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No Way To Go: Transport and Social Disadvantage in Australian Communities




This chapter examines transport in the context of Australians who have some form of disability. It examines the travel behaviour of Australians with disabilities, identifies their transport needs and problems and highlights measures aimed at alleviating transport disadvantage. The major challenges of providing universal access are identified.


It has long been recognised that people with disabilities face difficulties in travelling and that this can be associated with limited life opportunities (Travers Morgan 1992; Social Exclusion Unit 2003; Lucas 2004; Dodson et al. 2004). These difficulties are typically seen to arise as ‘barriers’ to access and use of transport systems as detailed in the typology developed by Evans and White (1998) as illustrated in Table 1.

It is worth noting here an important distinction in terminology – or models of disability – that has significant bearing upon the provision of transport services for people with disabilities. The medical model of disability proposes that a person with a disability is handicapped by his or her impairment, whilst the social model of disability is based upon the premise that it is the environment that handicaps (Finkelstein 1980; Oliver 1983). Disabled People’s International (DPI) clarifies this definition, ‘a disability is the functional limitation within the individual caused by physical, mental or sensory impairment... A handicap is the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in the normal life of the community on an equal level with others due to physical and social barriers’ (DPI 1982).

Evans and White’s (1998) typology focuses on the physical barriers to access, but other barriers leading to transport disadvantage are important to note. A UK report on social exclusion and public transport noted four generic types of barriers: affordability, acceptability, availability, and accessibility (DETR 2000), but there are many social and psychological barriers resulting in transport disadvantage for people with disabilities, and indeed other members of the public. Society’s perceptions of people with disabilities can compound handicaps. Goldsmith (1976) notes that:

In the action of life the person with a disability is doubly handicapped. First, he is handicapped simply because he does not physically have the capabilities that others have. This can have a variety of effects, causing social, financial and emotional deprivations. Second, he is handicapped because he is perceived by others as handicapped, because there is a social doctrine which says that to have a disability is to be blighted and impoverished (Goldsmith 1976, p. 13).

Table 1 Disability Barriers to Travel (Adapted from Evans and White 1998)

People need to feel that they are accepted by society – that is, that they are a part of society, not apart from it. The majority of people (to a greater or lesser extent), compare themselves to others, as a form of self-questioning and appraisal, looking for clues to establish whether they fit into what is deemed socially acceptable and normal. For people with disabilities, many of the clues indicate that they do not conform to what is deemed ‘normal’, and so many feel apart from society. Society reinforces these clues, as Thomas (1982) points out:

To be perceived as a handicapped person is to experience a distinct social status. These perceptions and the values associated with them give meaning to being handicapped, and such meaning appears to involve feelings and styles of behaviour which provide the handicapped person with clues to his social and personal worth (pp. 16–17).

A major result of these barriers is reduced trip making compared to others in society: people with disabilities make only a third of the number of trips (8 per week) as the rest of the community (24 per week). Indeed a common misconception is that there is no demand for travel by disabled people because trip rates are low:

It is all too easy to fall into the trap of seeing no people with disabilities in a particular situation and then assuming that there is no demand from people with disabilities for the facility or service. The reality, more often than not, is that the demand is there, but the way things currently are precludes access (Ker 1996, p. 14).

A related misconception is unestimated scale of disability in the Australian community. ABS (2003a) reports that 20 per cent of Australians report a disability of some kind. This is considerably higher than that reported in Europe (10 per cent, ECMT 1986) and the UK (14.2 per cent, Martin et al. 1988a; 1988b) although different definitions are often applied, acting to confuse comparisons of this kind. There are also additional, perhaps less obvious, disabilities to consider – such as asthma, epilepsy, obesity and diabetes – and temporary disabilities that result from some kind of injury, that are rarely recorded, reported or classified as disabilities in population statistics.

What is not often understood are the strong links between the characteristics of people who have disabilities and other types of transport disadvantage. Table 2 lists social groups which are commonly associated with transport disadvantage (based on Travers Morgan 1992; Social Exclusion Unit 2003; Lucas 2004; Dodson et al. 2004). Statistics that measure these factors for the Australian community are shown for those who have disabilities and also for those without disabilities.

It is clear from this that disability in this context is strongly interlinked with transport disadvantage and its association with low income and unemployment but with older age in particular. The later is significant because the share of Australia’s older population is forecast to grow into the future; indeed, in this century, the proportion of the population aged 65 and over is set to rise from 13 per cent of the total population to between 29 per cent and 32 per cent. More significantly, the proportion of the population aged 85 and over is set to rise from 1 per cent of the total population to between 7 and 11 per cent. ‘Growth in this age group is of particular interest, given the potential need for support among the frail aged, for example in the area of assisted housing, health and disability services’ (ABS 2004).

Table 2 Disability Within the Context of Other Social Groups Associated with Transport Disadvantage – Australia (ABS 2003a; 2003b)

In addition Table 2 suggests that a higher share of Australians with disabilities live in regional and rural Australia compared with those who do not have disabilities. The implication is that there is a higher representation of disability in regional and rural communities where car dependence is more pronounced and where public transport access is limited or non-existent.

An interesting question arises from the data in Table 2: is disability a cause of low income or unemployment or is lack of transport a factor which acts to influence income and employment? There are many examples where lack of suitable transport has been cited as a barrier to employment. The Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) national inquiry into disability and employment (HREOC 2005) identified difficulties in getting to and from work including lack of physical access and high transport costs (e.g. due to the need for taxis) as major barriers to work. This mirrors similar findings from the US, where, ‘in a 1994 Harris poll, 24 per cent of Americans with disabilities cited a lack of affordable transportation as the reason for their unemployment... Full access to public and private transportation is perhaps the single largest barrier to employment for people with disabilities’ (CFILC 2005). One submission to the HREOC Inquiry from the Physical Disability Council of Australia (PDCA 2004) cited fourteen individual case studies, eleven of which responded that transport was an important consideration. Accessibility, affordability, reliability, and safety of public transport were common concerns. Even when attempts had been made to make public transport more accessible for people with disabilities (PWDs) problems still arise:

For example, the train lines in Perth are ‘accessible’ [sic] however some stations are not level with the train and there are usually gaps between the train and station in which small tyres can become stuck. The solution for this is to provide ramps, however the ramps are not available at all stations and require you to ring in advance a few hours before travelling. This is both impractical and inconvenient and does little to promote empowerment and independant [sic] living for PWDs [people with disabilities] (PDCA 2004, p. 10).

Whilst evidence supports the correlation between employment opportunities and transport availability and accessibility, there are other quality of life indicators that are co-dependent upon transport that are often overlooked.

Transportation enables us to work, choose where to live, pursue an education, access health care, worship, shop, and participate in recreational activities... For many people with disabilities, life is severely limited by the lack of transportation. Some people with disabilities who are willing and able to work cannot do so because of inadequate transportation. Others cannot shop, socialise, enjoy recreational or spiritual activities, or even leave their homes for the same reason. Some individuals with disabilities must live in institutions solely because of the lack of transportation to medical appointments (NCD 2005, p.8).

In a car dependent Australia, limitations on the ability to drive has been seen as a major constraint on the personal mobility of Australians with disabilities; ‘The greatest mobility deficiency for people with disabilities arises from the more common inability to drive a car. This is an often unavoidable consequence of disability’ (Ker 1996, p. 3).


While the frequency of travel of disabled people is lower than the rest of the population, travel that does occur has many similarities to other groups; Figure 1. Car driving in particular is the dominant form of travel. Getting a lift from others is the next most common form of travel followed by walking and public transport use.

Compared to the rest of the Australian population, people with disabilities demonstrate over five times as much lifted travel and greater walking. Public transport usage is slightly less.

There is a strong relationship between the severity of disability (referred to as core-activity limitation in Figure 2) and transport mode for those able to travel: Figure 2.

Those with ‘profound or severe’ disabilities mainly travel by getting a lift or else travel less. Driving and public transport use is less in this group. The implication is that more severe forms of disability act to limit personal freedom and to increase reliance on others for lifts. Although getting a lift is much appreciated by those being helped, some people with disabilities experience frustration at the resultant lack of control, autonomy and independence. Being helped can be viewed as synonymous with being helpless, and in this regard, the reliance on others reinforces this view.

Figure 1 Mode of Travel to Work or Education (ABS 2003a; ABS 2006)

Figure 2 Mode of Work/Education by Nature of Disability – Disabled Australians (ABS 2003a)


Table 3 summarises the forms of transport assistance available for Australians with disabilities.

Table 3 Local Travel Assistance Available for Australians with Disabilities

In 2005 some 49,215 Australians received the mobility allowance, which has demonstrated a 40 per cent increase in uptake between 2000 and 2005 (DoEWR 2005). During this period the largest increases were of people in the older age groups. The HREOC national inquiry into disability and employment (HREOC 2005) recommended increases in the size of the mobility allowance due to identified financial barriers limiting access to employment for disabled people. As a measure targeted to work or education, this is a measure which does not address needs for access to other trip purposes.

Community transport encompasses a large range of service types operated on a local scale by usually voluntary sector groups. It can encompass:

•   Door-to-door or door-through-door (where a person needs assistance getting out of their house and into the vehicle)

•   Locally operated to serve the needs of community members

•   Designed for people who are unable to use other forms of transport

•   A low cost form of transport (Harris and Tapsas 2006)

These can be highly valued services for people with disabilities as they meet particular, personal needs often taking passengers to otherwise difficult to reach destinations such as medical appointments or shops at a low cost. Community transport services however are often poorly resourced. A survey by Harris and Tapsas (2006) of community transport facilities in Victorian local government areas found that most buses used for community transport (77 per cent) were used for door-to-door transport. However 33 per cent of responding service providers reported undertaking no form of promotion of their services, most often citing an inability to meet current demands as the main reason. This is perhaps unsurprising considering that of the average 3.28 buses that each municipality had, only 13 per cent were low floor buses and many of the services are volunteer dependent. The share of community buses that are accessible to people with disabilities is known to be low. Typically these vehicles are highly valued by those in the community who have disabilities.

Battellino (1994) states that community transport vehicles are often provided on a welfare basis and that, ‘because of the limitation of resources, services are supplied only to a small section of the deserving population who have become aware of and have availed themselves of the service’. As such there is expected to be a large pool of untapped demand for such services which is not met either because of lack of resources, or because those in need are either not aware of, or choose not to use, the services available. A large range of studies have identified poor utilisation of services in this sector due to lack of sharing of vehicles between voluntary groups who own them (e.g. Travers Morgan 1992).

The door to door features of Taxi services make them an attractive, though expensive, option for people with disabilities. A range of specialist user subsidy schemes is operated by each state to assist in off-setting these costs. For example the Melbourne Multi-Purpose Taxi Program (MPTP) allows members to travel in any licensed Victorian taxi and pay half fare. However there is a maximum discount of $30 per trip and a limit to use of up to $1,030 per year. Approximately 180,000 people are registered users of the program and an estimated 5.5 million trips are taken each year requiring a $270 average subsidy per user (Harris and Tapsas 2006, p. 8).

Problems with these services exist however most noticeably for rural users of the service where the $30 cap provides significant problems and also in a lack of integration with other transport services. Nonetheless taxi services are convenient means of transport for people with disabilities and one that many see as a vital resource. Harris and Tapsas (2006) wrote that stakeholders wanted to see a greater utilisation of them: ‘Seeing taxi services as a key transport resource and integrating this service with other forms of transport, especially community transport, was seen as vitally important’ (p. 16).

A major problem with taxi user subsidy schemes throughout Australia has been growing demand for membership and pressures from existing members to increase the size of annual trip restrictions. In addition up-scaling the size of taxi vehicles which are accessible to people with disabilities has been required. Each of these systems are highly pressed during commuter peaks due to high levels of booking for access to wheelchair taxis and limited fleet size of these vehicles. Taxi user subsidy schemes like the subsidies associated with the mobility allowance are demonstrating a strong latent demand for increased access amongst Australians with disabilities.

Public transport is potentially a cheaper alternative to taxi travel for people with disabilities in Metropolitan areas; however, significant problems in accessing services have been identified, indeed some 16 per cent of Australians with disabilities noted that it was not available or not known about in their area. Of those who did travel outside their homes, over 30 per cent said they had difficulty using public transport. Of those who had difficulties, 14 per cent said getting into or out of vehicles was a major issue (mainly step heights), 6.7 per cent noted difficulties in getting access to stops or stations, 4.4 per cent noted pain or discomfort while seated and 4 per cent noted lack of seating or standing difficulties as major challenges. A large range of other challenges were highlighted including fear and anxiety, difficulties in crowds or lack of space and cognitive difficulties (ABS 2003a).


Oliver and Barnes (1991) classified three areas of discrimination against people with disabilities: direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, and unequal burdens, and Mathews (2002) notes that ‘all three types of discrimination are present in transport and their effects are to limit the mobility of disabled people and their access to the range of services and activities which contribute to quality of life’ (Mathews 2002, p. 43).

The Federal Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA) prohibits direct and indirect discrimination on the grounds of disability and makes it unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of disability in a wide range of areas including: sport, access to premises, accommodation, education, employment and the provision of goods, services and facilities (HREOC 2006).

Public transport plays a key role in the DDA and part of the act includes a series of standards relating to public transport, the Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport (DSAPT).

In recognition of the importance of public transport to people with disabilities, Parliament passed in October 2002 the Disability Standards for Public Transport under the Disability Discrimination Act, which outlines measures that transport operators and providers should take to make public transport more accessible (AIHW 2003, p. 45).

These standards provide transport operators and providers with certainty about their obligations under the DDA and if complied with, provide operators protection from a complaint or unlawful discrimination. According to the Attorney-General’s Department:

The Standards establish minimum accessibility requirements to be met by providers and operators of public transport conveyances, infrastructure and premises... The Standards set out requirements in relation to issues such as access paths, manoeuvring areas, ramps and boarding devices, allocated spaces, handrails, doorways, controls, symbols and signs, the payment of fares and the provision of information (Attorney-General’s Department 2006).

Since 2002, all new public transport infrastructure and services must comply with these standards and existing infrastructure must be ‘retro fitted’ over a 20-year period from this date. There are interim progress requirements for most areas of the DSAPT of 25 per cent, 55 per cent, 90 per cent and 100 per cent by the end of 2007, 2012, 2017 and 2022 respectively. There are some exceptions to this such as waiting areas, signs and symbols, lighting, alarms, ticketing and information systems requiring to be fully compliant by 2007, while trains and trams have until 2032 to achieve the last 10 per cent of full compliance (DOI 2006a, p. 10).

No work has been undertaken to assess how compliance with these standards has acted to improve the mobility of Australians with disabilities however progress in this area is plausible and progress in infrastructure improvements have occurred. A review of the DDA in 2004 found that the number of Australians with disabilities using public transport had increased from 1.1M in 1981 to 3.3M in 1998, a 300 per cent increase in 17years (Productivity Commission 2004). However clearly this growth was not related to the DDA which commenced in 2002.

Major challenges have been found in retro-fitting existing infrastructure and there is some doubt that all public transport agencies will achieve there allotted compliance schedule. The costs of meeting the requirement of the DDA have been put at $3.8B (1999, Productivity Commission 2004) while the measurable economic benefits were valued at $1.4B).

Several commentators have also pointed out that providing access using public transport is a limited perspective. Austroads (1999) argued that reducing barriers to access requires a ‘whole of journey approach’. This involves not simply focussing on implementing low floor buses and accessible bus stops, but rather focussing on the total trip, door to door, thus involving many different stakeholders, businesses and government departments. ‘Accessible transport does not fit neatly into any single Council process or department because the ‘whole of journey’ concept crossed a number of disciplines’ (Austroads 1999, p. 10). Whether this be designing estates so that low floor buses can negotiate the roads, upgrading areas around, not just at, bus stops, or ensuring that communication lines are open between government, private enterprise and the public.

In reviewing the UK’s Disability Discrimination Act in regard to accessible public transport, Mathews (2002) cites a major problem in accountability given that transport infrastructure is treated separately from vehicles, so in the case of train access the responsibility for access is placed upon the train operator, and not the station operator. The Australian perspective is also problematic; is it the responsibility of the vehicle operator, the supplier or manufacturer of that vehicle, the local councils where the vehicle operates, the State governments or the Federal Government, the public or the individual to ensure that barriers to public transport for people with disabilities are removed?


Transport is vital in enabling opportunities for people with disabilities to participate wholly in society, and quality of life indicators such as employment, social connectedness, civil and political rights, access to health, and education are severely restricted without such access. Access to public transport provides much sought after independence and autonomy and permits greater integration in society.

Community integration is not only about where someone lives, but also about his or her relationship with the surrounding community. Without a way to get around, a person can remain isolated wherever he or she lives. Meaningful community integration therefore requires that a person have access to transportation that is both affordable and available for desired purposes (UPenn 2006).

A lack of access to transport would be severely limiting for anyone, but the consequences of limited mobility for people with disabilities are typically more severe, as much of their quality of life is dependent upon transport.

There has been a marked increase in travel by Australians with disabilities in the last 25 years (Productivity Commission 2004), and this is set to continue as mandates of the DDA come to fruition over the next 25 years. There is also much national and international evidence of latent demand for travel by people with disabilities (Fowkes et al. 1994; Harris and Tapsas 2006; Mathews 2002; PDCA 2004), and this is set to rise with an increasing ageing population (ABS 2004). The salient question is whether, or rather how, the transport system can cope with the increased demand for travel and fulfil the requirements of the DDA completely within the next 25 years. This is particularly pertinent for the public transport industry – there maybe an insatiable desire for public transport travel as the rest of the population migrate away from private car dependence – and whether there is sufficient funding and intent to support it. In the short to medium term there is likely to be a shortfall between capacity and demand for accessible transport unless a multi-disciplinary approach is taken that ensures accountability whilst involving the public, councils, government, vehicle designers/manufacturers, city and landscape architects, and of course people with disabilities. Such an approach maybe seen to be costly, but the costs of not doing so could be much higher.

Whilst there are significant financial subsidy implications in providing increased mobility and access to transport for Australians with disabilities, measuring the cost solely in financial terms is a limited, but often convenient, perspective. There is argument to support that ‘on social welfare grounds, the benefits of removing barriers outweigh the costs of so doing’ (Mathews 2002, p. 42). Indeed, there can be many on-benefits of making transport more universally accessible, after all, the access issues facing parents with pushchairs, tourists with luggage, cyclists, or shoppers with heavy bags, are not that dissimilar to those of wheelchair users. ‘Dealing with transportation challenges can be beneficial to everyone and extends far beyond questions of civil ‘right.’ Improving the quality of public transportation in particular can be an effective solution to transportation concerns that effect society in general’ (CFILC 2005).


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Cite this chapter as: Currie, Graham; Allen, Jon. (2007). ‘Australians with disabilities: Transport disadvantage and disability’. In No way to go: Transport and social disadvantage in Australian communities, edited by Currie, Graham; Stanley, Janet; Stanley, John. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 7.1–7.13. DOI: 10.2104/nwtg0707.

© Copyright 2007 Graham Currie and Jon Allen
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No Way To Go: Transport and Social Disadvantage in Australian Communities

   by Graham Currie