Older man standing at bus stop facing away from the camera.

Older man standing at bus stop facing away from the camera.

Computer Says No: Digital exclusion in public transport

Published 13/03/2024   |   Reading Time minutes

Inaccessible transport is not a new problem, but the problem is changing. In increasingly digitised travel environments, it is no longer sufficient to only consider physical spaces as an enabler for accessible travel. People now have to negotiate virtual systems, digital ticketing, and online information to travel from one place to another.

Welsh Government identifies accessible, sustainable, and efficient transport as one of its key priorities to deliver as part of the National Transport Delivery Plan 2022-2027 (NTDP). However, accessibility is discussed only with reference to improving physical spaces (see section Digital technologies are framed as solutions to the provision of accessible services such as the integration of apps and websites to provide integrated journey planning.

Digital exclusion in Wales

More public and essential services than ever before are being delivered online. This presents unique challenges for creating inclusive societies, particularly as 8% of the Welsh population do not have access to online services.

This represents the highest proportion of offline users across UK nations and double the average score.

Factors including older age, lower socioeconomic status, and experience of disability have the greatest influence on the reduced digital access across the UK. The Older People’s Commissioner for Wales highlights the challenges and consequences of increased isolation and exclusion from public life as a result of being offline. Pressure applied to older people to use online facilities when they do not want to or do not feel comfortable doing so is also problematic.

People with a disability have reduced access to computers and laptops compared to those without a disability. Lack of trust and security concerns are also factors influencing reduced engagement with digital technologies.

Wales has the largest rural population anywhere in the UK. Access to sufficient broadband and mobile data connection is a particular challenge for people in rural areas. Digital inclusion charity, the Good Things Foundation outline challenges associated with reducing digital exclusion in rural areas.

Having the means to access online services is one thing, but possessing the skills needed to confidently navigate digital spaces is another issue entirely.

The UK Consumer Digital Index 2023 suggests 28% of the Welsh population have ‘very low digital capability’, the highest of all UK nations. In addition to the impact of digital exclusion for older people, almost half of UK employers believe there is an advanced digital skills deficit amongst school leavers.

Digital Communities Wales (DCW) is a programme funded by the Welsh Government to tackle digital exclusion in Wales through engagement and support for individuals, groups, and organisations to enhance digital skills and access. Health and social care benefits of being online are key factors of the programme. However, other public and third sector organisations including housing associations, local authorities, and advice services are also included in the project.

Increasingly digitised travel environments

Three quarters of people prefer to access essential services both online and offline despite more public services migrating to digital-only provision. While the focus has tended to be on health, social care, and financial services, public transport is an essential service which should be accessible to all users. This includes both physical and digital aspects of accessing transport services.

The issue of online-only service provision has been raised in the Senedd but it seems not in relation to accessing public transport. Transport for Wales (TfW) has increased its customer-facing technologies with new smartphone apps for bus and rail services, contactless ‘pay as you go’ payment services, and interactive travel maps. All of these innovations have been marketed as solutions to make travelling by public transport easier.

Digital technologies as barriers to travel

As much as technology can alleviate transport disadvantage, it can also be problematic. Specific concerns have been raised about the digital-first transport approach taken by the sector in London. Despite the UK capital having the highest proportion of its population with ‘very high digital capability’ and amongst the lowest prevalence of offline users; TravelWatch London suggests that 1 in 6 people in the city are unable to purchase tickets due to lack of access or digital skills.

Using public transport inherently involves being ‘out and about’ rather than in the home environment. Accessing travel information and digital ticketing whilst ‘on the go’ is more challenging for some people. Around 31% of adults aged 55-64 in Great Britain do not have access to the internet whilst ‘on the go’. This figure increases to 61%, around 7.44 million people, for the over 65s. If these figures are applied to Welsh population statistics, this equates to over half a million adults over 55 in Wales.

Being unable to access, or have appropriate skills to confidently use, digital technologies to facilitate travel can lead travellers to incur additional financial costs as well as making them more reliant on others for support. Horizon 2020 EU-funding has supported the INDIMO and DIGNITY projects to explore ways to tackle the challenges of the digital divide by developing recommendations for digitally inclusive transport systems.

Travelling in the wrong direction?

Several transport service providers are adopting a digital-first approach despite evidence of public preference for choice around how services are delivered and the risks associated with alienating non-digital customers.

In 2023 the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) launched a controversial public consultation on behalf of 12 train operating companies (TOCs) in England to close rail ticket offices. In response, the ‘not just the ticket’ campaign detailed the importance of ticket offices, aside from purchasing tickets, for people with disabilities. Age UK also highlighted the risk of digital exclusion among older people should the proposals go ahead. The consultation was withdrawn after receiving over 750,000 responses. TfW confirmed it does not currently plan to reduce staffing at its stations.

The public car parking sector has also moved towards online-only payment services. Several councils in England have removed pay and display machines from car parks in favour of app-only payments. Some have since reinstalled machines following backlash from local residents and organisations such as Age UK. The Senedd Petitions Committee heard evidence from Mencap Cymru representatives warning against local authorities moving to cashless payment facilities.

These examples are driven by economic benefits of reducing in-person staffing, enhancing efficiencies, and reducing maintenance costs. While these examples do not directly impact Wales, economic arguments for reducing offline and in-person support services are strong. Increasing adoption of digital public services could create £1.4 billion in efficiency savings for governments in the UK by 2032. However, campaign groups argue this should not be at the expense of digitally excluded people.

Article by Charlotte Lenton, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament

Senedd Research acknowledges the parliamentary fellowship provided to Charlotte Lenton by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) which enabled this article to be completed.