Digital transport solutions for the many, not the few

By Dr. Beatriz Royo, Associate Professor and Carolina Ciprés, Director of Research at ZLC.

The COVID-19 lockdowns across Europe have really brought home just how much we all depend on mobility, personally and for the goods and services we need. With private motoring limited, public transport reduced or suspended, alternatives such as taxis, car shares and Uber discouraged or banned, and slots for home delivery as scarce as crude oil storage space, our world shrinks to the distance we can walk, and our provisioning to what we can carry home.

But for millions, even in the most affluent countries and cities, this is just life as normal. For all sorts of reasons, accessing transport is difficult or impossible. And while digital technologies promise simple and seamless mobility to the ‘connected traveller’, in practice the very groups that are currently prevented from fully using public transport, even though they need it most, are often excluded from these ‘solutions’ as well.

A team from ZLC is a part of a new three-year European Union, Horizon 2020-funded project intended to tackle this issue head-on. INDIMO (INclusive DIgital MObility solutions) will bring together mobility users, transport operators, technology developers and policy makers to ensure that future transport and mobility developments are truly accessible to all the groups that are currently excluded.

EU legislation already lays down criteria for accessibility in the transport infrastructure. Physically, this has been well-adopted: wheelchair-accessible buses and trains, signage in Braille, and so forth. But the same principles need to be applied to the way users discover, plan, pay for and access the various mobility solutions, increasingly by digital methods. This doesn’t just apply to the traditional bus, tram and metro networks, but to alternatives such as car-sharing or pooling and bike or e-bike leasing, as well as to home deliveries and other methods of receiving goods.

Mobility opportunities have been greatly enhanced by digital technologies: but there is a problem. Digital solutions tend to make a number of key assumptions – that users have access to a smartphone, they have decent Internet coverage, they have some level of digital literacy, they have a credit card or other means of electronic payment, and of course that services are affordable and available in the users’ home area.

For many potential users, much of this simply isn’t true. In some areas, up to 42% of the population have essentially no digital skills (and it is thought there are 80 million people in Europe who have never used the Internet).

Who are these excluded users? They fall into (often several) different categories. There are low-income residents, who obviously cannot afford private cars, but may lack the financial resources to obtain a credit card, pay for a smartphone subscription, or produce a deposit for, for example, a bike hire.

Rural residents may have a poor or non-existent service (just a weekly bus, and often home delivery may cover rural areas either slowly or not at all). They may also be in ‘blackspots’ for Internet reception. Older and less-educated people may lack knowledge and confidence in using digital tools. Women, in particular, may be fearful and untrusting of services that require them to reveal their location and movements. People with physical disabilities, from poor sight to motor tremor, may struggle with smartphone use. They may also struggle to cross the street to the bus stop. Ethnic minorities and migrants may face language barriers, and migrants in particular may not understand the local and geographical context of transport systems. (Not just migrants – visitors too. Try visiting an unfamiliar city and working out how to pay your fare on the metro, or how the route diagram relates to the above-ground geography of the city).

INDIMO will be using a co-creation process across stakeholders to create an Inclusive Digital Mobility Toolbox that can guide policy makers, developers and operators in creating universal, accessible and personalised digital systems for mobility access. Elements will include a Universal Design Manual for digital transport services, the development of Universal Language Interface Icons, a tool to help evaluate policies in this field, and guide lines for cyber security and personal data protection. (This is one of the areas in which ZLC will be particularly involved, importing our experience in supply chain security. Crucially, INDIMO will be building in cyber-security from the start, not adding it as a later fix).

ZLC will also be co-ordinating the implementation and testing of elements for the Mobility Toolbox, of which a wide range has been identified. Some of these are novel; others already exist but need to be made more accessible. Examples include smart delivery lockers, smart traffic lights, informal ride sharing systems, ethical cycleway platforms, multimodal route planning, and on-demand ride-sharing.

Five pilot projects will run in areas selected to highlight the needs of particular categories of vulnerable or disadvantaged users. In Emilia-Romagna, Italy, there is a high proportion of older residents lacking digital skills, experiencing consequent difficulties in sending and receiving parcels. In Antwerp the on-street problems of those with physical difficulties will be addressed, with an application to sense traffic flows and increase dwell times at crossings to enable the elderly and infirm to cross safely, while improving traffic flows. In Galilee, Israel, finding somewhere to leave a car is difficult, many older people do not have access to cars, and residents in isolated areas, Arab women in particular, face multiple problems in accessing transport.

Meanwhile the pilot in Madrid will look at ways of extending restaurant food availability (from fine dining to McDonalds) by improving the ways in which the elderly, in particular (often living alone and not cooking much), can access such services. This pilot, in particular, is likely to learn a lot from practice and experience in the current crisis, and ZLC’s insight and experience in urban logistics will be particularly relevant here. A fifth pilot, Berlin will investigate how ride pooling services can be more accessible to elder people and ethnic minorities.

Lack of access to mobility is one of those factors, like a lack of digital skills, that tends to drive rifts between people. If successful, INDIMO’s Toolbox will play an important role not just in increasing the personal freedom of disadvantaged individuals but in bringing them together and enabling them to play full and active roles in society. It will also, as a by-product, enable them to favour more environmentally benign modes of transport with confidence.

For more information, contact Beatriz Royo, Associate Professor at ZLC [email protected]