Incorporating sustainability and accessibility in urban transport planning has been recognised as increasingly important in recent years. Indeed, introducing measures that support sustainability and accessibility is vital in ensuring that a mobility system can continue to meet the needs of individuals.
This case study looks at the overlap and synergies with accessibility and sustainability measures, using Warsaw as an example of a city that has demonstrated improvements in both.
Traditionally, urban transport planning has focused on mobility – the ease of physical movement between two locations. As a consequence, a system that is centred around private ownership with a heavy reliance on fossil fuels has emerged, even in urban areas where there is greater demand for non-motorised and public transport. It is now recognised that increasing mobility does not always result in improved accessibility and may even result in reduced accessibility levels. Mobility systems need to be redesigned around accessibility, ensuring that all city inhabitants can easily reach jobs, opportunities, services and amenities. This requires a shift away from the current model based on private ownership and giving priority to sustainable transport modes, as well as improving the proximity between people and places. At the same time, a mobility system that is sustainable is important to ensure the health of the environment and of people. In recent years, there has been a shift towards mobility planning that prioritises sustainability and accessibility.
How sustainability and accessibility are defined
Sustainability in urban mobility is a familiar area for policymakers and the need to incorporate it into planning processes as a way of dealing with the complexity of urban mobility has been widely recognised since 2013, when the concept of Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans (SUMPs) was included in the 2013 Urban Mobility Package. While several definitions exist, it is generally accepted that sustainable mobility is the ‘development of mobility that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. It is generally centred around decarbonising the mobility system, and on ensuring social and economic sustainability, without having a significant impact on the provision of services.
The definition of accessibility is slightly more ambiguous. This has led to challenges for its wide-scale implementation. In general, it refers to the ease of access to economic, social and environmental opportunities. This can be interpreted as applying to a population as a whole (for example, the challenges faced by those living in rural areas in accessing services that are based in an urban area) or be more specifically linked to individual challenges. This case study focuses on the latter in an urban context.
Improving accessibility in the context of individual challenges aims to enhance the transport solutions for individuals that have difficulties with at least one of four key areas:
- physical accessibility – the physical ease of accessing a service;
- cognitive understanding – how well a system (for example, a ticket system) is understood;
- financial accessibility – how affordable a service is;
- emotional accessibility – if any anxiety is associated with using a service.
In such cases, more often than not, improving accessibility focuses on supporting vulnerable users in their use of a transport system. Some people depend on efficient mobility and transport planning more than others for their personal mobility and safety. The transport sector underpins people’s wellbeing by enabling them to travel between their home and work, and to buy food; and the transportation of products around the world and within countries, regions and cities to meet daily needs.
The need to incorporate sustainability into mobility systems is clear. At the same time, delivering transport that is convenient, safe and affordable with easy and equal access should be at the core of cities’ mobility planning efforts. However, research has found that current national laws still generally tend to favour the car as the default means of transport, and that legal and procedural barriers for more sustainable and inclusive mobility persist. Even in the case where sustainability or accessibility forms a significant part of the planning process, the other dimension is often overlooked. Achieving an improvement in sustainability and accessibility requires careful consideration of measures, and cooperation between the transport sector and other aspects of the urban environment. Warsaw, the capital of Poland, is one city that has demonstrated that introducing measures to improve both of these aspects, without the need for trade-offs, is possible, as it has a strong track record on sustainable and accessible mobility systems.
Warsaw has been recognised for its effort in promoting accessibility, as it received the 2020 Access City Award. By involving people with disabilities and accessibility needs in its endeavour to make the city more accessible, Warsaw was able to make a substantial overall improvement to the city's ease of access in a short space of time. At the same time, various measures were introduced to ensure that the mobility system was sustainable by promoting the use of public transport (trams, metro, buses) and other sustainable modes including walking and cycling.
The International Transport Forum (ITF) argues that by incorporating accessibility into the planning process and refocusing policies to accommodate the needs of individuals, the sustainability of urban mobility systems can be improved. To successfully incorporate accessibility into the planning process, it is important to consider the indicators that will adequately measure the effectiveness of instruments against targets. The use of physical accessibility indicators can help achieve modal shift targets by incentivising individuals to use sustainable modes of travel. Indicators incorporating the affordability of transport will ensure that vulnerable users have access to transport. Other criteria that need to be considered include safety and security, air quality and noise reduction.
Policies that stipulate the use of improved technologies, put in place measures that avoid unnecessary trips and encourage a shift from making car journeys to using other modes, are necessary for decarbonising the sector and for improving sustainability. Furthermore, at-risk population groups (such as children, older people, people with disabilities and those who are socio-economically disadvantaged) make up the majority of the population who use sustainable modes of mobility, such as walking, cycling and public transport. Therefore, sustainable mobility planning should keep the mobility needs of all these groups in mind. It is also important to coordinate mobility planning with the land-use and housing sectors to ensure there is good access to sustainable modes of travel.
Warsaw has ensured that the provision of accessibility is an obligation for all city activities. That is, all new investments including public roads, public spaces and in-built environments must be designed and constructed in accordance with the Accessibility Standard (AStnd) City Ordinance 1682/2017. This was to facilitate a shift from the city layout that had been designed to accommodate cars as the principal mode of travel. To facilitate the implementation of accessibility in the plans of Warsaw, the city established the Plenipotentiary of Accessibility with an Access Team of Coordinators in 2016.
The Plenipotentiary of Accessibility defines accessibility standards and coordinates and monitors the implementation of standards within the city. There are four areas of expertise:
- inbuilt environment and public spaces;
- websites and mobile applications;
- public events.
The Access Team of Coordinators provides tools to enhance the compliance with the AStnd through a procurement process for which access audits have been developed and implemented.
By ensuring that all new investments and renovations adhere to the same accessibility standard, coordination between the transport sector and other aspects of the urban environment has been effective in promoting sustainable and accessible solutions. With regard to transport accessibility, the city identified three key challenges that needed to be addressed:
- lack of a sufficient number of public transport vehicles that were adapted to the needs of people with disabilities and systemic solutions for the individual mobility of people with disabilities;
- public transport facilities and devices not adapted to the needs of vulnerable users (such as main railway stations, ticket offices and ticket machines);
- lack of the integrated transport management system to support people with special needs.
Alongside this, Warsaw introduced legislation on the fees for using public transport in 2017, which established the ticket price framework. It introduced a range of tickets based on individual needs (for example, journey time, number of days using public transport and group tickets). Furthermore, an integrated ticket can be used for several public transport modes. In addition to these, a reduction or exemption from the fare is offered to specific individuals, including those with a physical disability (and their carers), war veterans and children.
By addressing these challenges, Warsaw sought to not only improve the accessibility of the mobility system, but to focus on sustainable modes of travel, particularly public transport.
Warsaw has aimed to introduce a range of measures to support vulnerable users, rather than simply focusing on the proximity to public transport stations. The first measure, introduced in 1995, saw the introduction of low-floor buses. This has now been extended to a range of other features that improve public transport services for vulnerable users. Buses and trams are equipped (or will soon be equipped) with audible announcements about stops (internal and external), LED information displays with high contrast, contrasting (yellow) handrails, stop buttons in braille, foldable entry ramps and extra spaces for wheelchair users.
In addition to this, bus and tram stops all have redesigned curbs, tactile paving, detectable warning slabs, waiting zones, and passenger information boards with text and voice activation.
The city has seen a gradual introduction of accessibility measures that were formalised in the AStnd. These improvements to public transport services have enabled vulnerable users to utilise modes of travel other than private cars. Implementing accessibility standards in Warsaw has resulted in a public transport system that is largely accessible to vulnerable users. In 2019:
- Out of 4,213 bus and tram stops, 87% were accessible, 8% partially accessible and 5% inaccessible.
- All 30 metro stations were accessible, with another six to be developed in 2020 and a further eight to be installed by 2023.
- 100% of buses, metro trains and fast city trains (SKM), and 59% of trams are accessible. Replacing another 273 trams is planned over the next 3 years, which will bring the number of accessible trams to approximately 70% of the total.
- The cost of a monthly transport pass represents around 2.8% of monthly income, which ranks Warsaw as 17th out of 38 countries for public transport expense analysed by Here.
Furthermore, the city has introduced different programmes to support the implementation of accessibility in transport (for example, the Warsaw Program Eliminating Barriers (EUR 1.91 million), which aims to address accessibility challenges in specific locations). In addition, there are the access audits, which were outlined earlier, and the national Accessibility Plus programme, which runs from 2018 to 2025 and looks at the accessibility of all sectors and the possible synergies between them.
The principal challenge remaining in Warsaw is related to travel time. Travelling by private car continues to be the fastest method of transportation within Warsaw, taking into consideration the travel times, average speed and potential accessibility. However, this does not account for the time needed for parking, looking for the availability of parking places and the related costs. Furthermore, an additional challenge has been linked with the lack of consumer awareness about the accessibility measures introduced on public transport.
The fastest means of public transport in Warsaw is the metro and railway system, which also provides options for long-distance travel across the city. Another advantage of the metro is its frequency, however its major drawback is that Warsaw has only two lines. As such, the size of the metro network is currently insufficient to significantly improve overall travel times in the city.
It is evident that there are strengths in Warsaw’s strategy to introduce many accessibility measures to improve the services of public transport and coordinate the implementation of instruments with other urban sectors. However, there is still work to be done on improving the travel time of sustainable modes. This would help to ensure that not only vulnerable users will opt to use sustainable modes of transport but wider groups of residents too. Nonetheless, the actions taken to date make Warsaw’s public transport system one of the most accessible in Europe. It is important to recognise that many metrics and criteria are used to assess the effectiveness of the transport system, not just travel time. The measures implemented in Warsaw have helped to address the four key areas of accessibility, while ensuring that sustainable modes of travel are used.
Traditional urban planning has often failed to address the needs of vulnerable groups of people and to enable them to reach their destinations safely, comfortably and independently, while ensuring that sustainability targets of the mobility system are met. These users face physical and technological barriers that can limit their mobility and turn daily trips into a challenge.
It is possible to achieve improvements in accessibility and sustainability if well-considered approaches are taken and suitable measures are employed. All cities differ in terms of population, landscape and mobility requirements. However, there are some key learnings which cities, such as Warsaw, can offer.
Additional relevant information can be found at:
- OECD: Delivering accessible and sustainable mobility
- SUMP Topic Guide: Addressing gender equity and vulnerable groups in SUMPs
- ITF: Challenges for accessibility planning and research in the context of sustainable mobility
- Warsaw public transport: Accessibility
- UN: Disability, accessibility and urban development
- Warsaw Government programme: Accessibility Plus