Editorial – Áine Kelly-Costello, Focus editor

The General Election is around the corner. That means it’s a good time to remind all political parties that campaigning for a transport system which works for everyone and reduces emissions needs to work for blind people too. I’ve rounded up a handful of the transport issues which are particularly relevant for many of us as blind, vision impaired, low vision and deafblind commuters, in search of convenient, affordable and accessible ways of getting around.

The mixed blessing of Total Mobility

Total Mobility (TM) is a regionally-administered scheme providing taxi subsidies to disabled people, and people who are unable to use public transport easily. Blind people qualify for the scheme. At its best, TM can make getting around significantly less hassle and more affordable. 

Basically, a 75% subsidy is now in place for TM users. The subsidy, however, includes a cap, which is $40 in the large urban centres of Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland and Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, and is lower in all other regions. Effectively, these settings mean that travelling short distances via taxi becomes significantly more affordable, but that the further you go, the less you are proportionally subsidised, leaving barriers in place for those needing to taxi longer distances, such as between the North Shore and South Auckland.

A review to investigate how Total Mobility operates and how it can be improved to create better outcomes for disabled people. led by Te Manatū Waka, the Ministry of Transport, is due to start this year and run through to mid-2024. Blind Citizens NZ has inputted into and influenced the terms of reference for the review. The ministry’s Helen White, Manager Mobility and Safety, confirmed that the terms of reference will be shared publicly shortly. 

Disabled people will be able to input into the review and the consultation materials will be available in accessible formats. 

A review will be welcomed, given persistent challenges including the inconsistencies in the administration of TM between regions, sometimes lengthy taxi wait times, and chronic shortages of the mobility vans many wheelchair users rely on.

Public transport accessibility

Public transport commuter frustrations have been in the news frequently this year. In Auckland and Wellington, bus cancellations and trains replaced by buses have both turned into everyday occurrences. This unpredictability causes blind public transport users additional layers of stress, especially as we can’t always access the information on real-time boards. Even without the added chaos, catching the desired bus and getting it to stop without needing it to be flagged down was already challenging.

Another long-standing barrier has been a lack of audio announcements on buses. The Auckland Branch of Blind Citizens NZ have long advocated for this to be remedied in the country’s largest city. It was one of a suite of public transport accessibility improvements called for in a complaint they brought in 2017 under the Human Rights Act. Although the pandemic delayed the roll-out, stop announcements in English and te reo Māori are rolling out this year [1] and Auckland Branch members have been heavily involved in the process, selecting the voices for both languages. Some also took part in testing how the announcements would work on the buses
 to give the right level of information, timing between stops and ensuring the announcements could be heard clearly given environmental sounds. The announcements will additionally include info on transfers, live service disruption information and contextual snippets about historic locations.

Similar advocacy has been taking place in the Wellington region [2]. Branch members have been among those providing feedback on the audio announcements, which will similarly be in English and te reo Māori, include points of interest and be accompanied by a visual display. Testing on select buses is in its final stages at present with the roll-out for the full bus fleet taking place in the next 12 months. 

Also, while a strong public good case can be made for free public transport for everyone, the continuation of half-price public transport for Community Services Card users from 1 July is welcome. It doesn’t kick in by default though and cardholders need to apply for it through the relevant local transport provider.

A halfway house between public transport and taxis

One way of getting around which, if equitably-implemented, could be a game-changer for many disabled people, is on-demand transport services. These consist of a fleet of vans and shuttles offering passengers corner to corner, or sometimes door-to-door service to get where they want to go when they want to go, for the same price as a public transport trip. The corner-to-corner service would mean people wouldn’t expect to walk more than 120 metres. Such services have been or are being trialled throughout an expanding range of locations including the Auckland suburbs of Devonport, Takanini and Papakura, as well as Hastings, Hawkes Bay, Tawa Wellington, and Timaru. People can use them to connect with public transport in areas less well-serviced or alternatively to get to their destination in a single trip. They have seen wide-spread uptake in the local communities where trials have taken place, with recognition of their benefits for accessibility [3] as well as being a more tailored and convenient option in areas like Timaru where bus patronage was very low. 

Bookings are required and are generally made via a smartphone app. For those who don’t have smartphones or wouldn’t be comfortable booking this way, alternatives like booking over the phone are also needed. 

That’s been available in Timaru, where you can book via the MyWay app over the phone, or by visiting locations like supermarkets, banks and hospitals. In contrast, the trial in Wellington’s Tawa only lets you book via the Metlink OnDemand app. In Timaru and Auckland, you can pay using a transport card but in Tawa you would need to pay with a credit card. It’s also unclear to what extent screen reader users can receive descriptive information about the exact location of the pick-up spot, and a non-visual realtime indication where the vehicle is located as it travels there. 

Walking around in safety

From inconsistency at intersections to overhanging branches, sandwich boards and potholes, there’s no shortage of unnecessary hazards when it comes to walking around safely. While e-scooters provide a convenient and accessible form of mobility for many including some disabled people, they’ve posed no end of hazards to other footpath users, not least those of us who can’t see them approaching or inconsiderately parked. The e-scooters are virtually silent so the ideal option for staying safer involves getting them prohibited from riding on footpaths. Councils can also choose to impose upper speed limits which can be preset by the e-scooter operators.

Living Streets Aotearoa, an organisation promoting walking-friendly communities, recently brought a lawsuit seeking grounds for e-scooters to be banned from footpaths in Auckland. The challenge failed in the High Court, with the ruling citing a technicality [4] about the UN Disability Convention not being applicable because it isn’t written into Waka Kotahi’s (NZ Transport Agency’s) controlling legislation. While it’s unclear if there is any penalty in practice, Waka Kotahi guidance [5] says e-scooters still can’t officially be used in cycle lanes. From the perspective of footpath and e-scooter rider safety, this would be the logical place for them to ride when that infrastructure is available.

Another cause of confusion has been the installation of green warning tactile indicators (the regular ones are typically yellow or white). The regulations about these tactiles, known as RTS14 [6], explain as follows:

“Where pedestrian and/or cycle volumes are high, paint marking can be used to indicate that pedestrians are to use one side of the crossing and cyclists the other to avoid conflict between these users. In such circumstances, warning indicators shall be installed across the entire width of the shared crossing, including the area allocated for cyclists. This will ensure that any person who is blind or has low vision that is walking in the area allocated to cyclists will receive a tactile warning prior to entering the road.” 

That said, there is a risk with this arrangement, as some blind pedestrians in Wellington have detected. Given the tactiles are also covering the cycle crossing area, lining up with the tactiles to cross (keeping in mind those without colour vision won’t know which tactiles are green) could point the pedestrian somewhere undesirable such as the middle of an intersection. The use of well-positioned directional tactile indicators then becomes crucial to offset this risk. The alternative of no tactile warning about a shared crossing space, especially when such crossings may not be in predictable positions, could also pose a hazard, so this area would benefit from more proactive outreach to the blind community and ensuring our feedback is taken into account.

Another safety issue is posed by electric vehicles (EVs) if they don’t have systems built in for emulating combustion engine sounds when idling or travelling at low speeds. Since March 2016, Aotearoa New Zealand has been signed up to UN regulations [7] requiring EVs to be fitted with the technology to do this, known as Acoustic Vehicle Alerting systems (AVAS). Since a 2017 update [8] to the rules, the AVAS systems are not permitted to have a pause function (otherwise known as a driver-controlled off switch). Despite this, UN regulations don’t carry any formal legal weight here until they’re implemented in our national law, which this one hasn’t been. The European Union and US have EV sound standards and Australia is consulting on one currently [9]. Our country, meanwhile, still has nothing. 

Envisioning a disability-responsive transport system 

An overarching barrier for disabled people getting around comes down to the fragmented nature of our transport system. Recent transport research commissioned by Waka Kotahi found that our transport system is overly reliant on measuring journey possibilities by transport mode, and not accounting for the additional barriers disabled people face. For us as blind people, many of the barriers extend beyond those already outlined to needing to meticulously plan our journeys, navigating the unpredictability of construction sites or encountering other unexpected obstacles or disruptions. As the research notes, “While individual factors such as footpath standard and the presence of tactile pavers are important, it is the combined impact of a multitude of barriers that makes for long and tiring journeys for many disabled people.” That means the chances we’ll just end up staying home because the journey requires too much effort are higher, which obviously has the knock-on effect of making us miss things, whether that be a friend’s party, a community meeting, a medical appointment, or limiting our job or study opportunities. 

One of the main barriers holding back progress in our transport system is the fact that so much of it relies on local-level regulation and policy. Imagine if we had a national transport accessibility standard. In one hit, we could regulate to make sure that public transport nation-wide is equipped with audio announcements and that EVs must be safely audible. We could nationalise Total Mobility, and remove the subsidy cap or even make it free, to vastly reduce barriers to accessing our communities for many. 

We could ensure widespread investment in separated micro-mobility lanes where cyclists and e-scooters could safely ride, leaving the footpath for pedestrians and wheelchair users. 

None of these very achievable changes appear to be imminent given that the Accessibility for New Zealanders Bill before Parliament will not create accessibility standards. **In my view** it will achieve nothing more than creating a non-independent advisory committee, making it a massive missed opportunity to make sure tangible and obligatory responsibilities are placed on those offering any publicly available services including transport. 

This Election, let’s remind all parties that disabled people have every right to get around our cities and towns and access our communities conveniently and safely, just as everyone should be able to. 


[1] https://surl.li/idqlp

[2] https://surl.li/idqma

[3] https://surl.li/idqmq

[4] https://surl.li/idqmy 

[5] https://surl.li/idqnh 

[6] https://surl.li/idqnr 

[7] https://surl.li/idqoi

[8] https://surl.li/idqow 

[9] https://surl.li/idqph