Solving paratransit challenges with design thinking

By: Sally Xia | August 31, 2017

design thinking
“Let’s propose a tax from tourism to fund transportation” 
“We need to rebrand the bus: how do we send the message that the bus is not only for low-income people?” 
“Let’s use the university community”
“How do we make the community aware of what’s available?”
 
Those were some highlights from a transportation stakeholder meeting in Tupelo, Mississippi. A group of people ranging from service providers to government representatives had been brought together by Toyota to design a new public transportation plan.
 
I attended this meeting after my Georgia Tech team and I won the Next Generation Mobility Challenge, a national competition to use design thinking to solve mobility issues.  Our winning solution was a concept for an app-based paratransit service that would provide flexible, affordable and safe transportation options to people who use wheelchairs. As part of our prize, we had the opportunity to intern in collaboration with Toyota’s Social Innovation group in partnership with Net Impact. (Learn more about our idea here.)
 
Stickies and sharpies, maps and data visualizations - I was fascinated by how quickly ideas were generated and how easily people were able to get on the same page and start to tackle problems right away. 
 
The power of community engagement is one of the most valuable lessons from my internship that shaped our own mobility project, ParaPickup. Working with stakeholders and paratransit users got us out of our design comfort zone and put us on the ground where the idea could be tested, refined, and regenerated with the help of the community. 
 
We didn’t just hear what officials had to say; we also delved deep into engaging with our users. We believe that the stakes for a service like ParaPickup are higher than for a commercial product or app, since availability of transportation significantly affects people’s lives. We knew that people with disabilities travel significantly less than the rest of the population, but we wanted to better understand why. 
 
To do that, local nonprofits helped us connect with paratransit users to conduct interviews, surveys, focus groups, and diary studies. Instead of simply asking their feedback on a proposed solution, we focused on drawing a picture of existing travel behaviors. 
 
Most of what we did was listening and asking questions such as: 
  • “How often are you able to go out?” 
  • “What are some your favorite locations to visit?”
  • “What kind of transportation do you currently use?”
  • “How much money do you spend on transportation?”
We heard stories like below: 
  • Kathy* always buys two pairs of season tickets to the Dallas Star-only to give one out for free in exchange for a ride to the stadium;
  • Anna*, whose son has mental disabilities, would like to find ways to take her son to movies/outings without having to compromise on work; and
  • Brie* would like to visit the Perot Museum in Dallas and libraries more frequently without depending on the current Paratransit, which make a usually short trip last an entire day.
The availability of transportation for people with disabilities directly influences which elements of their lives they get to enjoy and which they have to sacrifice, something that many of us never have to think about. We found that people are still getting by and going to the places they absolutely need to go, but there is huge room for improvement to increase their mobility to live more fulfilling lives. 
 

To learn more about Toyota's social innovation work and the Next Generation Mobility Challenge, read a post by Latondra Newton, Social Innovation and Chief Diversity Officer, Toyota Motor North America.

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