Transit must be accessible to all, says SkedGo

When it comes to accessibility we need to embrace a more open and collaborative approach to ensure MaaS realises its true potential, says SkedGo’s Sandra Witzel – after all, a billion people on the planet have a disability
Mobility as a Service / April 24, 2020 3 mins Read
© Alf Ribeiro |
Accessibility should always be front of mind when planning transport services © Alf Ribeiro |

The transport sector is experiencing change like never before. The rise of alternative transport modes, such as e-scooters, autonomous vehicles and even flying taxis, sees innovation happening on many different levels. In the midst, Mobility as a Service (MaaS) promises to revolutionise the way we travel, bringing together new and established transport modes for the benefit of all citizens.

But is this really the case? We have to step back and consider there are one billion people on the planet with a disability. Added to this is a rise in older populations, plus the need to ensure rural areas are accessible and that we have equitable transport regardless of a person’s demographic. Unfortunately, we still have a way to go.

Barriers to entry

Our transport systems are still not fully accessible, whether trains, buses, taxi services or the plethora of new modes of transport such as ride-hailing and micromobility. Getting around our cities and rural areas is not always easy.

People with disabilities often have to put up with long wait times for transport because so few accessible taxis or support are available. Lifts are often out of order at station platforms and the lack of ramps in place of steps also makes travel more difficult. Then there is the issue of ensuring that transport is available to complete the first and/or last mile of a journey.

Ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft have been criticised for the lack of accessible vehicles on offer too. However, both companies are attempting to provide more wheelchair-accessible vehicles and driver training so people with disabilities can call on their services.

We must break down as many barriers as possible and make it easier for individuals – regardless of whether they have a physical or other limitation – to go about their daily life, something which many take for granted.

MaaS apps can alert people to stations which have ramps rather than steps
MaaS apps can alert people to stations which have ramps rather than steps

Raising awareness

There are many advocacy groups, including Disability Rights UK, the US’s American Disability Association and the European Disability Forum, which educate and work tirelessly to keep this important issue in the spotlight and ensure their voice is heard. This includes campaigning for the right to travel freely on our transport systems and encouraging companies to include accessibility features at their core.

The current gap in accessible travel is because many of those developing transport solutions may not have experienced disabilities first-hand. It is essential, therefore, to engage with advocacy groups at an early stage. After all, we are at a critical point where we have the chance to make a difference for those who rely on our transport systems both now and in the future.

The advent of autonomous and on-demand vehicles heralds new ways to travel - particularly valuable for people who are unable to drive themselves. When aggregated as part of a MaaS offering, they could provide a much-needed lifeline to move around freely and to bridge the first-/last-mile gap.

Exploring possibilities

Luckily, many pilot projects have taken place and more continue to be initiated. These collaborations are essential to learn and understand how best we can solve our transportation issues. Among these projects is an autonomous shuttle program called Busbot, which was launched in Marian Grove Retirement Village, Australia. Using a smartphone, passengers can request a ride and be picked up from a virtual bus stop nearby. The service is dynamic so it avoids any unnecessary detours along the way.

Innovative solutions are being sought in other ways too: mobility vehicle company Whill is taking a whole new perspective on personal automated vehicles with its autonomous wheelchair trial at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. In addition, Whill’s merger with Scootaround hopes to help individuals with limited mobility get around more easily at large events and venues as well as providing last-mile options.

The beauty of MaaS is the potential to aggregate all forms of available transport, whatever the mode, and make that information readily accessible. It can also help people with ‘hidden’ disabilities, such as fear of crowds, by providing details of carriages with a lower occupancy rate. And it doesn’t stop there: information on which stations are accessible, which have ramps instead of steps, and whether lifts are out of operation can also be included.

MaaS can provide users with notifications about issues on any leg of their journey. This allows them to find alternative suitable routes, make other arrangements or make contact ahead of time if assistance is required. It creates more possibilities to help alleviate some of the frustration that many people currently face.

Need for openness

Central to moving MaaS forward is the need for access to relevant information and data to provide greater value to MaaS users. Thankfully, governments and organisations are moving towards open data, including cities such as Vienna and London. Finland is particularly ahead of the game where it has passed new laws to enable MaaS and to open up its data.

The commitment to open data creates new opportunities and innovations, particularly where that data relates to accessibility. For example, Australia’s Transport for NSW (TfNSW) open data strategy allowed SkedGo to use occupancy data of individual carriages to direct passengers to parts of station platforms with emptier carriages.

Autism CRC also used this data via the SkedGo platform to create an app so people on the autistic spectrum were more comfortable using public transport, providing options to view which carriages are less crowded or to reduce number of interchanges.

Another collaborative project called ‘Welcome Aboard’ – an app that uses open data to provide helpful services for people with dementia – saw public transport authorities, tech companies and advocacy groups provide tailored and relevant assistance.

Openness is key. From access to data to embracing new collaborations and partnerships, different business models and ways of working will solve real-world accessibility and mobility issues. It is one of the greatest enablers for MaaS.

Each day we see more organisations working together. For example, Microsoft, Moovit and Aira aim to connect visually impaired people with trained individuals to help them navigate to their intended destination. Likewise, the Accessible Transport for Berlin Challenge saw the involvement of Toyota Mobility Foundation, Betapitch and other partners supporting start-ups with new innovations.

Opportunity for change

We have a tremendous opportunity to ensure that our transportation systems are both accessible and equitable for people with limited mobility, of any demographic and in any location. With the right approach, MaaS can facilitate better access to information to help plan, pay and manage every part of the journey. However, it cannot happen in isolation. Organisations must implement accessibility features at their core; accessibility data also needs to be made readily available so it can be integrated into MaaS applications.

Accessibility has the potential to benefit everyone - from parents with small children to people carrying heavy luggage. Having a temporary injury is something anyone could endure at any point in their life. Accessibility should always be front of mind.

Every stakeholder has an important role to play, whether a tech company, transport manufacturer or provider, local authority or government. This includes engaging with advocacy groups to ensure important decisions take account of those they impact. By working together, we can build upon our strengths as an industry and help to ensure that MaaS does indeed support better access to transport for all.

Sandra Witzel is head of marketing for SkedGo

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