To propose solutions to facilitate traveling on public transport to wheelchair users, you have to empathize with their situation

To propose solutions to facilitate traveling on public transport to wheelchair users, you have to empathize with their situation

High curbs, uneven sidewalks with parked cars, barriers of platforms and high steps in trams or buses – those are all obstacles that hinder wheelchair users or pensioners from moving freely around the city. Many people with reduced mobility prefer to avoid public transport and rely on individual motorized transport. The question is how to facilitate the use of public transport in Bratislava and make it more available for their use?

We have looked for answers to these questions at a three day workshop, which was held from 5th to 7th November 2013 within the UNDP/GEF project “Sustainable mobility in Bratislava” with the participation of representatives of non-governmental organizations representing people with different kinds of movement disabilities (Organization of Muscular Dystrophy in Slovakia, Slovak Union of Blind or Visually Impaired či Association of Organizations of Disabled People in Slovakia, representatives of the Municipality of Bratislava and designers and architects from the Slovak University of Technology. During these three days we have personally met with residents of Bratislava with mobility difficulties and we have shared their experiences with public transportation.

„To propose solutions which facilitate the use of public transport for people in wheelchairs or with crutches, for blind, pensioners or mothers with prams, you have to empathize with their situation and experience circumstances and emotions they face day-to-day while traveling through Bratislava and thus you can better understand their needs”, explained Jana Pangrácová from UNDP Regional centre, the organizer of the workshop.
“Empathy and direct contact with the user are the principles of Design Thinking method, which we will follow for the next 3 days.”

If you are interested in how the workshop was conducted and what solutions were suggested, see the following photo report.

 

Have you ever been in a situation where you had a brilliant idea how to improve something, but the person who would most profit from day-to-day use of your improvement suggestions did not consider them useful? What to do in this kind of situation? We have learned how to empathize with disabled people and how to identify their needs. Our suggestions should be based solely on what people with limited mobility need.

We have met with Adam, who travels with public transport to work every day. He has both good and bad experiences with such traveling. The biggest obstacle for him is that public transport vehicles are not entirely barrier free. He prefers to avoid trams. Did you know that wheelchair users should board the trams only through the front door? But the steps near conductor’s booth are significantly truncated and Adam’s assistants get through a lot of bother before they board the tram with him.

We have also met with resident pensioners – Mr Janko and his wife Anastázia. They travel through the city mostly by bus. They are happy, that their resident area is often served by low-floor vehicles. They use public transport to save money.

Like Adam, Mr Janko prefers to avoid trams because the high steps hinder the boarding. Another problem from his point of view is when bus drivers stop the vehicle too far from the curb.

 

On the second day of the workshop we went back into the streets. However, we didn’t use our own feet. We tried out, how it feels to move around the city on a wheelchair. Have you ever tried something like that? It’s not a piece of cake. A number of traps lurk on wheelchair users. Uneven sidewalks, holes in asphalt, poles or high curbs.

 

Please notice, how low this curb is. And yet, Perter had suffered a lot until he managed to pass over it with a wheelchair.

 

We have also tried boarding and exiting to/from low floor buses. We were joined by Tibor Schlosser, chief transport engineer in Bratislava, who needed a little help with boarding. We concluded, that most wheelchair users would not manage without assistants or helpful passengers.

During our interviews with Bratislava citizens with movement disabilities, we have met a blind gentleman, who used public transport with ease. That was very fascinating. Therefore, we have decided to try to walk in his shoes. The experience was very valuable – with dominating feeling of insecurity. We have literally minded every step.

After dozens of interviews and meetings we got to work. Our goal was to sum up all the learned experience, needs and feelings of people with disabilities. After a difficult decision, we chose two cases, to which we have devoted a part of the last day of the workshop. One working group tried to propose a simpler and faster way of communication for people with mobility difficulties with public transport vehicles drivers/conductors. The other working group was looking for answers to the question on how to make it possible for more wheelchair users to travel together on the same line.

On the last day of the workshop we had to face the most important task – to propose specific solutions. How did we proceed? We have looked at our assignment from different perspectives and we came out with simple and innovative solutions that could facilitate and make traveling with public transport more pleasant for people with limited mobility.

We chose four solutions and started on their development.

Specifically, we created prototypes for:

1 – mobile application, functioning as a trip planner, which should also announce the traveler’s intention to board a specific public transport vehicle; this information should be displayed on the driver’s computer screen.

2 – web page, on which could wheelchair users or mothers with strollers plan their public transport journey according to availability of individual stops.

3 – taxi service for disabled people.

4 – acoustic-light system, that would inform the passengers of public transport about boarding/exiting of people with mobility difficulties.

We would like to introduce two prototypes more closely.

1. The mobile application should work like this: The system should recognize your current location and offer available public transport connections. You would choose particular time and direction. A server should send the information to incoming line driver’s computer. The driver can thus have more time to prepare for your boarding and park the vehicle accordingly. He will also have more information about how many passengers with special transport needs are on board.

4. This is a scheme of a vehicle equipped with acoustic and light signalization for boarding of wheelchair users or mothers with strollers. The passengers can be thus informed about the prolonged stay at the bus stop and that they should vacate the space reserved for people with special mobility needs.

After the prototypes were made it was time to test them. Thanks to the willing help of people with impaired mobility and real experience with public transport traveling, we have been able to obtain valuable feedback about the helpfulness and possible modifications of our designs.

Some elements from our suggestions had to be changed or removed completely. After recent modifications we have presented our prototypes to representatives of the city and non-governmental organizations.

Chairman of Slovak Organization of Muscular Dystrophy, Mrs Andrea Madunová said: “I liked that several experts have been included in the project, each with his/her own specific view on the problem, who can mutually enrich their knowledge and experience. We felt their interest and acceptance of the disabled persons’ views. It was also important that these experts were interested in feelings and situations that disabled people experience while traveling and that they were willing to share this experience to better understand their needs.”

We are very pleased, that our propositions were liked by all interested parties. It is a great motivation for practical implementation. Our primary goal is that these or similar suggestions are implemented in real life and thus facilitate the use of public transport for people with impaired mobility.