Experts Reveal How On-Demand Transit Can Transform Accessibility for Commuters in Canada

Published on 22 June 2022
AUTHOR Mehanaz Yakub

Industry leaders taking part in the Electric Autonomy Canada panel on increasing accessibility in public transportation challenge transit authorities to build on-demand systems that are connected, intelligent and proactive will serve all Canadians better

Cities across Canada and the world are changing the ways they approach transportation post-COVID. In order to make systems efficient, inclusive and environmentally friendly, thoughtful planning must be put towards ensuring that people with limited mobility or mobility challenges are central in the decisions being made.

That was where the discussion started in the Electric Autonomy Canada-hosted webinar, “Smart Cities: Making transportation accessible and inclusive,” which featured panelists from Autocrypt, the city of Edmonton Transit Service, S + G Urban Partners and a former Paralympian – all advocates for accessibility and inclusive transportation.

The experts canvassed what is currently being done to increase equitable access to public transit by looking at Canada and global case studies; while demonstrating how safe and secure data management can be utilized to create smarter cities that work better for everyone.

Joel Dembe, Paralympian, public speaker and advocate for accessibility and inclusion rights says that, today, it is more important than ever for cities to transform their transportation system in the “right” ways.

“When I look at many of the economic opportunities across Canada-many people with disabilities don’t have access to the same way to get to work, to visit small businesses or even more importantly access healthcare,” says Dembe.

The reality in most Canadian cities is that, unless you are fortunate enough to have full mobility with no special equipment requirements –
ranging from elevator access to children’s car seats – and live close to an urban centre, chances are you fall into the underserved or inaccessible transit bucket.

But, when it comes to solving the issues around accessibility in transportation, some companies are working towards fleet management system solutions to ensure mobility can become more accessible and inclusive for all.

In recent years, South Korea-based Autocrypt has developed a 2U Access demand responsive, or on-demand, transit (DRT) service in Busan, South Korea, where vehicles are deployed to pick up riders according to demand, instead of on fixed routes or times, and a DRT service program for expecting and new parents called iMOM Taxi.

“The goal was to provide an affordable, convenient taxi fleet, specifically designed to serve residents who face mobility challenges, including those with physical disabilities, the elderly, pregnant parents and those who are left out of mainstream transportation in general,” says Jaeson Yoo, chief strategy officer, Autocrypt.

“Once you have a good DRT out there, people will really enjoy them and use them continually. [It’s] providing a service that is desperately needed for people who want to participate and be more mobile in spite of the challenges that they face.”

Collecting data and protecting privacy

Igor Samardzic, co-founder of S+G Urban Partners and former chair of the advisory committee on accessible transit for Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), says there is an important role technology and collecting data can play to help cities become smarter and avoid the marginalization of people with mobility challenges.

“By using technology and data collection, in my opinion, you can identify different opportunities of where seniors, people with disabilities live and use that data to inform not only transit options, so things like increasing different frequencies based on where people live, but also sort of more specialized services that can be offered by municipalities or other service providers,” says Samardzic.

“I think data if it’s used the correct way – safely and securely – it can be a really powerful tool to better integrate the needs of people with disabilities into our society.”

Since launching both DRT programs in 2020, Autocrypt has been collecting different types of data (vehicle diagnosis, driving pattern analysis, real-time tracking and dispatch, real-time log data management on the blockchain, and driver passenger authentication) to understand how the systems work for the users and how they don’t.

According to Yoo, the goal of gathering the data from its DRT programs is to enable fleet providers to run their operations more efficiently and be able to serve the needs of their customers. In short, the continual data interpretation loop makes on-demand transit system proactive rather than reactive to user needs and could be implemented in Canada.

Edmonton’s on-demand service

Last year in Canada, Edmonton Transit launched a new two-year pilot project for on-demand transit service after the city overhauled its previous bus network. But these changes left gaps in access to public transportation in areas with low passenger demand.

“We knew that there were gaps in the system and in the city that needed to be addressed [but] we also didn’t want to compromise or slow down the rest of the bus network and go back to filling every gap and making it slow and inconvenient,” says Andrew Gregory, manager of transit planning for the City of Edmonton.

As a result, the city’s on-demand transit service was born to not only connect passengers located outside regular bus service routes but, similar to Autrocrypt’s DRT services, to break down public transportation barriers for expecting mothers and recent parents, people with limited mobility and seniors. The iMom program had over 2,700 users and gave more than 8,000 rides during its 12 month testing period, the company’s report showed.

Gregory credits continual data collection from users with improving one of the largest on-demand transit systems in Canada stay relevant and responsive for evolving community needs.

“Since the launch of the new network and on-demand service of April last year, we’ve made over 70 changes and adjustments and improvements based on public feedback and we have more on the way this summer and fall,” says Gregory. “These are ongoing improvements’we’re definitely always open to feedback and adjust what we can with the resources available.”

What the smart city of tomorrow will look like

Looking to the future of what a connected, intelligent and inclusive transportation system will resemble, Samardzic says it would ideally include a “seamless system” where there are “options” for people with limited mobility or with mobility challenges to access the transport system just as well as able-bodied people.

Dembe adds that moving forward it will also be important to “not just to have people with disabilities have a seat at the table, but to be active participants, especially at the embryonic phase of deploying this technology.”

Both federal and provincial governments have been working on accessibility legislation that will better incorporate people with mobility challenges into the conversation, but Dembe says it is not enough.

“I actually see a tremendous economic opportunity by deploying technology and not just for people with disabilities-Ideas like [on-demand transport] and tremendous technologies do not need to necessarily wait for government.”

Samardzic thinks that in order for there to be uniform access to accessible and inclusive transportation across Canada, municipalities and government will need to exchange information to inform uniform best practices across all of Canada’s transit systems. The companies already creating the technologies that will benefit people with limited mobility, like Autocrypt, will help to move the process along faster.

“I think it would be great if these companies that are doing this work team up or be contracted out by the large public transit infrastructure organizations,” says Samardzic. “That’s where the solution really lies [and] I think the market will push everyone into a direction where folks work together, hopefully, and we can create the sort of societies that work better for everyone.”

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