Innovations and start-ups cultivating more inclusive mobility

Claire Lepelletier, Market Development @Aster

Liberté, Egalité, Mobilité! (Liberty, Equality, Mobility!) proclaims the Wimoov platform, whose team is committed to helping all vulnerable sectors of society (people with disabilities, people entering the workforce, seniors, etc.) achieve sustainable and autonomous mobility. A report by the Inclusive Mobility Laboratory indicates that access to public transportation is difficult for 43% of the French population. Yet, as a key factor of economic and social integration, mobility is a component of equality for citizens. How can start-ups help meet the challenge of universal mobility with their innovative solutions?

A favorable demographic and legislative backdrop for emerging innovations in the field of accessibility

The INSEE estimates that 12 million people in France are currently affected by a disability. Although 80% of them have a disability that is not immediately visible, 1.7 million people are visually impaired, and 500,000 use wheelchairs. These high figures reflect an aging trend in the population. The latest projections show that 15% of the population will be older than 75 in 2060, making each of us a potential candidate for difficult travel.

The government did not want to wait on the publication of these statistics to legislate on accessibility. The French law of February 11, 2005 — commonly referred to as the Disability Act — aims to restore equality to citizens in their access to public spaces, including transportation services. It initially granted public institutions ten years to comply with this accessibility requirement. In the end, a million public institutions were affected, including notable institutions like the SNCF, whose accessibility master plan, signed in 2015, commits to making an additional 160 stations accessible by 2024.

Governments are also renewing their efforts and discussions to promote mobility for individuals who are economically disadvantaged. Also according to the Inclusive Mobility Laboratory’s report, 23% of the population is said to have already had to turn down a job offer because of a transportation-related problem. How can this be avoided when the unemployment rate in France averages 10%?

This demographic, economic, and legislative climate thus motivates the emergence of innovative start-ups that foster accessibility. It should be noted, however, that Aster’s interest in these start-ups is cautious with regard to our venture capital activities. The importance of the numbers above often masks a diversity of situations and financial solvencies and blurs our investment criteria in terms of innovation “scalability”.

Not surprisingly, one of the top drivers of innovation is the use of smartphones. After all, more than half of all French people have one! More specifically, smartphones can now be used by visually-impaired and hearing-impaired people thanks to technological advances in speech recognition. For example, the RogerVoice application makes it possible for hearing-impaired individuals to have a phone conversation by instantly converting a speaker’s words into instant messages. And visually-impaired individuals can download the Voxiweb application for easier access to web content.

The widespread use of smartphones is a powerful vehicle for innovation. Indeed, digital accessibility is more than just an accessory; it is a fundamental component of accessibility to the public space.

Multiple applications inspired by consumer applications can therefore flourish, alleviating a particular situation. The platform receiving the most media attention is undoubtedly Wheeliz, often called the Drivy of wheelchair-friendly vehicles. But there is also Handivalise, a platform that links up companions and passengers for long-distance travel. The platform differentiates itself from a traditional carpooling site like Blablacar by extending its service to other means of transport, such as trains, and especially by educating its companions on the disability in order to gain the confidence of potential passengers. Such initiatives receive the support of transportation operators like SNCF, who spotlighted and promoted them and others during its Access Solutions event.

Meanwhile, other start-ups are working on offering innovative solutions to local communities in peri-urban and rural areas to supplement what is available through public transportation. One such example is the start-up Padam, which has developed a real-time vehicle route optimization algorithm based on user demand. This type of solution opens up the possibility of creating an on-demand shuttle transportation service that would likely be cheaper than regular services and more flexible than existing phone reservation solutions. The start-up CoVoitici is trying to encourage informal carpooling in peri-urban areas with its registration terminals located at busy intersections. Finally, there are initiatives like BipPop that offer a reverse mobility service that brings services directly to the homes of elderly or immobilized individuals.

This inventory of accessibility-friendly applications is not meant to be exhaustive, but rather to illustrate the latest innovations to supplement public transportation services that may be lacking or altogether missing. The challenge for these platforms is to reach a sufficient critical mass of supply and demand so that their matching service is as “liquid” and as instant as possible.

Prospects opened up by advances in geolocation

Another important driver of accessibility innovation comes from advances in geolocation services. More than ten years after the start of the RATP’s “Blue Eyes” experiment, the widespread availability of smartphones with sensors featuring mature geolocation technology make it possible to offer custom-tailored guidance and information services to people based on their disability.

For example, AudioSpot specializes in delivering adapted content to smartphones when it detects a BLE beacon posted at an exposition or tourism destination. The company already has markers in public spaces, such as Paris City Hall’s Nuits Blanches festival. The start-up Géonomie is trying to make travel easier for citizens by pinpointing geolocation to a few centimeters, made possible by the previously completed 360° mapping of the environment (train station, establishment, roads, etc.). These various BtoBtoC services will likely undergo several more months of experimentation before the market offers the best compromise in terms of cost and benefit. Our French entrepreneurs, most of whom are young, are bursting with ideas for improving accessibility in daily life. We would like these initiatives to achieve sufficient critical mass for their viability and their profitability — possibly with the support of mobility stakeholders — so that public transportation is not just mass transportation, but rather transportation for all.