• COVID-19 has worsened already difficult mobility situations for the disabled and those who use wheelchairs.
  • The pandemic has ushered in a time of great transition - which often leads to innovation.

Traveling for the disabled is difficult even when there’s no pandemic to contend with. This group is chronically underserved and forced to make do with limited options for accessible buses, trains and ride hailing services.

COVID-19 has worsened this bad situation, however, compounding increased health risks with a global recession that has shrunk transit options for nearly everyone not driving a personal vehicle. Cities like New York have seen a 40% reduction in transit services and the existing patchwork of paratransit services is now even more difficult to access than ever.

While these facts can be dispiriting, there is cause for hope. Innovation often springs from times of great need, urgency and economic transition. With the right collaborations and mindsets, this moment could spark a renaissance in innovative mobility solutions for people with special needs, the disabled, and wheelchair users.

Innovation – for some
Road-based mobility has enjoyed an innovation upsurge in recent years. The past decade has seen a spate of new options leveraging shared scooters, bicycles and e-bikes. New transit services have found their momentum, too, with mobility-on-demand options such as ViaVan and ride hailing services for motorcycles such as Grab. New technologies have also been leveraged, bringing solutions for autonomous shuttles, taxis, and delivery bots to market.

Though new modern mobility solutions have demonstrated a range of transportation possibilities, inclusivity has often been overlooked. The benefits from new solutions have not been shared equally.

Mobility services do exist for the disabled, but these services have limitations in both quality and quantity. Additionally, despite the effort of local governments to manage and control the quality of such accessible services, they are typically only available in selected cities with limited numbers of fleets, causing long wait times. In fact, the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, a non-profit civil rights law firm, recently published a report noting wait times for wheelchair accessible vehicles (WAVs), are five times longer than those for inaccessible vehicles.

New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, 2019
Image: Image based on 2019 data from the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest

Furthermore, some accessible services fall far short of the ‘on-demand’ factor we associate with modern mobility. Some require wheelchair users to book rides at least 24 hours in advance. As WAV mobility services have a segmented value chain, meaning they are highly fragmented, such services suffer from higher operational costs, marketability challenges, and a lower quality of service.

Image: Hyundai Motor Group

Universal mobility for everyone

Mobility, far from just a convenience, is widely recognized as a human right. Mobility was codified in article 13 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights more than 70 years ago and further elaborated upon in article 20 of the UN’s Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. Safe, effective and efficient transportation is a crucial public good and governments the world over readily recognize the direct, positive link between the movement of people and goods with economic growth and prosperity.

These are complicated problems – ones that will require public-private partnerships and collaboration. To help ensure that transit innovators consider inclusivity, The World Economic Forum is taking several steps. First, it is collaborating with experts, university researchers, the private sector, non-governmental organizations and thought leaders to develop core principles for universal mobility.

These Universal Mobility Principles will help elevate the conversation on universal access and create familiar and common language which can lead to tangible equitable mobility policies. Over the course of the next year, The Principles will be socialized, refined and eventually endorsed by city transit leaders, commercial mobility providers and civil society leaders.

To better ensure Universal access for people who use wheelchairs and the physically disabled, the Forum and Hyundai Motor Group are collaborating on a special project that will examine the core principles and guidelines required for inclusive mobility. While the principles are aimed at creating substantive thought leadership, partnerships like this with Hyundai Motor Group showcase what universal mobility can look like on the ground. This initiative will also explore strategies to overcome subpar service quality resulting from fragmented value chains for paratransit.

These initiatives are part of the larger Inclusivity Quotient project which seeks to expand financially sustainable mobility options for socioeconomic development of the most underserved. The project was launched at Davos 2020 and over the course of the past year has expanded its reach to form a global community with mobility leaders joining the efforts and showcasing their own inclusive mobility initiatives.

Change will not be easy. But it is possible. 20 years ago, many might not have imagined the disruption to the New York taxi industry or a world where commuters shared bikes or rented electric scooters. Such innovations emerged during the Great Recession, demonstrating the opportunities that great transitions can bring.

During this difficult moment, it’s the dedicated prioritization of the underserved that will create the just, sustainable, and thriving world we want to see. Through creative partnerships like these, we believe we can harness new technologies and innovations to create a world where inclusive, equitable mobility exists for everyone, including persons relying on wheelchairs.

For more information on Hyundai Motor Group's new mobility initiatives, click here.