Remember those golden days when you’d just pop to the pub for a pint? You probably wouldn’t have thought twice about a quick dash to the taxi waiting at the kerb or short stroll to the tube (high-heels notwithstanding).

Since covid-19 exploded uninvited onto the scene, we all understand a little better what it’s like to have that freedom ripped away. Now imagine knowing you’d never get it back.

In the UK, only one in five train stations provide an accessible ticket office or disabled toilet. A measly quarter of London’s 270 tube stations are wheelchair-friendly.

Our world isn’t set up for people who can’t easily stroll or dash. The young professional whose blindness makes her anxious in public. The widow with a walking-frame whose husband always did the driving. The child with autism who relies on calm routine to get through the day.

Enter Andy, a driver for a community transport charity People to Places.

The not-so-sexy world of community transport

It’s no real surprise that community transport rarely makes the news. Stories of Andy driving minibuses full of pensioners to the beach don’t make great clickbait.

High-vis vests are not sexy. Wheelchair hoists and ramps aren’t particularly sexy. Andy swearing under his breath while he manoeuvres a five tonne vehicle round a multi-storey carpark – definitely not sexy.

For his passengers though, Andy’s smiling face on their doorstep is the highlight of their week. Often, his knock signals their only chance to leave the house.

Peter Haley, who runs People to Places says “going out with drivers like Andy is often the one time our users don’t have to feel like a burden on their family, or face the anxiety of spending exorbitant amounts on wheelchair-accessible taxis, or fear angry refusals to move out of priority seating”.

Friendships are born and sustained right there on Andy’s minibus, his ‘accidental’ wrong turns on the way home giving his passengers a few extra minutes to spend laughing with other humans.

Fighting a loneliness epidemic

Unlikely heroes they may seem, Andy and his colleagues are literally saving lives. Because as we’ve learnt over these past few months, even with Zoom and Teams and Skype and HouseParty, if you’re forced to stay at home, you can feel incredibly alone.

And loneliness kills. Not brazenly like covid-19, but insidiously. Lonely people sleep worse and drink more. Independent of these factors, they are more like likely to suffer from dementia, heart disease and depression.

In fact, having poor social relationships has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is twice as harmful as being obese.

Even before covid-19 forced most of us into relative isolation, more than one million older people in England said they’d go at least a month without speaking to friends, family or neighbours.

Recently, storieshave emerged of people dying alone at home, with no-one noticing for weeks. In Japanese, they call this ‘kodokushi’ meaning ‘lonely death’.

Communities in a crisis

That’s why Andy does what he does: “I’ve been driving for People to Places for over 20 years now. It still makes me sad, knowing the suffering people experience trapped at home 24/7. But I love it too, hearing all their stories and knowing our trips together bring them real happiness’.

In the face of covid-19, community transport is more crucial than ever.

Charities like People to Places have found themselves uniquely positioned to know who’s at risk. People who are shielding and don’t have internet access for instance. For months, they’ve had armies of staff and volunteers checking in with phone calls or dropping round with groceries and a friendly doorstep-chat.

Now lock-down rules are easing, we’ve been explicitly instructed by the government to avoid public transport. But cheerful reports of bicycles selling like hotcakes aren’t too helpful if you, say, use a wheel-chair or are 90+ years old (give or take the odd centenarian athlete).

Clap for Community Transport

Bill Freeman is Chief Executive of CTA, the UK‘s umbrella organisation for community transport providers. He says: “Throughout this crisis our members have created more many lifelines than headlines – their passion, tenacity and resourcefulness in the face of challenges to their services and finances deserves more national attention and support.”

So if you’re ever looking for another alliterative cause to applaud of a Thursday evening, perhaps we can suggest ‘Clap for Community Transport’.

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