Last reviewed 18 October 2023

The Government is considering changes to important passenger accessibility regulations. This article looks at the current rules and considers how things are likely to change under the new proposals.

PSVAR (the Public Service Vehicles Accessibility Regulations) apply to all new public service vehicles (buses or coaches) which have been introduced in England, Scotland and Wales since 31 December 2000, provided that they have a capacity exceeding 22 passengers and are used to provide a local or scheduled service. The Department for Transport (DfT) says that the Regulations were created to deliver equality of opportunity for disabled bus and coach users, enabling all passengers to travel easily, confidently and safely. According to the Minister for Roads and Local Transport, Richard Holden, 99% of local buses in Great Britain have an accessibility certificate to show that they are complying with PSVAR — so is there a need for a change?

Under review

The Government would argue that there is improving technology and that the effects of the pandemic have created a new environment for passenger transport and an ageing population means that fresh thought needs to be given to how a growing number of older, possibly disabled, passengers access vehicles at bus and coach stations and stops. Recognising these changed circumstances, the 2021 National Bus Strategy (NBS) committed the Government to review key regulations to improve bus accessibility. In June 2023, it issued a call for evidence as part of its review of PSVAR 2000.

Rest of the world

It is important to note that the PSVAR informed the development of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UN ECE) regulations for the construction of buses and coaches, which set the international benchmark for accessibility standards. This has implications for the current review, as the accessibility features of buses and coaches, such as minimum door widths and step heights, are set out in the schedules of the PSVAR and might be the subject of suggested changes by respondents to the call for evidence. However, these features are regulated by international agreements which would make it difficult for the DfT to respond positively to any such suggestions.

As indicated above, Annex 8 of UN ECE Regulation 107 sets out the required accessibility requirements here. Furthermore, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), negotiated with the European Union following the withdrawal of the UK from the EU, requires that the PSVAR does not significantly diverge from UN 107. This means that buses and coaches manufactured in the UK, the EU, the United States and Japan are constructed to meet the same minimum accessibility standards. Any changes would, the DfT highlights, be a multi-year process requiring the agreement of the other signatories. This would require a proposal for change, with a body of accompanying evidence demonstrating where improvements to UN 107 could be made.

Possible changes

If certain amendments are out of bounds for these reasons, at least for the foreseeable future, what improvements would be possible? One point highlighted in the DfT call for evidence is that, while the vehicles may meet the required standards, there is still a wide disparity in public transport use by disabled and non-disabled adults. For example, disabled adults in England made 28% fewer trips across all modes of transport in 2020 and in 2021, which is only positive in that it is at least an improvement on the 39% fewer trips in they made in 2017 (pre-pandemic). This clearly suggests that more needs to be done.

The DfT argues that there is a lack of understanding on the experience of neurodivergent passengers (for example, those with autism) when using PSVs as there is for most other non-visible disabilities. It points to a similar lack of understanding around how PSVs could be better adapted to improve the experience of ambulant passengers (passengers with physical disabilities who can move around with accessibility aids, such as crutches). “The PSVAR have a strong focus on wheelchair accessibility,” the DfT notes. “But the regulations could benefit from further consideration of other passengers, such as people with visual and or hearing impairments, and people with restricted growth or short stature.”

Coaches need to catch up

While full compliance with the PSVAR was expected by 1 January 2020, many coach PSVs have not achieved the required level of accessibility. Scheduled coaches are broadly compliant, but rail replacement and home-to-school services provided by coaches have been the subject of complaints (although a lack of data in these areas makes drawing conclusions difficult).

Good practice

Anyone interested in the future of PSVAR should be encouraged to read the Bus Users Accessibility Audit 2023, available here, this highlights innovation and developments in good practice from operators representing over 40 regions across Great Britain. Bus Users UK said that this year’s survey found increasing recognition of digital exclusion as a barrier to access and inclusion. On-board audio-visual announcements topped the list of features introduced to improve access with non-tech improvements such as additional wheelchair space, room to manoeuvre and leg room also proving to be popular developments. Where operators were falling short, according to Dawn Badminton-Capps, the charity’s Director for England, was with regard to training their drivers in disability awareness and assistance training, with just 89% reporting that this was being carried out. All of them should be doing so, she argued.

Echoing the comments made in the DfT call for evidence, the Accessibility Audit concluded: “The number of people in the UK who are older or have a disability, illness or mental health issue will continue to grow. Anything done to improve their journey will not only benefit current bus users, it will encourage even more of us onto these vital, sustainable services.”

Bus Users UK have its say

Not surprisingly, the charity has also responded to the call for evidence. In a detailed 10-page reply, which can be found here, it argues that design requirements should be updated regularly to address the speed at which design of mobility aids moves and funding should be made available to operators to retrofit accordingly. All school and rail replacement transport should be required to be fully compliant and all leisure coach operators should offer a minimum percentage of accessible excursions per season.

With regard to wheelchairs, it highlights that, once inside the bus, it is often difficult to manoeuvre into spaces because of inappropriately placed poles, inadequate turning circles or footplates on wheelchairs not being able to fit. Many people can only travel with heavier and sometimes wider wheelchairs which take up more space and are hard to fit into the allocated space with arm-rests which do not move. In addition, many people feel sick facing backwards in a moving bus so the standard space does not meet all passengers’ needs. Rear-facing spaces generally do not allow users to see the destination screen. While the AIR (Public Service Vehicles (Accessible Information) Regulations 2023) will address this, Bus Users UK believes that it may take until 2030 for many users to be able to see information that others take for granted.

CPT speaks for the industry

Recognising the importance of the Government’s review of the PSVAR, the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) has also submitted a detailed reply to the call for evidence. Available here, its 36-page response emphasises that the sector is committed to delivering accessible and affordable travel for all passengers. It argues for change as follows: “Currently the Regulations apply to vehicles with a capacity exceeding 22 passengers that are used to provide local and scheduled services. We believe that this ‘scope’ should change such that vehicles on some services that are currently in scope would only need to comply where there is demand, whilst some other services that are currently outside the scope would offer a compliant vehicle but only where there is demand.”

With regard to home-to-school services, it cites data which suggests that provision of PSVAR-compliant PSVs only where there is a need is the correct approach. The CPT also makes the point that operators are having to consider the move to zero emission vehicles as well as possible changes to PVSAR. It emphasises that operators do not want to find themselves in a position where they are compliant under accessibility regulations but are not compliant as far as decarbonisation is concerned, or vice versa. “Operators much prefer an approach that focuses on new vehicles; retrofit to comply with one or other requirement is best avoided,” it concludes.

What next?

The DfT intends to publish the PSVAR Review, which will include a summary of responses to the call for evidence and next steps, by the end of 2023.