How on-demand buses in Australia can transform travel and everyday life for people with disabilities

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People with disabilities probably have the most to gain from good public transport, but are constantly excluded from transport systems that are not yet adapted to their needs, as required by law. One in six disabled people aged 15 and over have difficulty using some or all forms of public transport. One in seven cannot use public transport at all.

Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, Australia’s public transport systems are expected to be fully compliant with the 2002 transport standards by 31 December 2022. Not only that, many of our bus, train and tram systems failed to achieve these goals, but the standards themselves are outdated. The standards are under review and a public consultation has begun.

For buses, the standards largely focus on the vehicles themselves: low-floor buses, wheelchair ramps, priority seats, handrails and sufficient room to manoeuvre. But just because the vehicle is affordable doesn’t necessarily mean bus travel is affordable.

There are difficulties getting to and from the bus, limited frequency of available services, poor driver training, passenger conflict, travel anxiety and lack of planning for diversity. In all these ways, bus travel excludes disabled people.

Infrastructure alone cannot overcome these problems. On-demand transportation, which allows users to travel between any two points in the service area whenever they want, offers potential solutions to some of these problems. It’s already working in cities overseas and is being tested in Australia.

Australian trials of on-demand bus services include several urban centers in Queensland.

Affordable vehicles are just the beginning

Making vehicles affordable is really just the tip of the iceberg. Focusing only on infrastructure misses two key points:

  1. our public transport journeys start before we board the service and continue after we leave it

  2. accessibility means giving people quality transportation experiences, not just access to resources.

Let’s imagine a typical suburban bus ride. It is accepted in the industry that passengers are generally prepared to walk about 400 meters to a bus stop. This is based, of course, on the assumption that passengers are able-bodied. Long distances, steep hills, neglected paths, few curb crossings and poorly designed bus shelters all prevent disabled people from reaching the bus.

This issue resurfaced in the 2020 People with Disability in Australia report from the Australian Institute of Health and Social Care. More than one in four disabled respondents say that getting to and from stops is a major barrier to using public transport.

Although the vehicles are designed to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act, government policy still ignores many social and operational barriers to bus travel. Credit: Liftango Labs

But other barriers to service uptake are even more difficult to address. People with disabilities are forced to plan extensively when to travel, how to travel, who to travel with, and what resources they need to complete the journey. Even the best-laid plans involve added emotional energy or “travel anxiety.”

What solutions are there?

On-demand transport offers potential solutions to some of these problems. Its main feature is flexibility: users can travel between any two points in the service area whenever they want.

This flexibility can be used to design more inclusive bus services. With no fixed route or schedule, on-demand services can pick up passengers from their home and drop them off directly at their destination. This door-to-door service eliminates the stress of traveling to and from a bus stop and their destinations.

And with on-demand services, users can plan their travel to complement their daily activities, rather than having transportation dictate their daily activities.

The technology behind on-demand transportation also helps reduce the need for customers to constantly restate their mobility needs. Once a customer has created an account, the additional pick-up and drop-off time is automatically applied to all future bookings. This eliminates the exhaustive process of additional planning and allows drivers to provide a better experience for all their passengers.

BCGo user survey responses illustrate the variety of mobility challenges – not just wheelchairs – in the community that services need to address. Credit: Liftango Labs

Examples of on-demand services

Cities around the world are already using on-demand services to overcome the transportation disadvantage for people with disabilities.

BCGo is one such service in Calhoun County, Michigan. A recent survey of BCGo users, yet to be published, shows that 51% of respondents face mobility challenges that affect their ability to travel.

About 30% have “conditions that make it difficult to walk more than 200 feet” (61 m). This means that the industry accepted pedestrian crossing distance (400m) is 6.5 times the distance that is realistically possible for many users of the service.

Ring & Ride West Midlands is the largest on-demand project in the UK. It operates in seven zones with over 80 vehicles.

The service, newly digitized using Liftango’s technology, is designed to provide accessible transportation at a low cost. It can be used for traveling to work, visiting friends, shopping and leisure activities.

In this map of Ring&Ride service areas, the lines show journeys taken since June 2022 Credit: Liftango Labs

Ring & Ride serves as an example of how an on-demand service can provide sustainable and equitable transportation at scale. It makes over 12,000 trips per month.

A call to action for Australian governments

Government policy needs to address not only inadequate bus infrastructure, but also those invisible barriers that continue to exclude many people from bus travel. We need a cognitive shift to recognize that accessibility means creating quality door-to-destination experiences for all.

This should be coupled with a willingness to explore solutions such as on-demand transportation. Transport authorities around the world are already adopting these solutions. We cannot continue to rely on the public transport sector to take on the responsibility of providing transport for disabled people, especially as our population ages.

Now is the time to have your say. The transport standards are open for public comment until June 2023.

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