Accessibility is crucial in disabled citizens’ confidence about and enjoyment of any public transport journey. It might even influence their decision to embark on a trip in the first place.
Step-free access, the availability of hand/grab rails, large-print signage, appropriate lighting, elevators, and tactile surfaces are among the built-environment features disabled people look for to make their journeys easy, safe, and comfortable. (The author speaks from personal experience.)
According to a white paper jointly issued by Aerobility, the UK disabled flying charity, and the Civic Air Transport Association (CIVATAglobal), the urban air mobility (UAM) sector needs to ensure vehicles and vertiports “are designed with disabled access, user interfaces, and adaptations” to accommodate disabled passengers.
How to improve accessibility
The paper urges air taxi manufacturers and service providers to ensure disabled access and egress for all vehicles and infrastructure. It calls for reduced mobility needs to be enshrined in the industry’s regulations and disabled community groups to be fully involved in planning, also suggesting a “best-practices repository” so eVTOL developers understand disabled persons’ needs and develop appropriate engineering solutions.
Despite the sector’s development, there has been “very little consultation with disabled groups to ensure the needs of disabled citizens are fully taken into account from the start,” according to the report.
Aerobility CEO Mike Miller-Smith said the UAM sector must account for disabilities “just as has been done and is required on many other urban transport networks.”
Speaking to eVTOL.com, Miller-Smith added: “It makes sense to look at accessibility now when the industry is defining itself. If we can make it [part] of the DNA then we’ll see an accessible transport solution into the future.”
Philip Butterworth-Hayes, CIVATAglobal director of communications and strategy, said disabled citizens’ requirements must be integrated into the entire UAM ecosystem.
“Looking at the designs of some of these vehicles, that doesn’t seem to be the case,” he said. “Obviously, it’s very early days yet. There is time to do something, but that gap is narrowing. We want to see the disabled community as part of the design process.”
Miller-Smith added: “There are key stakeholders that are not currently part of the conversation, for example manufacturers of wheelchairs. Mobility equipment will need to be proved for this type of transport.”
‘A wake-up call’
Butterworth-Hayes believes public agencies need increased awareness about the impact of UAM on disabled citizens. “We’re not at that stage of development that we can be sure [authorities] even understand they have a responsibility here,” he noted.
Public authorities must ensure vertiports meet the same accessibility requirements as other means of transport, he added, as many local authorities “don’t yet realize what this transport revolution is going to mean for them. There’s going to be a big learning curve.”
The Aerobility/CIVATAglobal report is intended to be what Butterworth-Hayes describes as “a wake-up call” to the UAM sector about accessibility.
“The industry needs to reach out and include those stakeholders in the disability community that can give input and look at some of the best practice out there,” added Miller-Smith. “In Europe, there are some good examples of how it works well. There are city-based cable-cars with a small footprint; I’ve been on many myself in my wheelchair. They’re very accessible — you roll up and roll into the cable-car on level access, and off you go. They have a small footprint, probably a similar size to some [UAM] vehicles, so clearly it’s possible.”
Miller-Smith feels developers need to talk to the manufacturers of disability equipment, walking aids, and wheelchairs, “to start thinking about crashworthiness [and] absorption of energy that can be tied in with the certification” of UAM systems they are developing.
Another issue is wider public transportation planning.
“Some larger cities are thinking about the bigger transport solution: arrival at the hub, transport into the city, and then transport around the city,” he said. “What does that look like for a disabled person? This needs to be mixed in with that.”
In an interesting example of thinking about ways of making disabled access to air taxis possible, the Canadian Advanced Air Mobility consortium’s September 2020 report about the rollout of UAM services in Vancouver, B.C., included a proposal to set aside 15 percent of UAM flights “to guarantee low- or no-cost access for the region’s most vulnerable residents.”
The costs for such a service would be “cross-subsidized through multi-tier pricing regimes developed in agreement, and in full transparency, between operators and local and provincial transportation authorities,” the report said.
Miller-Smith thinks “having that awareness, that dialogue, putting it on everyone’s agenda to think about passengers with reduced mobility and how they can be included” is crucial because of UAM’s potential benefits in providing easier and faster connections for disabled people.
Butterworth-Hayes added it is important UAM concepts are put “out for comment from all sides to get their views and make sure it’s not a box-ticking exercise,” and views are incorporated into designs. “This is the time to do it,” he said.