TheCityFix recently interviewed Tom Rickert – Founder and Executive Director of Access Exchange International – to learn more about how cities can improve mobility for disabled persons. Access Exchange International was founded in 1990 to promote accessible public transport for persons with disabilities and seniors in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Eastern Europe. An estimated 650 million people live with a disability, and 80% of these people live in developing countries. Cities around the world can use relatively cheap, effective strategies to help improve the accessibility of new and existing transport modes for disabled persons.
Tell us about some of the broad global trends in transport accessibility for disabled and senior persons.
Tom Rickert: I think the broad trends are favorable. When I started Access Exchange International in 1990, there was scarcely any country with an effective policy framework to promote universal access to public transportation. Currently, improvements are being made in countries around the world, and not only in policy, but in implementation.
But disability correlates with poverty, so the disabled poor are especially going to need affordable and reliable public transportation. And disability also correlates with aging. The percentage of the world’s population that is elderly is sharply increasing and the majority of older people are in so called “less wealthy countries.” In Guangzhou, China for example, the city has built a remarkably successful bus rapid transit (BRT) system, but some of its main stations are not accessible except through stairs. So even the best systems still have a way to go and the demographics are not going to make it any easier as the years go by!
What are some of the best things that cities can do to improve mobility for disabled persons?
TR: There are many strategies that municipalities can use. Mostly, these strategies help all passengers by implementing universal design features. On the whole, accessibility improvements for disabled people are not expensive and they help everyone else. One big strategy is to train bus and paratransit drivers to be sensitive and courteous to disabled persons. Usually passengers with disabilities are best served by fleets that serve everyone. Other times you are going to need a dedicated fleet. Many years ago, I coordinated paratransit for disabled persons in San Francisco, where we now have a dedicated fleet of vans and an integrated fleet of taxis that provides 800,000 trips every year.
I think it is vital that municipalities in less-wealthy countries should task an employee to provide an inventory of what services are available for disabled, senior, or frail persons. They should see what paratransit is available in the public, private, and NGO sectors. Perhaps cities can offer some services to these stakeholders, such as working on pooled driver training, insurance, fueling, maintenance, or even pooled leasing or purchase of vehicle fleets. The economies of scale could help lower paratransit fares for disabled passengers even in cities that cannot directly subsidize these fares.
Can you talk more about the role that small vehicles play in transport for disabled people in many cities worldwide?
TR: I think auto-rickshaws, moto-taxis, and other small vehicles have an important role. On the whole, they are easy to get in to, have a low floor, and generally lend themselves to accessible transport for many disabled persons, with the important exception that wheelchair users would have to fold their wheelchairs and many cannot ride that way. But the cost for disabled persons to use three-wheelers is 40-50% less than alternative vehicles. You get up to double the number of trips for a disabled person from a three-wheeler than you do from a taxi or a van. We’ve looked at this in India, Peru, Mexico, and Tanzania, and it appears to be true across regions. This is not a case of “one mode fits all,” but smaller vehicles can make a big difference for the disabled poor. They can assist people with different abilities to move around and get to jobs, schools, and health care like everyone else.
What role does new technology play in advancing paratransit options?
TR: Cell phones are ubiquitous, and smartphones are becoming less expensive and more common around the world. That brings new possibilities for door-to-door service. If you are disabled or frail, you may not be able to hail a cab. But you could use a smartphone to get an auto-rickshaw in India or a moto-taxi with a passenger cabin in Latin America.
The apps used by Uber or Lyft haven’t been incorporated into a successful business model for disabled persons yet. In San Francisco, wheelchair users have found that there are fewer ramped taxis, and the unregulated Uber drivers can’t serve them. It is a big problem. But you could simplify this concept and hopefully provide genuine ridesharing to serve disabled people. A neighborhood app could work in low-income areas to help provide ridesharing of a very different nature, including getting rider feedback to build trust and trust worthiness into the system. People need to look into neighborhood-level services where people help one another.
Has the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities been influential?
TR: It has definitely had a positive impact. To some extent the Convention was a child of advocates in Latin America. People are surprised that 150 countries have ratified it, not just signed it. It is an expression of intent, though the sad reality is in much of the world it doesn’t have much grip on anything. Nearly every country in the Americas has ratified the UN Convention. So it is pretty universal. And that has an impact on local policy frameworks. Yet right now you find countries that ratified it but don’t have a single employee who deals with universal access to public transportation. But I think as the years go by, it is going to take its place as a very key document.