at X station because the announcements have been turned off due to residents complaints. She relies heavily on announcements especially for changing information e.g. transport arrival times. Although the solutions are available they are not implemented as intended.

Coping with obstacles
Generally VIP tend to do their best to manoeuvre between things but often just bump into obstacles on the street. Quieter side and back streets are preferable to busy main roads. A coping mechanism used is to stand around looking helpless until a member of the public comes to their aid.

Improvements to the environment
It is better if street furniture is positioned kerb-side. Building sites or similar obstacles should have solid barriers that a cane will find and a guide dog can go around.

Crossing the road is very difficult for VIP. Crossings need to be placed in carefully considered positions. Pelican crossings with no beeps are not particularly helpful. Audible pelican crossing are essential with consistent location of the rotating cone on the right hand side. This is necessary for a guide dog owner who tends to have their dog on their left (unless they have a physical disability on that side). Some crossings seem to be too rapid especially for elderly pedestrians. (A smart card coded with user's preferences could adjust the crossing time if it's owner required).

Environmental concerns are thought to be the concern of the council / local authority. Better council planning would encompass resolving most of the issues. E.g. training for staff, publicise future road works; consultation with the public. This should be done with the input of different groups of users e.g. VIP. It must be realised that this consultation takes a long time and putting things right afterwards takes even longer.

Problems With Vehicles

Generally problems encountered are usually through experience e.g. automatic doors and frames are frequently walked into. Inconsistency of design is an important issue. VIP just have to learn where things are or the various combinations they are likely to encounter. This was reiterated across all the modes of transport. When asked if any vehicle designers had been contacted, it was pointed out that if you can't read the company on the vehicle how do you know who to contact!

VIP tend to try to avoid travelling during peak hours. It is essential that help is available when it is required.

Some people in the elderly age group that have lost their sight do not like the underground so tend to use buses. They routinely use the same route during the day - C2 - that goes around Camden to the shopping areas. From the list of issues that are related to their bus travel, it is not astonishing that they would rather walk than take the bus. Despite not liking buses the attendees of the focus group did use them at times. One comment was that if buses are used, it tends to be in the evening because of the door to door service although they are wary of their security late at night on buses.

The combination of tree lined Camden streets and a single-decker bus with little signage makes it difficult to tell when a bus is coming. The Camden routes taken by the C11 and C14 were mentioned as problematic at points.

The information found on a bus or in relation to the stop is totally useless to VIP e.g. the 'countdown' at a bus stop to tell you when your bus will arrive is inaccessible to a totally blind person so another person is required to relay this information. If this facility was accessible, the displays on the outside of the bus which can be difficult to read for the partially sighted would not be such as problem. The yellow on black text is not appreciated, white on black is preferable. The information needs to be large and clear. Even thought the number is meant to be on the front and side, they are not always accurate. Training the drivers to change both the side and front displays would alleviate this problem. So even though the facilities are there to help people, they are not always used in the way they are intended. Another point at which the lack of information is problematic for a VIP is knowing when to get off for their stop. VIP are dependent on the driver to notify them of their stop but some drivers do not even know the names of their stops. Announcements on buses would help a VIP know where they are on route and where to get off. Training of drivers could resolve many of these issues e.g. a bus driver could stop at any stop where they see a VIP and let them know which bus they are and where they are going.

Finding a stop is a tricky task to perform without sight. Stops are not accessibly marked and demarcated. It can be difficult to tell if a pole, lamp post with bin or a shelter is the bus stop e.g. some are on lampposts not at shelters so a VIP may not be sure if they are at the bus stop. Sometimes the shelter is some distance from the stop so when it is raining the driver may not see a person in the shelter. New bus stops which are like glass cubicles could be clearer if they had something to distinguish them as bus stops. Problems are encountered leading to frustration when a bus stop is re/moved and this information is not publicised. Sometimes the closest stop to the destination can not be used because of other obstructions e.g. road works.

There can be confusion as to whether it is necessary to hail a bus or not, sometimes the drivers stop sometimes they do not. Particularly in Camden, if you are not waving frantically the bus drives past, this can be a problem if you are partially sighted and don't recognise the bus until too late. A totally blind person may not even realise they have missed their bus. A trick used by the VI is to make themselves as visible as possible so that hopefully the driver will see them and stop even if they are not hailed.

Buses that are supposed to stop directly at a stop do not always pull over to the kerb but stop in the road. This means that a VIP has to walk into the road and find the doors to board the bus. If they have not stopped directly at the stop, a guide dog may guide it's owner to the wrong doors. A situation where this is likely to occur is when multiple buses stop in the same area. A VIP may not be aware which bus is coming especially if it is hidden behind another one.

Inconsistent design of the buses is a major issue that causes confusion because it is particularly difficult to get used. Not all buses are kneeling buses even though these were mentioned as being easier to use. Deep steps at the entrance can be difficult to judge. Steps on buses along the main gangway can be easily tripped over. The position and shape of the seating various on every bus. The egress of some seats can be difficult when there are no rails to help lever oneself up. Another inconsistency lies with the position of handrails with bells on which should be strongly contrasted to the background. The bells used to be on every handrail but they aren't on newer buses. Handles and poles can be difficult to negotiate when placed in the centre of a doorway, especially for larger people or those with a guide dog and shopping. Doors need to be designed so that they do not injure people standing close that are not aware of their movement mechanisms. Bus colour schemes used need to be investigated further. The bus lighting can also be poor at night until it opens it's door at a stop. Partially sighted people may not realise a bus is approaching because it is poorly lit especially in winter. There is rarely a suitable place for a guide dog to be situated. A seat near the driver to hear when your alighting stop is, can obstruct the passageway for other users. A common complaint with elderly travellers is that buses can start with a forceful lurch that can send anyone off balance.

It is easiest to get off the bus if you know it's your stop and the driver has stopped at the stop. But there can be a lot of people standing at the stop waiting to get on and a VIP may end up trapped in the shelter until the stampede abates. Sometimes the bus can not park at the stop because there is a parked car, railings or other street furniture, so a VIP has to walk around these whilst on the road.

It may be surprising that a quarter of the elderly people in Camden use the tube about ten times a week. In the inner city, the 50-60 age group that have lost their sight use the underground because they have announcements. Sometimes alternative routes are chosen which may not be the most direct but are more relaxing and accessible e.g. because they have announcements.

The Underground provides the service of booking assistance if it's needed which VIP tend to use. They report that the staff are very helpful. If assistance is not booked, staff can be difficult to find. If more staff were available people would also feel less anxious and safer.

The new stations can be harder to negotiate than the older ones due to their size and signage. Automatic ticket machines are not VI friendly and many do not issue concessionary tickets. Automatic ticket barriers can be difficult for VIP to use. Stairs can be a problem so ramps are easier to use. Audible announcements would be helpful if they indicate which way the entrance or connections are particularly stairs and lifts because guide dogs can not use moving escalators. Stepping of the tube onto a flush level platform is ideal.

A lack of design problems were reported within the carriages. Seats with an arm rest can be too small and VIP often may try to sit on them but they can help elderly people's egress. They would be better if spaced more widely apart.

Emergency situations on tubes require easy escape for a person with a guide dog. The staff may be busy dealing with the rest of the public and do not know what to do with a blind person.

Sometimes train staff were helpful whereas others were not. Sometimes when assistance was booked, they were not there when the VIP got off the train, especially if the VIP was required to change trains mid-journey.

Finding out train times and platforms is 'a bit of a nightmare' for someone that is VI. It is made worse by the fact that no one seems to know what is going on and services might not run anyway. Information boards are not accessible to VIP and it is sometimes difficult to locate staff. Audio information can be of very poor quality with simultaneous different announcements occurring in close proximity. It is not always helpful to know where a train is going once it has commenced it's journey especially if you are on the wrong train. Trains with audible announcements were appreciated. Audio information needs to be informative by announcing the train and it's destinations before departing. Also the name of each station on route and which side the platform is on. Information about the next stop, relevant platform number and what interchanges for important connecting trains are possible could also be helpful. Identifying the right train or finding obscure platforms can be tricky due to inconsistent designs and noise levels.
Inside stations, hanging phone boxes can easily be bumped into when a white stick misses them.

Within the trains, the seat design and layout varies greatly which is a major issue. The poles should be contrasted with the background. Inconsistency with door buttons was mentioned in relation to doors between carriages as well as those to exit the train. Sometimes by the time a totally blind person has found the exiting door buttons, the train is departing from the station. The door design is inconsistent and slam doors can mean that a VIP could easily alight from the wrong side onto the train tracks because they do not know which side the platform is on. A beep from the door buttons can be adequate to allow people to find the platform side and the buttons.

Getting on and off depends on the height and width of the gap between the train and the platform so more time is required by VIP to get on and off trains partly due to the time required to judge the gap. With some 'a leap of faith as to whether you would make it to the platform or not' was reported! Safety when getting on and off trains was mentioned as a priority.


Taxis are very important to the VIP in Camden and they are widely used because of the Taxi-card which gives them reduced rate journeys. The Taxi-card is not good in outer London boroughs - need guaranteed trips both ways. It's better to use minicab voucher schemes because they are more cost effective and easier to use. VIP that travel abroad, tend to have problems getting to airports so will generally just use a taxi.

With black cabs it is difficult to know where the microphone is so a VIP may lean forward to talk to the driver which means they may hear less well.
The main problem with taxis is that a lot of minicabs are anti-guide dogs.

Involvement in Design
AB was involved in the project which initiated the active talking sign posts in Leeds.

SP used to be involved with the Transport Forum which does not seem to still be active. They discussed transport issues and possible talking bus stops. She also attended Local Authority meetings.

All the VI respondents wanted to be consulted on transport issues by their local authorities. This could be done with the designers and users participating together, not in a purely advisory capacity but actively at every stage.


"The whole experience of travelling can be quite stressful."

Emergency situations or the unexpected are very difficult to cope with. When things don't go according to plan e.g. buses don't stop, trains are late, assistance is not there or if routes are changed mid-journey, can cause panic to understand what is going on and find an alternative route. Situations that are out of their control that require people to travel seem to be more stressful e.g. a hospital appointment that can not be missed. Being late or the embarrassment of being late can cause trepidation. Simply not knowing where to go, where you are on-route or ending up on the wrong train or bus is a source of anxiety. Narrow pavements cause VIP to express worry about something mounting the pavement or that they may inadvertently stray into the road. This fear of the unknown can make the travelling an unpleasant experience.

SP's friend's guide dog fell down the gap between the train and the platform and had ended up under a train. This scared SP so much that she is very worried every time she is alighting from a train that this could happen to her dog. Even though this had never happened to her, she was still affected by it.


'Accessible' implies a person can independently do what they want to do but VIP are often reliant on the goodwill of the public to help them. In the transport realm, VIPs concerns can be broken down into technical - lack of accessible information and consistency - and human issues - with bus drivers, workmen, cyclists etc. There was also recognition of the conflict of needs between providers and different groups of users. One solution is not presumed enough to remedy the lack of accessibility that VIP face whilst travelling but a combination of solutions - focusing on simplicity - may decrease perceived barriers.

A major problem for VIP within the transport network is getting information. Generally, information may or may not be available in an accessible format. The real problems start when anything goes wrong where even if information is provided, it can be difficult to act on. Audible - speech and/or tones - and tactile indicators combined would improve the accessibility for totally blind people. Audio information needs to be clear so that people that are hard of hearing can also benefit from it. Large print would be beneficial for partially sighted people. Improving access to information is a valuable theme to pursue further because improvements can be seen more quickly than in other areas e.g. through stock design.

Other areas where remedies could be sought include co-operation, training and awareness. Liasing must lead to co-operation between the different transport companies and local authorities. Consultation by the councils or vehicle designers was thought to be beneficial. With legislation / standardisation to ensure consistent designs.

Building education and awareness - especially of the general public - was iterated repeatedly. People's attitudes need to be more compassionate e.g. a VI person may sit next to someone even though the bus is empty. In the follow-up interviews conducted, a VIP reported that they have been subjected to verbal abuse by transport operatives. When boarding a bus comments were received such as "You can put your hand out at any time you know!" and "What's the matter with you, are you blind or something?"


Appendix 1: Attendees Details
Appendix 2: Facilitator's Script


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