Watch out for our scooter-driving baby boomers!
“The ageing population is emerging and appearing—and rolling past you on a mobility scooter.” That’s TDG’s National Specialist in Accessibility, Bridget Burdett, not putting too fine a point on it.
Certainly, it’s not news that New Zealand’s population is ageing. The 2013 Census recorded that the number of people residing in New Zealand aged 65-years and over had nearly doubled since 1981, and increased by over 22 percent since 2006. It’s a trend that will only gather momentum, especially as the cohort of Baby Boomers enter their mid-60s around 2020-2030.
The question is: are we ready for it? If the number of Non-Motorised User Audits - access audits - conducted in this country is the marker, perhaps not. A relatively recent phenomenon, access audits are yet to gain real traction as the industry gets up to speed with understanding the benefits.
What’s an access audit?
Access audits are an evaluation tool infrastructure planners can use to ensure they take account of the needs of the widest reach of New Zealanders in the development of future facilities.
Sometimes –mistakenly – seen as an extension of safety audits, Bridget says a significant way in which access audits differ from their safety counterparts is that they identify deficiencies that might contribute to people not participating in an environment. “With safety audits we work to highlight concerns with a development and identify aspects that could potentially cause harm. With access audits, we’re looking more for opportunities to make life easier, make developments and facilities more convenient and useable.”
Bridget adds that a safety audit concluding no safety concerns with a development or environment, may in fact be a result of avoidance by the people most at risk. “That, then, is an issue not of safety but of accessibility.”
Put another way, access audits are concerned with inclusion. And it’s not the sole preserve of aged travellers. It’s about including all people and their variety of needs, and that means consideration for parents with prams, cyclists, people with disabilities or visitors who may not know their way around. At best, access audits are a catalyst in encouraging a shift in focus from designing networks weighted towards travellers on four wheels to designing cities where everyone can participate equally.
Working alongside Bridget in this field is Max Robitzsch, Principal Transportation Engineer in TDG’s Auckland office, whose interest is fuelled by more than his day job. A cycling advocate, Max maintains the benefit to all users from the inclusive approach. “Designing and building a transport environment for the weakest or most vulnerable of users will tend to generate a better environment for everyone.”
Accessibility audits are a relatively fledging enterprise. TDG currently conducts around one accessibility audit to every 10-12 safety audits. However, Bridget believes that the industry will necessarily mature to respond to what will be an increasing demand by New Zealanders for inclusion. “A real benefit of the audits is that they help us to understand what inclusion looks like from an investment point of view, and from an engineering point of view. It helps take inclusion from a vague policy objective to a specific and measurable design philosophy. We engineers need that!”
For local authorities, access audits offer a way of delivering value-for-money on ratepayers’ investment by ensuring environments, infrastructure and facilities are useable – and there are fewer calls for retrofits and fixes after construction. The same applies for central government funders.
Bridget cites Auckland Transport as an early adopter of access audits. “We’ve recently undertaken combined safety and access audits for Auckland Transport around various parts of the Auckland CBD, with an emphasis on cycleways. These projects are clear evidence that developing streetscapes that avoid obstacles to participation creates a better environment for everyone.”
One of the ways TDG seeks to help its clients recognise the value of accessibility initiatives is by including in the audit reports a description of the community in which the development is planned - the demographics of both the current and the likely future community. “When people can see the shift in demographics, often it provides a mandate to take recommendations from concept to concrete.”
For a field that was barely a term five years ago, increasingly, accessibility will be on agenda of planners in the future. Which brings us full circle to those mobility scooter riders.