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UK government mandates open data on transport for benefit of passengers with mental health difficulties

Thu 25 Feb 2016

In a speech today the UK’s Transport Minister Andrew Jones confirmed the British government’s commitment to making the use of public transport more amenable to those suffering with mental health issues, including a mandate to bus operators to make information about their routes, fares and times openly available, so that app makers can hook into the data and obviate the need for affected passengers to negotiate difficult interactions in stressful circumstances.

The innovation is part of the Buses Bill, announced on 11th February, which is also likely to see the model of London’s Oyster card system rolled out to the rest of the UK.

Jones notes the great stress that public transport scenarios can put upon people with mental health conditions – situations which, frankly, cause considerable stress to unafflicted passengers too. Though almost 90% of buses in the UK are furnished with equipment to help the physically disabled, there has been scant consideration for sufferers with mental health conditions.

“Even someone with the best mental health will sometimes find public transport stressful and bewildering.
Just ask anyone who’s been at Clapham Junction train station during rush hour…
And then there’s the familiar feeling of rising panic whenever the ticket inspector enters the railway carriage, even when you are sure you have a valid ticket…No wonder someone who experiences anxiety, panic attacks, memory loss or a host of other possible conditions can feel unable to use public transport.”

A quarter of the population experiences a notable adverse mental health condition every year, and Jones observes how those suffering from conditions such as anxiety, phobias, OCD, depression, dementia and panic disorders are at a distinct disadvantage in terms of maintaining mobility.

Observing the changing face of the transport scene towards the issue, Jones recounts new initiatives such as Manchester Airport’s introduction of special wristbands for children with autism to help alert airport staff that special consideration is necessary; the fact that Gatwick airport has provided 80% of its staff to date with Dementia Champion training; and Newcastle University’s collaboration with the British Transport Police to provide Dementia-Friendly Stations.

Andrew Jones echoes a popular sentiment in noting that mental health does not receive the same level of concern and practical attention as physical health, observing “It might be because mental health is less visible…It might be because people don’t understand mental ill health and how common it really is…Or it might be because of the stigma that still lingers around mental health, a stigma that for physical health we long ago dispelled.”

Professor Isaac Marks of King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, author of the book Living With Fear, observes how deeply the challenge of navigating public transport can challenge sufferers. “[For] example, they may be forced to give up work because they can’t take public transport, or staying indoors to avoid meeting people… It’s a disabling condition that affects about 8% of the UK population at some point in their lives.”

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