Innovation as a Tool for Accessibility

Read the article in Rail Professional Magazine here

In August, the Department for Transport announced the release of a draft action plan aimed at improving accessible public transport and creating a system that is ‘open to everyone’. The plan, which is open for consultation until November, considers initiatives such as broadening existing schemes to improve physical accessibility on trains and at stations. The Department is also working with the Rail Delivery Group to investigate the feasibility of providing ‘alternative journey options’, such as alerting and potentially re-routing users if the only accessible toilet is out of use.

The action plan with its vast array of recommendations is a good start, but it still fundamentally lacks vision when compared to the real differences to accessible transport that could be implemented by intelligent use of technology.

It is not the first government action plan attempting to improve accessibility for all. The ‘Transport for Everyone’ plan, published in 2012, set out a vision to increase transport accessibility for disabled people. It is claimed that huge improvements were made off the back of it, enhancing physical access to stations, trains and buses. However, we believe that the current approach to accessible transport is still, at best, inadequate.

Accessibility Minister, Paul Maynard, himself said: “Accessible transport is not only about having accessible buses and trains, for example, it is also about the support and understanding of drivers and transport staff operating and delivering these services.” Very true, and yet the transport industry continues to simply segment their audience into ‘most people’ and ‘step free access’, which is not only divisive but fails to serve any accessibility issues that cannot be solved by a ramp. The barriers to travel for people with disabilities extend far beyond physical station and vehicle access.

At Zipabout, we believe that accessibility requirements are a spectrum that every traveller sits on in some shape or form. Our approach to the issue considers that every passenger could be disabled, confused, vulnerable, or simply encumbered – i.e. having temporarily restricted mobility – to greater or lesser extent. In short, we all benefit from investment in better accessibility.

There are many common issues that affect accessibility for vulnerable travellers. Long before you get to the physical environment, these include subtler issues such as: lack of detailed information regarding facilities or what to expect, visual impairments and anxiety induced by loud or busy environments. The issues surrounding accessible transport extend even further than those with both visible and hidden disabilities. The International Transport Forum (ITF) considers encumbered travellers – such as heavily pregnant women, those accompanied by young children or carrying heavy luggage – to also fall under the umbrella of requiring better accessibility. Interestingly, they believe that the percentage of disabled and encumbered passengers in typical flows on public transport can be as high as 30% at any one time, so this is no small problem.

Regardless of disability, vulnerability or encumbrance, a lack of mobility and the ensuing difficulties when travelling lead to a loss of confidence and independence. Many people are left trapped in their own homes, terrified to face public transport. An ageing UK population (44% of whom suffer from a disability, according to the Government’s 2015/16 Family Resources Survey) makes this a terrifying possibility for a vast number of people. Despite multiple action plans and green papers, it is fair to say that progress is slow when it comes to enshrining accessible transport provision in law, and the question remains as to why.

As far as we can see, there are three obvious barriers to change. First is the lack of understanding of the breadth of disability requirements. Whilst installing ramps in a station will certainly help those in a wheelchair and tick the ‘accessibility box’ for a stakeholder, they do nothing for a traveller with early onset dementia who is easily overwhelmed by unfamiliar environments, or a passenger with Irritable Bowel Syndrome who needs to plan a journey around toilet proximity.

Secondly, there is a lack of understanding of the economic benefits of improved accessibility. For starters, accessible transport can increase tourism and give those with disabilities the confidence and independence to seek and gain employment.

Finally, transport authorities and operators face tight budgets and a vast array of potential investments. Politics surrounding the understanding of disabilities – we have repeatedly found charities unwelcoming and sometimes even hostile when trying to address accessibility challenges – combined with their lack of understanding of accessibility and the opportunity it presents, means that it is hardly surprising that TOCs and other transport authorities often will not invest in accessibility initiatives beyond those forced upon them by central government. There is a fear of causing offence or getting it wrong.

To tackle the accessibility problem a two-pronged approach is needed – the traditional tactic of improving infrastructure and physical environment, largely set out in the government’s action plan, coupled with a more forward-thinking method of personalising travel information to the needs of the passenger so they can navigate their individual issues unaided. Both are important, but the latter is arguably more empowering; facilitating independence and instilling confidence to travel even before the physical environment is upgraded, whilst simultaneously creating economic value. A large part of the solution clearly lies in technology and innovation.

Zipabout believes that by personalising the user experience to every single customer there should be no need to distinguish between differing degrees of accessibility requirements. What’s more, the data needed to achieve this already exists but lies unused in silos guarded by owners and operators who lack the resources to utilise it.

A ‘joined up approach’ – something rarely encountered in the transport sector – would not only reduce costs but hugely improve reach. Integration with community transport schemes, buddy-travel and lift-share schemes for example would remove many of the barriers vulnerable passengers face in getting to and from a railway station. High quality personalised information can help them make their own choices around how and when to travel and remove the stress of the unknown without any need for station redesign and staffing. Community Transport in particular places a premium on providing accessible, flexible and inclusive travel. The work that community transport operators are doing in providing accessible journeys to health centres and major connectivity hubs (including train stations) shows how integrated accessible travel can be made possible at a local level.

Our platform, for example, can provide this personalised information to help vulnerable travellers without the need for ‘tick boxes’ and form-based approaches; we are already working on pilots with the NHS and others to improve accessible travel for people living with dementia and other vulnerable travellers.

From a technical point of view, a truly personalised experience should be just as capable of providing advice and assistance to a parent with small children going out for the day as to somebody with Parkinson’s disease or dementia who is anxious about getting off the train onto a crowded platform. If you understand the user, you can provide the information needed to support their needs and to increase their confidence to travel. Better still there is no reason why, in the days of smart phones, digital or wearable interfaces and speech assistants (e.g. Amazon Echo / Lex), you can’t detect physical triggers such as stress and respond accordingly. Even a smart phone can give enough feedback to identify a passenger who needs more assistance.

The ITF has advocated journey planners that enable travellers to reduce the number of interchanges in a given journey as being highly beneficial to people who find it difficult to board and disembark public transport. In our opinion, this is already available and lacks ambition, and there is no longer any excuse for such a one-dimensional approach to the transport network. If we are really going to make a difference, door-to-door planning already looks like a dated minimum requirement and yet is still rarely offered; no journey begins and ends at a railway station, and this is important to acknowledge when providing assistance to customers. If we’re not including community transport services, safe walking instructions, predicted disruption, detailed way-finding, stressful environment warnings – truly personalising the journeys we offer – then we’re not really trying hard enough.