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Microtransit series (Part 4): Academic research can help advance accessible transit

January 14, 2019

By Sasha Pejcic

How partnerships between public agencies, universities, and the private sector can meet the needs of accessible transit ridership

Historically, there’s often been a disconnect between the research that universities do related to transit and the actual policies and practices introduced by transit agencies. The research might be promising, but the links haven’t always been made to practical implementation.

Here, we’ll look at how partnerships between public agencies, universities, and the private sector are driving innovative new research-based approaches to meeting the needs of accessible transit ridership.

A number of public/private/higher education studies in the works right now are trying to change the current disconnect. By getting the transit industry involved from the beginning of a grant or research project, universities are seeking to ensure that their research findings are more useful, applicable, and therefore, adopted as practice by more agencies.

Stantec is leveraging cutting-edge research done by the University at Buffalo’s IDeA Center for the Toronto Transit Commission’s first-ever travel training program. Stantec travel trainers are working closely with the Toronto Transit Commission to show people with disabilities how to use conventional transit as well as features of on-board vehicles. (Photo: Toronto Transit Commission)

Leveraging University Partnerships

Recently, Carnegie Melon University announced that a 10-year partnership, between its Robotics Institute and the University at Buffalo’s (UB) Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDeA), to advance physical access and public transportation for people with disabilities, has been extended for another five years.

The universities’ joint Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC) on Accessible Public Transportation was awarded a five-year, $4.6 million grant from the U.S. National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research. This center develops ways to empower consumers, manufacturers, and service providers in the design and evaluation of accessible transportation equipment, information services, and physical environments.

As one part of this grant, the universities will use a mixed-methods approach to study current gaps in transit service and first/last mile challenges for individuals with disabilities. The first part of this research examines innovative, flexible transit service delivery models that augment traditional fixed-route transit service.  

The research includes interviews with transit agencies and an online survey and focus groups with transit riders who have experience using both paratransit and flexible transit services. The findings will then identify the benefits and challenges of implementing innovative, flexible transit service models into public transit.

The second part of the universities’ research will study the usability of shared-automated vehicles for people with disabilities. An online survey will target individuals with disabilities to obtain information about user requirements and preferences with respect to shared autonomous vehicle (SAV) usage.

Through interviews with SAV manufacturers, transit agencies, municipal departments, and regulatory organizations, the researchers are hoping to ascertain the benefits and challenges of providing accessibility in SAVs, the anticipated level of SAV adoption in their transit services, the impact of SAVs on land use and street infrastructure, and the regulations needed in those operations. These findings will then serve to inform vehicle manufacturers on automated vehicle designs and support Federal rule-making activities and policies on innovative transit services and vehicles.

We would implore anyone who serves the transit industry to consider how they can advance the cause of research and provide agencies with forward-thinking solutions that better address the needs of the entire spectrum of ridership.

By creating and evaluating real designs, the research will help to create cycles of knowledge transfer from research to commercialization through committed partnerships with large and small SAV manufacturers. After all, the idea of autonomous vehicles solving mobility challenges for accessible transit audiences is great in theory, but if the design of the actual vehicles is prohibitive or challenging to use, it won’t ever truly be a workable solution.

Partnering with private industry

As part of the Robotics Institute and the IDeA Center’s research efforts, businesses such as Stantec, through their work with transit agencies across North America, are helping connect researchers with transit agencies that are implementing innovative service delivery models.

For example, Stantec is currently collaborating with the IDeA Center on two projects for the Toronto Transit Commission’s (TTC) Wheel-Trans Transformation Program. TTC has shown significant leadership in their commitment to advancing paratransit for the betterment of their customers. This first project is to design and implement the TTC’s first-ever travel training program. In designing the program, Stantec is leveraging cutting-edge research done by the IDeA Center on why individuals who have been travel trained at other transit agencies do not use accessible conventional transit afterwards. This research distilled 16 factors that are being reverse-engineered into the creation of the TTC’s program to ensure higher rates of success from the onset.

In another collaboration with the TTC, Stantec is developing a future-proofed fleet plan for Wheel-Trans. The focus of that assignment is to ensure that Wheel-Trans has the optimal fleet mix to respond to alternate service delivery strategies (e.g, microtransit, zone buses, a more robust community bus network) that it is seeking to explore in the future. At the same time, fundamental items, such as maintenance requirements for a non-standardized fleet, are being realistically weighed for their potential impact. Stantec is working closely with the IDeA Center on this project to optimize the use of space on vehicles using their recent laboratory research in this space.   

Since not all transit agencies have the resources to keep up on the latest research in their field or determine the best ways to implement it for their own agency, we see work like this as an important opportunity to disseminate the latest research findings to improve transit agencies’ offerings to their ridership. We would implore anyone who serves the transit industry to consider how they can advance the cause of research and provide agencies with forward-thinking solutions that better address the needs of the entire spectrum of ridership.

Other blogs in this series:

Microtransit series (Part 1): Technology helps cities meet demand for accessible transit

Microtransit series (Part 2): Key considerations when integrating on-demand service

Microtransit series (Part 3): How tech can help transit unlock microtransit’s opportunities

About the authors

Dr. Jordana Maisel, is Director, Research Activities, at the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access, University of Buffalo.

Brittany Perez, OTD, OTRL, is Director, Outreach and Engagement, at the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access, University of Buffalo.

This article originally appeared as part of a series in Metro Magazine.

  • Sasha Pejcic

    Sasha develops innovative solutions for communities that ensure the delivery of transit is effective and efficient.

    Contact Sasha
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