On 19th March 2019, Transport for London (TfL) hosted Access All Areas, London’s largest accessible transport event at the ExCeL London. It showcased the latest transport innovations geared towards accessibility, looking at roads and streets, train stations and public transport, design and services, and, of course, technology. The exhibition included a packed schedule of panel discussions, workshops and tours.
Calvium’s Director for Digital Innovation, Jo Morrison, was there both as a visitor and to inform our latest project, NavSta: a mobile wayfinding solution being developed in collaboration with Transport for London (TfL), Transport Systems Catapult and Open Inclusion. The system will allow those with less visible impairments to navigate stations independently and confidently.
We’re hugely excited about NavSta, but there were plenty of other projects to be inspired by at Access All Areas. As a creative technologist, Jo naturally spent much of her time in the Future and Technology Zone, which promised to provide insight into the role technology plays and will play in creating shared, accessible, cities of the future. It didn’t disappoint.
Here are five projects that caught Jo’s eye throughout the day.
1. Aurrigo: driverless pods for the visually impaired
Just a few months after their Consumer Electronics Show (CES) appearance, Aurrigo popped up at Access All Areas with their Union Flag-emblazoned autonomous pod. The vehicle will be trialled this spring at the Blind Veterans UK rehabilitation centre, helping visually impaired veterans to move around the campus.
Featuring brighter lighting inside than most vehicles, bold colours on the seating and rails and a wheelchair ramp, Aurrigo’s Devpod vehicle can be driven from within or via remote control. The trial will also explore the importance of voice-activated controls – and if successful, the innovation could reduce isolation and improve mobility and independence amongst the visually impaired.
I’ve read so much about autonomous vehicles but never seen one in the ‘vacuum-formed polystyrene’ flesh, so it was great to see this driverless pod and imagine how it might help to transform our mobility systems.
2. AccessAble: comprehensive accessibility guide
Formerly known as DisabledGo, AccessAble gives you “the information and detail [visitors] need to work out if a place is going to be accessible for [them]”. Available as both a website and a free app, every single place in the directory is checked by a trained AccessAble surveyor, and includes toilets, shops, tourist attractions, hotels, restaurants, universities and more.
Set up by Dr Gregory Burke – himself a wheelchair user – the directory gives considerable detail about areas, including photographs, so disabled users know exactly what to expect when navigating cities. The difference between this and most other apps like it is that those with accessibility concerns can plan trips based on their individual circumstances rather than relying on “fully accessible” descriptions of places and streets.
What struck me about AccessAble is that it is built upon a well established service. AccessAble has made incremental improvements over the years, all of which are designed to provide a better quality of life for its users. Unlike the Devpod, the technology used to deliver this service is not at the cutting-edge, rather, it is mature – and this reminds us that striving to adopt the latest tech isn’t always necessary or a sensible choice.
3. Wayfindr: indoor navigation for the visually impaired
The creators of the Wayfindr app have made it their mission “to empower visually-impaired people to travel independently, through inclusive and accessible audio navigation”. They offer any indoor site – including hospitals, shopping centres and transport networks – the ability to create experiences for the visually impaired that are inclusive and consistent, using the power of audio navigation.
The app gives those with visual impairments a lot more independent freedom, but also empowers the owners of built environments to attract a larger audience and provide a better level of care to visitors across the board.
I’ve heard really positive feedback from visually impaired users of Wayfindr. I was interested to learn that there is an associated internationally-recognised standard for audio navigation as an output of this project – ITU-T F.921. That spurs me on with my own work and gives a sense of the possibilities to influence standards.
4. PEARL: testing human interactions with city infrastructure
PEARL – the Person-Environment-Activity Research Laboratory – at University College London is a test facility that allows researchers to model various city-based scenarios. What impact would a new shopping centre have on tube trains, stations, streets or urban spaces, for instance? PEARL harnesses vast data sets to work out the answer.
With the vision of “creating a world where everyone can achieve a better quality of life”, PEARL assesses cities from a human perspective, measuring impact and accessibility for residents. One of its studies looks at the way people use their senses in a built environment, which gives researchers and planners the tools to design cities that better meet people’s sensory and cognitive needs.
Their models mean future infrastructure and transport solutions can be developed with all citizens in mind, eliminating bias from design and decision-making. For the companies involved in delivering projects, it means more rigorous testing that should result in less expenditure on rolling investments – a win/win for all.
Quite simply, I want to use this facility to inform my research!
5. Bikeworks: All-ability cycling clubs
There’s no denying the benefits of cycling, both to human health and to that of the environment. Social enterprise Bikeworks was founded on a belief “that cycling should be accessible and possible for everyone, regardless of age, disability or experience”.
They’ve been around since 2007, and now run All Ability Cycling Clubs across three London locations. Around 50% of the members of each club cycle with disabilities, with Bikeworks providing a variety of adapted cycles including platform tricycles, side-by-side tricycles and tandem tricycles.
Bikeworks highlight that cycling is a sport and a means of transport that is open to everyone, regardless of ability or background – encouraging people to explore the Capital in ways they hadn’t considered before.
Having watched a chap cycling around with a beaming smile on an adapted bike how could anyone not stop to find out more about Bikeworks? As such, I was blown away by the creativity, industriousness, generosity and spirit of this social enterprise. It’s serving a real need and ticks all the policy boxes – so please support this fab endeavour.
And that’s not all…
While these projects stood out, there were no winners or losers at the exhibition; it was invigorating to see so much interest and investment in a subject close to our hearts. And there were plenty of other meaningful projects too. Transport for London has created a range of travel guides in various formats and covering a variety of accessibility issues. London TravelWatch shared their “10 policies to keep Londoners moving”. Disability charity Livability was there on the day, too, showing how their community projects and disability care services help to tackle social isolation and its effects.
While it’s clear that plenty is being done to tackle the travel and transport problems faced by those with disabilities, the event also highlighted two critical challenges…
For those responsible for existing infrastructure, the challenge is to create solutions that will augment an individual’s experience of the space and increase the size of the audience that can use it.
For developers of new infrastructure, the challenge is to embed accessibility from the start, using a combination of technology and social and psychological insight.
We don’t have all the answers yet, but the growing focus on accessibility for all shows that we’re heading in the right direction.
To read more about our current collaboration with Transport for London on the wayfinding solution NavSta, head here. And to find out more about our indoor wayfinding project for those with sight loss, UCAN GO, take a look at our case study here.