Mobility Assistance for People with Cognitive Disabilities


Mobility Assistance for People with Cognitive Disabilities

May 10th, 2022

The vision of Smart Columbus’ $40 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant portfolio is to empower residents to live their best lives through responsive, innovative and safe mobility solutions. The Mobility Assistance for People with Cognitive Disabilities project will help people with cognitive disabilities to travel more independently on fixed route bus service. The project team includes city of Columbus staff, subject matter experts with the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) and The Ohio State University (OSU), and participating individuals with cognitive disabilities. 

Identifying the opportunity 
Use of the term “cognitive disabilities” was decided by subject matter experts at OSU and COTA to include clinical diagnoses of autism, Down Syndrome, traumatic brain injury and dementia, along with less severe cognitive conditions such as attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, dyscalculia and learning disabilities.

People with cognitive disabilities who wish to independently use public transportation must either qualify for paratransit services in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, or they must be sufficiently independent that they are able to safely use fixed-route bus service without assistance. 

Currently, COTA offers origin-to-destination shared ride (paratransit) services, called Mainstream, for eligible riders who are unable to ride fixed-route bus service due to their functional limitations. 

Through our research, we found that the cost of providing paratransit service in the Columbus region continues to grow. Like other transit systems across the U.S., COTA is seeking ways to encourage paratransit riders to consider riding fixed route service which, at an average trip cost of $6.18, is much less expensive to provide than a paratransit trip, which averages $35.86. While COTA offers free bus fares to paratransit customers as an incentive to use the fixed-route service, few have made the switch. Paratransit ridership has remained relatively unchanged despite the free bus fare incentive, at approximately 278,000 trips per year, according to COTA. 

To provide additional, cost-efficient mobility options and a greater degree of independence to residents with cognitive disabilities, a mobility assistance solution is needed that will allow riders to use fixed-route bus services in a safe and easy-to-use manner. In addition to moving people from paratransit to fixed-route service for costs savings, the project holds a secondary objective of moving people from being transported by a caregiver in a privately-owned vehicle to independent travel. This fulfils the Smart Columbus vision of empowering citizens to live their best lives, and also attracts new users with cognitive disabilities who are not already using bus or paratransit services.

Initial research
The project team decided upon a "caregiver response model" to assist users, in which a relative or caregiver of the traveler monitors the trip and intervenes as necessary. The alternative to this model involves external support from an outside agency or call center to monitor trips and intervene as necessary. Call center support from COTA was evaluated early in the study and determined to not be a feasible model due to costs and limited staff resources. 

In March and April of 2017, representatives from OSU conducted functional assessments of two existing commercial applications, Wayfinder by AbleLink and Compagnon by Mass Factory, and identified four strengths and opportunities for improvements with both. Based in part on these assessments, reviews of product information, telephone conversations with company representatives and other factors, the project team scored the available commercial alternatives. 

At that phase of the evaluation, the Compagnon solution was observed to be more in line with the objectives of Smart Columbus primarily because of its ability to actively track a user through use of global positioning satellites. However, because each solution was believed to be viable, the Smart Columbus team moved both options forward for consideration by potential users.

A trade study was released in March 2018, to identify the best technical solution among a set of proposed viable solutions. The trade study is the predecessor for the buy recommendation for the vendor product. In the summers of 2017 and 2018, representatives from OSU conducted an evaluation and field study of people with cognitive disabilities using application under the guidance of the OSU Pre-vocational Integrated Education and Campus Experience (PIECE) program. PIECE is funded by the OSU Nisonger Center in cooperation with the Franklin County Board of Developmental Disabilities, in which people with cognitive disabilities participate in a six-week internship on campus or within proximity to campus.

Lessons learned and project framework
It’s vital to create a system where mobility partners and travelers both benefit from being a part of it. We’ve also learned that gaining agreements with transportation providers can be challenging and allotting time for thorough communication as well as space for negotiation is important.

Integrating with the Smart Columbus Operating System adds value to the Mobility Assistance for People with Cognitive Disabilities project by allowing data to be collected and analyzed anonymously to be used to continue to develop creative solutions in the future. To make travel choices more intuitive and more convenient, the Multimodal Trip Planning Application and Common Payment System being developed by Smart Columbus using the operating system will combine services under a single umbrella to facilitate access and thereby increase usage. Travelers will also have the ability to store user preferences such as a preferred mode, maximum costs, preferred duration, price, walking distance, accessibility and environmental factors such as the “greenest” route.

Users can fund their Common Payment System accounts using a variety of methods, such as credit card, debit card, electronic payment systems, etc. Also, the account can be tied to subsidization programs, such as employee benefits and pre-tax dollars, or can be tied to loyalty programs or incentives with local merchants for qualifying multimodal trips. It will be capable of handling one-to-one and one-to-many payments across different modes of transportation.

Data collected will be anonymized and it will provide the city of Columbus with meaningful information to understand travel behavior. Third-parties will also have access to this anonymized travel data to apply towards new research or creative developments. 

The Multimodal Trip Planning Application and Common Payment System will provide travelers with access to incentives and rewards for participating in multimodal trips. This may include discounted transportation, or travel points toward an individual service, or discounts with local vendors and merchants. Gamification may also be used to incentivize multimodal trips.

Testing of the Mobility Assistance for People with Cognitive Disabilities plan was launched in December 2018 and continues to January 2019. Training is scheduled during March and April 2019. Versions of the Mobility Assistance for People With Cognitive Abilities application will go live from April 2019 to April 2020.

Read the Mobility Assistance for People with Cognitive Disabilities Trade Study, Interface Control Document and webinar deck below.


Sign up here to stay up-to-date on the latest from Smart Columbus.