Direction of travel: community transport

Written by Kate Shannon on 15 June 2013 in Feature

Community transport initiatives provide vital services across Scotland

For years now, the public sector across Scotland has been forced to tighten its belt. Councils and other public sector bodies must do more, with less resources and savings are being demanded across the board. Reform of public services is top of the agenda for both central and local government and the recommendations of the Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services, led by the late Dr Campbell Christie, are more important than ever. One of the main points made by the commission was as follows: “Reforms must aim to empower individuals and communities receiving public services by involving them in the design and delivery of the services they use.” This certainly applies to community transport.

Community transport helps people to overcome barriers to accessing public transport, for example, where commercial routes are infrequent, too far from people’s houses or non-existent. Community transport can help people with disabilities and health issues who may require specialist accessible vehicles and is a vital service for older people, often enabling them to remain active and valued members of their communities and to live independently in their own homes.

The Community Transport Association (CTA) is the umbrella organisation for community groups, charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises who provide transport. CTA said the Scottish network of community transport operators has been shaped by local authority and community planning decisions, as well as the growth in recent years of the social enterprise model of service delivery.

CTA’s director for Scotland, John MacDonald, told Holyrood: “There are many parts of the country where there is either no public transport whatsoever, or very little public transport. Unless you have your own car, then you are pretty stuck. It is in that scenario where community transport kicks in. Bus is by far the more important form of public transport in Scotland but there was an economic analysis of the bus industry conducted recently which found that over the past four years, there has been something like a 12 per cent decline in the number of miles provided around the country by bus.

“Community transport is particularly used by older people, who even if there is public transport available, may have difficulty using it, and also disabled people. These are the typical users but in other areas, it can be younger people and those of any age. In some rural areas where there is scant or no services, the problem is just as real for young people. With the difficulties facing public finances at the moment, we really have to look at other ways by which we provide public services. In the spirit of the Christie Commission, and when you look at transport, I think that policy makers should be thinking about what more can be done to enable communities to be motivated to run transport services themselves and how can we make that happen.

“Community transport really grew through the late ‘90s into the noughties but in the last few years of the recession, there haven’t been many new initiatives. Arguably, the need for [community transport] is growing but running transport always involves money. Generally, community transport services appear in areas where commercial operators don’t run services because it is not commercially viable. I make the point that now is a good time to be saying, ‘what can we do to enable communities and motivate them to tackle this problem themselves? How can we make it easy for them?’

“One of the biggest problems is replacing vehicles, even for well established community transport operators who have been running for some time. That is something government could help on, by having a vehicle fund, for example. These vehicles have a life of something like eight to 10 years and there comes a point where it can be quite costly to maintain them and they are at the end of their useful life.”

Age Scotland recently launched its Still Waiting campaign for a better bus pass scheme.

The new drive calls on the Scottish Government to adjust the national concessionary travel scheme so that the free bus pass for older people is valid on community transport services. Doug Anthoney, Age Scotland’s communications and campaigns officer, said: “The issue of isolation has increasingly been of concern to Age Scotland. What we’re finding is a lot of older people are fine, they’re connected with their families and communities but there is a significant minority who are becoming quite isolated.

“We thought the most important thing for us would be an adjustment of the national concessionary travel scheme. It’s well established and valued but at the moment what we’re finding is it’s great if you’re able to access commercial, mainstream buses but if you can’t, it can be a real disadvantage. We would like to extend the national scheme to include community transport services.

“Making it free at the point of use, through the bus pass scheme would be an immediate benefit. It would also create a sustainable and more reliable income stream for, predominantly, the voluntary sector groups who are running community transport services, to enable them to plan on a more secure footing for future expansion through need and demand.”

The Scottish Parliament’s Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee is currently undertaking an inquiry looking at how people are travelling in their communities, outside of commercial public transport systems.

The committee wants to look at whether community transport services are able to better meet the needs of the people they serve. It said more than 80 per cent of people who use community transport are elderly and those with disabilities. With the older population ever increasing, the committee said it knows how important community transport is to people’s lives.

The committee said it is aware of the main issues which have been highlighted in previous studies and is keen to move the debate on, identify the main priorities and really make a difference as a result of this inquiry. Some of the points identified include a lack of a strategic approach to community transport and the impact which a lack of transport has on people’s lives; the growing demand for community transport provision; a lack of a coordinated approach with NHS bodies and community transport providers; eligibility criteria for non-emergency patient transport and the cost to the NHS of taxi use and replacing community transport vehicles and funding planning.

Case study: Margaret’s story

82-year-old Margaret lives in Dumfries, just 500 metres away from a main road with two buses an hour going both into and out of the town centre for most of the day. Unfortunately, she is hardly able to walk, and suffers from severe osteoarthritis in her hands and fingers so she can’t use a wheelchair.

She has two mobility scooters; a large one for use in good weather and a smaller one that she had hoped to use to access the bus when the weather was bad. However, she almost always has to use a taxi, due to public transport being non-accessible and a lack of community transport alternatives in her part of the town. The Dial-a-Bus service that used to operate out of a resource centre a couple of miles away has closed down due to a lack of funding, and the boundary of the other one covering Dumfries is a mile away from her home. Furthermore, the buses with adjustable ramps that do pass the end of her street are so restricted in terms of space that she is unable to manoeuvre her small scooter into the area reserved for them.

Margaret says she is very isolated as a result, even though she lives fairly close to the town centre and has only been able to use her larger, outdoor scooter a couple of times this year to get to the bank because of the weather.

She says: “I have a bus pass but it’s of virtually no use to me. I’ve spent most of 2012 sitting at home waiting to die.”

* Case study courtesy of Age Scotland

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