Accessible App Technology is Essential for Mobility Equity

“Together, we must remove the physical barriers we have created and the social barriers that we have accepted. For ours will never be a truly prosperous nation until all within it prosper.”

These were the words spoken by President George W. Bush on July 26, 1990, the day he signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. Now, almost 32 years later, we have come very far, but we still have a long way to go before fully accessible public transportation is available to all.

For example, while public transit vehicles must be accessible, often a lack of or poorly maintained sidewalks and bus stops without curb cuts often present significant challenges to riders. These obstacles hinder their navigation of public transport systems, limiting their use to only a fraction of the stops.

As our society continues to innovate, we now have apps we can use to schedule, book, and pay for public transit trips; however, there is often very little incentive or attention given to the importance of accessible app technology, and this has not been made a requirement for users.

The CFR for ADA requirements regarding public transit were last updated in 1991, when there were no apps, and cell phones were just arriving on the scene. Cell phones then looked more like bricks with LCD screens than mini-PCs.

One of the most informative projects that I have had the opportunity to work on at Feonix in the past four years is, without a doubt, the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, Michigan Ride Paratransit project. Funded by the Michigan Department of Transportation as part of their Mobility Challenge grant program, we deployed an app designed specifically for paratransit riders in the region.

What was unique about the project was the dedicated commitment to the user experience. Thanks to the work of Menlo Innovations, the transit leaders at SMARTDetroit DOT, and TheRide, and numerous passenger and staff interviews, we knew what the desired end result was before our team and technology partners started their work.  

Calibrating efforts spanning three sophisticated public transit agencies, we met almost every other Friday morning for almost 9 months to configure, design, brand, and test technology that would enable the coordination of services and accessible app booking requirements. We looked at variations in mobility aid terminology, trip booking windows, dispatch hours of service, geofencing service areas, and operational logistics.

Then, we went to the customer service agents, dispatchers, and passengers and spent almost another 6 months in training and alpha testing. Every tap, click, and screen were analyzed with a fine-tooth comb. Everyone put in the work. We believed and knew we were not just creating an app; we were paving the road toward equity.

The result was a transformative change in the lives of passengers during some of the most challenging times in their lives amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some passengers who use the service frequently got months of their life back when they could book six trips in less than 60 seconds on the app compared to when this process used to take 60 minutes via the call center.

Other passengers have caregivers who work in the medical industry, who amid 12-hour shifts were able to book rides for loved ones during late nights or early mornings.

The result of the accessible app technology has been an equitable experience for paratransit customers and caregivers. They no longer have to call during certain times of the day or wait on hold. In seconds, they can cancel rides when plans change. The fact that they can look at their phones at any time and see when their rides are scheduled has offered them peace of mind, saving on additional calls and reducing stress.

If we are to hold true to the ADA, we need to be more intentional about creating accessible app technology for both fixed-route transit and paratransit, as well as all modes of transportation.

It has been an honor to be a part of this incredible journey.

Check out below the latest issue of the Feonix Insider, highlighting our public transit partner SMART and technology partner SkedGo.

Stay tuned for more information and additional resources about this project! We have more videos, white papers, and technical guides that we plan to share as part of this pilot program. 


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Why Mobility Ecosystems Matter – The Trip that Changed My Life

I had no idea when I woke up that day, December 28, 2015, in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, that my life would never be the same. It was –13 degrees Fahrenheit that morning—so cold, you could barely feel your face after about 30 seconds outside.

I was working on a USDOT grant for a rural mobility solution, and we were doing the first beta test for the app we were working on. We were collaborating with the local transit agency, and they had several passengers who signed up to test the app.

The public transit agency provided its last rides around 5pm, and our first trip was to take a husband and wife on a date for a night on the town: dinner at Domino’s Pizza and a movie at the local theater.

My car pulled up at around 7pm, and I walked to the front door. I barely got my first knock in before Henry* greeted me with the biggest grin on his face, and their adorable beagle puppy, Skipper, had to come say hello as well.

Henry said, “Give me just a few seconds, I’ll get Cindy* and let her know you’re here. She’s just finishing getting ready.” I was more than obliged to spend a few extra minutes snuggling that adorable puppy. Not 30 seconds later, Cindy and Henry were ready to go!

I asked them if I could get a photo for the project, since this was our first official ride, and they were happy to oblige. And of course, Skipper had to join! Photo taken, we were off on our journey.

I opened the car door, and Cindy and Henry hopped in. They were so excited. You would have thought I had pulled up in a black stretch limo and not a family sedan with 140,000 miles on it.

They remarked at how excited they were and gave each other a quick kiss as they put on their seatbelts. We began talking during that short ride, and Cindy shared with me that this was the first date night they had been on in over seven years. Since the public transit didn’t operate after 5pm, these luxuries like “date night” were just not an option, nor was visiting church on Wednesday nights to go blanket sewing. So many things that only happened after hours were not accessible.

She shared about job opportunities, activities with family and friends, and volunteer experiences that were missed or out of reach because there were no rides available on evenings and weekends.

About eight years ago, Cindy started having seizures, and with her health, she was no longer able to drive safely. Her husband, Henry, had macular degeneration that prevented him from driving as well. So, their only options were the local public transit, friends, and family. There was no taxi service in town either. And well, as Henry so eloquently put it, “Asking your friend or your brother (who lives over 60 miles away) to take you and your wife on a date is really awkward.”

Both Henry and Cindy worked part-time jobs that fit within the transit schedule, but had opportunities for promotions that they were forced to pass up because they couldn’t work nights or weekends or take longer shifts. Where they could afford housing was too far from where they could walk to jobs, and with the Nebraska winter weather and summer heat, anything more than 1–2 miles would be out of the question.

About five minutes later, I pulled up to the Domino’s, and Cindy and Henry got outside. They were so excited. I asked them to fill out a short survey about their experience with the app before they went into the restaurant. As Cindy handed me her clipboard, she said to me, “You have no idea how many people are counting on you; this service will change lives.”

Check out below the latest issue of the Feonix Insider, highlighting our public transit partner SMART and technology partner SkedGo.

And that was it. That was the day I knew this project was about more than a final report; this “project” would change my life, but most importantly, it would lead to changing thousands more.

I can still remember sitting in my car, the blue and red glow of the Domino’s lights in the night sky, as I looked up to the heavens and prayed, those words set in and washed over my soul.

Fast forward several years, and a lot of gray hairs and sleepless nights later… I founded Feonix – Mobility Rising, and together with our incredible Board of Directors and 160+ community partners, our fearless, hardworking, passionate team is breaking down transportation barriers for those unable to access employment, healthcare, and social activities every day.

Cindy and Henry represent millions of Americans who lack access to mobility options that would enable them to improve their quality of life and their communities. Their desire to work longer hours, buy a nicer house, and volunteer in their community is limited by their access to transportation. And while Cindy and Henry are lucky enough to have at least public transit as an option, many have no options.

In fact, the American Public Transportation Association estimates that approximately 45% of residents do not have access to public transportation. This applies to urban and rural communities alike. Increasing access to public transportation would certainly help solve some of the challenges, but the impact from a collective ecosystem approach is critical. Not one mode or entity can provide every ride, but there are always ways to ensure every ride happens.

Transportation is expensive, but the returns are undeniable. Research indicates for every $1 invested in public transportation, it generates $5 more in economic returns. Increased access to jobs, preventative healthcare, and social activities leads to significant gains for communities.

As a society there is so much work still to be done. We need to work together to create mobility ecosystems and expand funding options to help support these new services – so every person can thrive.

* Names have been changed to protect privacy.

(feature photo of the road outside Scottsbluff National Monument)

Check out below the latest issue of the Feonix Insider, highlighting our public transit partner SMART and technology partner SkedGo.

Filling Gaps in Access to Care – The Feonix Volunteer Force

One of the most gut-wrenching experiences for a call center agent in the transportation industry, is when a patient calls to schedule a ride to their healthcare appointment—for example, a hip replacement or tubes for their toddler’s ears—and they discover that they can’t afford it.

Some cry, others yell and scream, and worst of all, some go silent—you can literally hear them stop breathing. The pain, sickness, disappointment, and frustration are palpable over the phone.

Each year, over 5.8 million Americans delay or miss vital healthcare appointments because they lack access to transportation. Sometimes the distance is less than a mile, and the cost is less than $3, but it’s too far, too painful to walk, and it’s too expensive.

For example, if you’re living on social security of $662 a month, every penny matters. If you pay for your $40 ride to physical therapy, you can’t afford to pay for your groceries that week—or worse, you can’t make your rent and risk losing your apartment. So you sit there in excruciating pain another month, hoping that you’ll be able to afford the ride the following month.

I remember talking to a Purple Heart veteran who had to choose between a taxi ride to pick up his prescription pain medication and paying his electric bill.

Across the United States, Feonix has worked with numerous transportation pilots to focus on breaking down barriers to access to care. From Beeville, Texas, to Lexington, Mississippi, to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and beyond, we partner with insurance companies, major advocacy associations, automotive manufacturers, transit agencies, hospitals, substance abuse treatment centers, federally qualified health centers, mental health facilities, and more to tackle this critical challenge.

No one can fix it alone; we must all work together.

At Feonix, one of the most frequent transportation requests is for volunteer drivers. These are the kindest, most selfless individuals, who often go underrecognized in the mobility industry. There are over 700 volunteer transportation programs across the country, filling vital gaps in our access to care ecosystem.

Feonix leads a national volunteer program, and daily, they make the difference for patients who would otherwise be unable to get to their doctors’ appointments. Our volunteers are an impressive mix of retirees, college students, computer scientists, truck drivers, retired physicians, social workers, ministers, teachers, arborists, and people from just about every other career out there.

At Feonix, we call these incredible souls “the Volunteer Force.” They are a force for good, a force for wellness, and a force for equity.

At Feonix, we believe that regardless of insurance coverage, race, disability, language, income, zip code, internet access, or education, no one should go without access to healthcare.

I welcome you to meet a few members of the Feonix Volunteer Force:

In some of our mobility programs, volunteers provide 90% of the trips, in other programs maybe 15-20% — but their commitment to their community enables us to fill vital gaps in transportation. They are an integral part of the fabric of our mobility ecosystem.

If you are interested in learning more or working with Feonix to deploy a volunteer driver program in your community, please contact us – [email protected]!

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

The Importance of Mobility in Addressing Health Equity

When I was 14 years old, I first discovered the health equity barriers in our society and the role transportation plays in creating them.  But it wasn’t until almost 20 years later that I realized it was going to be my life’s calling to help address these challenges.

When a classmate’s mom’s car broke down one day, she lost her job because there were no public transit options that could get her to work.  As jobs were few and far between, my friend and her mom had to move back in with her mom’s abusive boyfriend, which led to lifelong emotional and physical scars.  Such stories play out thousands of times a day across our country in both urban and rural communities alike.  

Growing up in a small rural community plagued with unemployment, food insecurity, drug addiction, and crime, I experienced firsthand the challenges caused by a lack of mobility and the painful realities of transport poverty.  

Over 400 counties in the United States are currently experiencing persistent poverty, which is impacting millions of Americans.   And if you live or work inside these communities, you are likely aware of the significant transportation challenges that residents face. 

Two weeks ago when I received an email from the US Department of Transportation saying that Secretary Buttigieg had released the “Equity Action Plan” I had to read it three times.  I can’t find the words to express the enthusiasm, relief, and hope I felt in that moment.  Too often, these conversations about transportation equity are missing from board rooms where engineers and community and regional planners design, fix, and maintain our roads, bridges, public transit, and shared spaces.  Here, in writing, was a real plan by the top leadership of our nation, that prioritized and highlighted the role of transportation equity in four key areas: wealth creation, the power of community, interventions, and expanding access.

Here is an excerpt from page 10 of the report:

USDOT has formally come forward with significant direction, funding, and leadership to create change to bring about transportation equity nationwide, including in communities like the one in which I grew up, and I could not be more excited.

Today at Feonix, we work hand in hand with over 160 community partners across the United States to break down transportation barriers for underserved communities.  We’ve worked in nine states, navigating the unique challenges that each program faces. Our projects focus on creating community access to all social determinants of health – employment, healthy food, healthcare, housing, education, and social services. Feonix’s approach is always grounded in local community leadership. We’re not on a mission to provide every ride ourselves; our aim is to ensure that every ride that is needed is provided – be it public transit, taxi, volunteer driver, bike, scooter, etc.  

This week in Nevada we supported the launch of the first phase of the statewide Mobility as a Service (MaaS) program, N4 Connect, under the leadership of the Neighbor Network of Northern Nevada. We brought together rural and urban transit agencies, volunteer driver programs, and human service providers across the northern half of the state on a single online platform.  

As part of the deployment, we also launched a Mobility Leadership Circle (MLC), which is a group of stakeholders across all sectors that come together quarterly to spread awareness of the MaaS technology, hear from transportation providers, and discuss mobility challenges faced by residents and agencies. In a recent MLC meeting we received a presentation by Marinela Maskuti, from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas that highlighted mobility barriers experienced by cancer patients across the state.  These issues are faced by almost every community nationwide due to the frequency and physical impacts of the radiation and chemotherapy treatments.  After losing both my sister-in-law and father-in-law to cancer this year, solving barriers in access to cancer treatment is not only an organizational mission but a personal one.

With the N4 Connect MaaS technology, social workers and case managers at hospitals will be able to explore and book transportation options for patients and train caregivers how to use the system. The technology and the data will not only help fill the knowledge gap in awareness of transportation services in the state, but also create data that will enable us understand where resources are lacking and thus opportunities for intercity services. 

This is but one of many programs I look forward to sharing with you. Each week we will be sending out short updates on our work in the communities we serve, innovations we deploy, challenges and policy barriers we face in implementing  our programs, and the impacts we are working towards. Our mission at Feonix is to create mobility solutions for the health and wellbeing of every person in every community.  

After my husband’s recent brain surgery, I started a blog to share updates about his recovery with family and friends.   While I have written hundreds of proposals, it was the first time I had ever blogged.  Now almost three months later, the blog has had thousands of visits and I’ve received the kindest and most helpful feedback, inspiration, and motivation from readers. In returning to work full time, I wanted to continue writing and to bring my blogging experience to Feonix. So here we are! Thank you for your support and patience as I explore this new medium.  

I look forward to your feedback and if you haven’t done so already, I would sincerely suggest that you check out the USDOT equity action plan!