How digital technology can improve transit accessibility

Now being trialed in the West Midlands, UK, the new tram transmits real time information to users over 5G cellular networks, making it easier for visually impaired people to travel independently. It’s an excellent example of the potential for digital solutions to improve accessibility and equality in public transport systems.

When we talk about transit, accessibility is essentially a measure of a person’s ability to access things like work, education, shops and essential services using the mobility options available to them. Put another way, the ease and speed with which you can reach your destination determine the quality and number of services and opportunities available to you.

Sadly, inequalities in transport mirror social, racial and gender inequalities elsewhere. The car still represents maximum flexibility and convenience, and since middle aged white men are most likely to own one they tend to have the best access to everything else in life. By contrast, it’s well known that the participation of women and immigrants in the labor market may be hindered by a lack of transport options.

People with physical or intellectual disabilities may be even further disadvantaged if cars and alternative modes like active micromobility are off-limits, leaving them dependent on paratransit or ill-equipped public transport. Even in major cities, facilities like elevators, wheelchair ramps and tactile paving are still far from standard on public services. Access to information is another potential barrier: If you can’t read a sign or hear an announcement, it’s hard to know when your service is coming. Similarly, widespread use of color coding for timetables can present problems for those with color vision deficiency (color blindness).

New technology, therefore, holds great promise to improve accessibility for people with disabilities. For example, some authorities have been experimenting with electric beacons and geofencing to transmit prerecorded messages to a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone with step-by-step instructions to complete a particular process or trip.

And, of course, accessibility goes beyond the transport mode itself: Curbs that are too high or low, streets that are hard to navigate and short connection windows all present problems. We think providing more flexible options like demand-responsive transit (DRT) can help here, and potentially improve on the costs of paratransit. Since shared DRT services can be personalized to user needs, it’s possible to prioritize pick-ups and drop-offs for registered disabled users and even provide door-to-door services without impacting too much on overall convenience, waiting and journey times for other users.

We believe it’s more urgent than ever to find smart new solutions to improve accessibility at a time when Covid-19 measures like social distancing, altered timetables and masks can make public transit even harder for people with physical or intellectual disabilities to navigate. That’s why we’re working to incorporate audio scripts into our passenger app and getting all our products certified for disabled usability.

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