Moving Stories

The tech innovators reimagining accessible public transport

This article features in the first edition of the Connected Places Magazine

With 14 million people in the UK living with some form of disability, it’s clear that improving access to public transport is by no means a minority issue. The Connected Places Catapult has been working with the UK Department of Transport in managing a Transport Research and Innovation Grant on the theme of accessibility (TRIG Accessibility).

This has a clear mission – to fund proof-of-concept research projects that are helping to enhance accessibility across the public transport network, and at the same time, grow local business and the wider economy. A win-win for everyone. Here, we feature some of the SMEs giving us a glimpse of what an accessible transport network can look like.

Eventful solutions to travel complexity

Chris Thompson, CEO - You. Smart. Thing.
“When we think about transport networks and how accessible they are to all of us, I think everyone can relate to having been in a stressful environment. Whether it’s a packed concourse at Euston, the queue in an airport, when you’re trying to ferry a family away on holiday. And what we do to be able to cope with those really needs to change quite radically.”

The experience of You. Smart. Thing. lies in the events industry – using technology to coordinate large, complex events such as the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. But for Chris Thompson, he sees real benefits in applying his joined-up technology to improving everyone’s experience of travel.

“Typically, we provide a personalised travel plan to people attending events, and we’ll be applying a lot of the development that we’ve had funded through TRIG and Connected Places Catapult for the Commonwealth Games.

“Accessibility has always been at the core of our design process. So before we launched our current travel assistance service, we worked very closely with an organisation called Goss Consultancy Limited who are experts in equality, diversity and inclusion. We worked with them on a project called TOC Ability – TOC being Train Operating Company – that we ran also with Atkins, to look at how we could share information across multiple train operators. What we recognised is that accessibility through the rail network is great, providing you can get to the train station and from the train station to your final destination. And what’s really needed is a holistic approach – for the supply chain to collaborate in achieving a seamless journey for people. That’s the opportunity that excited us.

“The biggest barrier was trying to convince operators to collaborate with each other using our technology. It’s one of the reasons that we pivoted away from the transport sector and started to focus on the reasons people travel. And we found that one of the biggest causes of gridlock and congestion in and around towns and cities was when they have large events – conferences, exhibitions, concerts happening simultaneously – which of course, all the big cities do. And if we focused on the reasons people were travelling to these large events, we could deliver a service which was tailored around that specific use case: not boiling the ocean, not trying to integrate every transport operators service under the sun with our platform, but actually focusing on a large event.

You. Smart. Thing. are applying their technology at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham

We do a sort of ‘compare the market’ of available routing technologies. So, Transport for London’s open API has far richer information about accessibility to tube platforms for wheelchair users than any other available journey planning technologies, including Google. Yet [if you] use TfL’s journey planning API in Manchester, it doesn’t work very well. So what we do is hack all that together and provide a personalisation layer on top of that. And it’s that layer where we’ve been able to zoom in on the requirements of disabled people – and wider society – in terms of accessibility.

With the commercial opportunity, we have live deployments of the technology that we’ve developed through TRIG Accessibility being used by Coventry City of Culture Trust for attendees to events across Coventry. And we’ve been able to build upon the accessibility features within our platform to win contracts, such as the 2022 Commonwealth Games, and the Rugby League World Cup happening next year.”

Gaming the system

Mark Robinson, managing director – Chrome Angel
 “Transport is, for me, the stuff of life. It’s what connects everything together and enables things to happen. And just to imagine not being able to access that, and to be denied all of those things that it enables is just mind boggling to me.”

14 million people in the UK have some form of disability or accessibility need. 700,000 people with autism in the UK [means] 3 million family members who live with that and have to manage it, and I’m one of them. So I know just how difficult travel can be. Sometimes it’s just too hard. So you just don’t travel and you don’t do things that you would want to.”

Mark Robinson has worked in railways his whole life, and has learnt just how important good public transport, and access to it, is for helping people to live independent, productive lives. His team at Chrome Angel, with partners Totem Learning, have developed a virtual reality video game for rail operator Northern to support people building confidence to travel.

“The idea is actually quite simple – to build a virtual reality simulation of taking a train journey. The objective of the game is you want to travel somewhere, and you have challenges to overcome. What we’ve tried to do is simulate this journey and the assistance provided by Northern to make it feel realistic, like you’re actually there to experience all the different things that you’re going to have to do. So that someone who wants to travel but doesn’t have the confidence to do it, can safely experience that, and build up confidence.

Chrome Angel have created a VR video game for Northern, to help people practise their trips

One of the bits of feedback we got from one of the test groups was that every member of staff in the rail industry should have to play this simulation to understand what the process is like, how important the contribution they have to make is, and what a difference that makes to people. So where we might be able to make some return on this investment is things like staff training. And maybe we can deliver better training with better outcomes, more cost effectively than some of the current ways of training people on how to provide accessibility. That might be a spin off to this thing that we built to help passengers.”

A pocket travel pal

Fredi Nonyelu, CEO - Briteyellow Limited
“In 2019, I had a life-changing discovery. We were on a Transport for Wales accelerator and had the opportunity to interview disabled passengers on their accessibility and inclusion panel. And that’s when I realised that public transport is an absolute nightmare for them. We did some research and found that 6.2% of the population don’t use rail at all. That’s around 4 million people.”

Fredi’s revelation set his company on a journey to improving the experience of public transport spaces to encourage more people with disabilities to use them.

“Our mission is to transform people’s experience inside buildings. And we do that through the use of ultra-precise location sensors, high-definition augmented reality applications and real-time insights. Like a Google Maps for Windows.

“The problem is, you don’t know what’s inside the station before you’ve travelled. You don’t even know if there will be staff there if you need assistance. In many cases, people just think ‘it’s too much hassle, I’d rather just drive’.

“So we bring three things to the table. First is a virtual and augmented reality app, where you can do a dry run and understand exactly what route you’ll be taking, which takes away a lot of the anxiety that disabled passengers have. And if there are any issues like escalators, where it’s not working, you get a notification – a status update, in real time for the journey.

“Then secondly, it’s about when you are at the station. Normally, you might have asked for an assistant to guide you. Here you’ve [already] planned your journey, the app is your assistant, with a visual mode, through your camera with icons to guide you. You’re able to hear for those that have visual impairment and it’s got haptic alerts through the actual phone itself.

“We do something else that’s really important. A wearable that allows your remote carer to know where you are and to understand the decisions you’re making during your journey, sending them an alert if something is unusual, like your heart rate or temperature.

“And finally, it’s the insights hub. We’re bringing a lot of insights together in one place in terms of predicting overcrowding within the station, where the pinch points are and to guide the passenger around those safely. We think it really is a ground-breaking insight to be able to do that in real time.

“Getting private equity capital to fund a pre-revenue rail startup is very challenging, because it’s an industry that moves very slowly. And some of these buildings are listed. So you’ve also got challenges about what you can install. [The TRIG Accessibility grant allowed us to] bring the product, the insights and the application all together in one platform that can be tested at scale. It means we can start talking to equity investors, as they can see that it’s no longer bits of solutions, [rather] a complete solution working together and bringing demonstrable value. It’s been a brilliant journey for us.”

“Our mission is to transform people’s experience inside buildings. And we do that through the use of ultra-precise location sensors, high-definition augmented reality applications and real time insights.”

Enjoyed this article?

Access the full Connected Places magazine