Research Archive

Mobility Services For All Americans Unmet Mobility Needs and ITS Solutions

Gwo-Wei Torng1*, Yehuda Gross2, Brian Cronin3
1. Mitretek Systems, 600 Maryland Ave., SW, Suite 755, Washington, DC 20024 , USA
(202) 488-5714,
2. Federal Highway Administration, United States Department of Transportation
3. Federal Transit Administration, United States Department of Transportation


This study provides a comprehensive review of where we are, what we need and how Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) can contribute to enhancing mobility for the transportation-disadvantaged.  The findings from this study are used as a foundation upon which ITS-enhanced models of human service transportation delivery can be built and evaluated.  This study sheds light on desirable site characteristics for model development under different operations environments and scenarios.  Ultimately the goal is to develop a replicable and scalable travel management coordination center (physical or virtual) that not only enables efficient coordination and delivery of human service transportation across agencies and modes, but also is transparent and easy-to-use for travelers in general, and for the transportation-disadvantaged population in particular.  The authors recognize that opportunities exist to improve the current human service transportation system, and believe that ITS can make a substantial contribution to turn this much-needed improvement into a reality. 


mobility, accessibility, human service transportation, transportation disadvantaged, coordination


Transportation plays a key role in connecting health and human service programs with their customers.  Those customers are often unable to provide their own transportation for various reasons.  They often have to rely on non-private transportation to obtain needed services, such as medical care, employment and job training.    

In this study, the term “transportation-disadvantaged” is used to describe individuals who meet at least one of the following conditions:

  • Persons with limited or no access to transportation;
  • Persons who cannot provide their own transportation;
  • Persons who cannot use existing travel options [or can only use them with great difficulty].

To accommodate the mobility needs of transportation-disadvantaged persons, the federal government currently has 62 human service programs under the jurisdiction of 10 federal agencies that fund transportation (GAO, 2003).  Due to limited resources and a lack of coordination, delivery of human service transportation is inefficient and often inadequate.  In many locations, human service transportation is fragmented, resulting in service coverage gaps or limited service coverage due to an inability to make trip transfers between transportation providers.  Often, customers have to contact multiple case workers for multiple funding programs, trip requests have to be made well in advance, scheduled trip times are inconvenient for both customers and program administrators, pick-up wait times are long and difficult to estimate, trip travel times are long, and accessibility for seniors and persons with disabilities is limited. 

While Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) applications continue to make substantial impacts on enhancing the safety, mobility and productivity of transportation, ITS applications specifically for human service transportation have been limited and sporadic.  The authors believe that existing ITS technologies can improve quality and efficiency in delivering human service transportation in the short term, and create benefits for all parties involved.  Potential beneficiaries of an ITS-enhanced human service transportation system include:

  • Transportation-disadvantaged people who rely on such services for transportation to jobs and medical appointments;
  • Service providers who often struggle to respond to their clients’ mobility needs with limited resources; and
  • Health and human service agencies that would prefer to focus on their core mission - greater efficiency in transportation would leave more resources for core mission services.

In 2004, the USDOT launched a major ITS initiative – Mobility Services for All Americans – to examine the roles of ITS in human service transportation.  A key product of this initiative will be a demonstration of replicable and scalable models of travel management coordination centers (TMCC) that promote mobility, accessibility, and coordination of services for the transportation-disadvantaged as well as for the public, and achieve more efficient use of federal transportation funding resources.  As part of the initiative, foundation research is carried out to integrate knowledge and information from the transportation and human services communities and to establish the “baseline” data on current performance so that performance improvements can be defined and measured.  A key feature of the TMCC model is the provision of a single point of access portal to connect transportation-disadvantaged customers to appropriate transportation.  The scope of the foundation research includes:

  • Identifying mobility needs and gaps in current human service transportation practice experienced by the transportation-disadvantaged population;
  • Determining the extent to which ITS can strengthen the delivery of human service transportation, and exploring and prioritizing incremental deployment of ITS technologies (or “packages”);
  • Highlighting guidelines and key favorable local conditions that are desirable for incremental deployment of ITS technologies to enhance human service transportation in different operating environments and scenarios. 

This paper documents the methodology and findings of the foundation research.


State-of-the-Practice and Literature Review

This study integrates knowledge from the transportation and human services communities about needs, gaps, barriers, past and current innovations and emerging opportunities based on analysis of information from the following sources, as illustrated in Figure 1: 1) federal activities, 2) state/local initiatives, and 3) literature review and research.   First, this study inventories past and existing human service transportation-related projects initiated not only by USDOT, but also across all federal government agencies, including the 13 ongoing rural ITS field operational tests.  Second, the study catalogs noteworthy state and local business models and practices on human services transportation planning and delivery.  Special attention is given to those states and local communities where service coordination and/or innovative techniques are emphasized.  Third, the study integrates knowledge from empirical research and studies and focuses on potential technological approaches for human services transportation coordination and accessibility enhancement.  Finally, based on the information gathered and knowledge synthesized, this study identifies mobility and accessibility needs, issues and barriers facing transportation-disadvantaged people.  This study also explores issues and hurdles that compromise the transit service providers’ and/or program administrators’ capacity to respond to the mobility needs of the transportation-disadvantaged.

Stakeholder Participation and Input

One of the major objectives of the Mobility Services for All Americans initiative is to create a bridge between the transportation and ITS community and human services communities in order to develop new solutions that combine the efforts and knowledge of both.  One way to accomplish this objective is through extensive stakeholder participation and input.  As part of the foundation research effort, the project reaches out to a wide range of stakeholder groups.  Stakeholders participating in this study include grass-roots community/advocacy groups, industry organizations, transportation service providers, trade associations, public agencies, and private businesses.  Jointly these organizations/individuals represent a wide range of interests, expertise, and/or roles in human service transportation and may participate in various capacities, including providing guidance/assistance in coordination, outreach, and technology deployment, and advising program management and operations.

The project has set up an interdisciplinary coalition to solicit regular input from the stakeholders.  Major activities in the past year included a series of five stakeholder discussion-group meetings in which stakeholders validated research findings and recommendations, formulated high-level views of an ideal human service transportation system, and identified opportunities and challenges it presents.  The participants are:

  • Consumer/advocacy stakeholder group
  • Public transit stakeholder group
  • Community/not-for-profit transportation stakeholder group
  • Human service transportation administration stakeholder group
  • Private industry stakeholder group

In addition, a well-attended public comment/listening session was held in conjunction with the Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA) conference in May 2005.  The discussion was largely focused on technical assistance needs to improve human service transportation, including ITS architecture consistency and technical support.  

Connecting ITS with Mobility Needs/Barriers

New capabilities and opportunities are being created in both the transportation and health and human services communities through the use of emerging technologies and innovative services.  Pioneering public transportation agencies are using Intelligent Transportation Systems to provide centralized coordination of community transportation providers, single points-of-access, and service brokering through integrated automatic vehicle location systems, advanced communications, and universal benefit cards.  Others are providing on-vehicle audio annunciation, accessible traveler information, and flexible routing to assist passengers with disabilities in using conventional transit services.  In the rehabilitation community, innovative Assistive Technologies (AT) are also being developed, such as personal GPS and personal digital assistants (PDAs) using mobile communications to provide real-time assistance to those with cognitive disabilities, accessible pedestrian signals, and “talking” bus stops and signs.  However, the two communities are often unaware of the research, new approaches, and advances that each is making, and neither may have direct communication with the disability community at large.  The project is now bringing them together to provide a coordinated effort to apply technological solutions to the barriers to accessibility and mobility for transportation-disadvantaged individuals.

Corresponding to the (prioritized) unmet needs and barriers identified based on literature reviews and stakeholders input, this study investigates a full range of the ITS transit applications that are most promising in improving the availability and accessibility of public transportation options for transportation-disadvantaged persons.  Special emphasis is put on the most promising technologies that enable coordination between human service programs and service providers and enhance system accessibility across a spectrum of transportation modes.


Based on literature review outcomes and stakeholders’ input, this study identifies 23 major barriers that have led to unmet mobility needs (gaps) facing certain population groups.   These 23 barriers are further grouped into the five categories of service availability, service information and knowledge, service accessibility, service reliability and safety, and service flexibility, as summarized in Table 1.  It should be noted that both types of technology solutions, namely ITS-related and Assistive Technologies (AT)-related, are presented in the table.  Technologies presented in italics, mostly assistive-technology related, are beyond the scope of the MSAA initiative and thus precluded from further discussion in this study.  

Table 1, Summary of Mobility Needs, Barriers and Potential Technology Solutions

Barriers: Users' (Case Workers) Perspective

High-level Solutions

Barriers: Service Providers' (Program Administration) Perspective

Potential Technology Tools

Service Availability

Lack of service (service hours and geographic coverage)



Increase service capacity/coverage by coordinating among human service transportation programs/providers to leverage resources

  • Need more funding and resources to expand service
  • Require inter-operable transit management system
  • Require institutional support for inter-program coordination (e.g., eligibility verification, cost allocation, etc.)
  • Time-consuming and labor-intensive to prepare reports, invoices, and handle financial transactions with multiple funding sources
  • Automated trip planning system
  • Automated reservation system
  • Automated scheduling, routing and dispatching system
  • Centralized/shared system operations, program administration and traveler management database
  • Electronic fare payment/collection system
  • Automated billing/reimbursing system through electronic transactions
  • ITS architecture, standards, data requirements

Service Information / Knowledge

No experience with the system

Provide comprehensive system information

Travel training


  • Multi-media, multilingual traveler information through single point of access
  • Virtual reality travel training

No easy way to obtain information on all available services

Provide single point of traveler information access


  • Require institutional support (e.g., local champions, leadership support, etc.)
  • Multi-media, multilingual traveler information through single point of access

No easy way to plan/request trips at time convenient for users

Support 24/7 trip planning and reservation capability

  • 24/7 human assistance is cost-prohibitive
  • Automated trip planning and reservation system
  • Automated confirmation (call-back) system

Current service provider/operator knows customer needs.  Users don’t want to change

Reservation system accommodating user input


  • Automated trip planning and reservation system (that acknowledges travelers’ special requests)

Cannot plan a “complete” trip due to requirement for intermodal transfers

Multi-modal trip planner

  • Need mechanism to access, share and process information across human service transportation programs and service providers. 
  • Automated trip planning and reservation system
  • Centralized/interconnected system operations, program administration and traveler management database

Cannot understanding information provided in different formats across systems

Traveler information standardization

Travel training

Single point of traveler information access

  • Require institutional support (e.g., local champions, leadership support, etc.)
  • Standardization of traveler information dissemination
  • Multi-media, multilingual traveler information through single point of access

Poor-quality customer service (human factor)

Staff training

Empower customer service staff with advanced tools

Reduce customer service staff workload

  • Customer service staff overloaded
  • Customers' inappropriate requests or attitudes
  • Multi-media, multilingual traveler information through single point of access
  • Computer-aided customer service system

System Accessibility

Unfriendly physical/environmental accessibility condition

Improve physical/environmental accessibility


  • Pedestrian safety & ITS (e.g., smart pedestrian signals)
  • Talking signs
  • Way-finding technology (e.g., accessible GPS navigation)

Too far to walk from origin and/or to destination

Transit service planning

Land use planning

Permit “flexible” stops on fixed route services


  • GIS/ archived ITS data analysis for system planning (e.g., routing, stop location, etc.)
  • Dynamic scheduling, routing and dispatching system

Unable to identify vehicles

Communication between vehicles/operators and wayside passengers


  • On-board/wayside annunciation
  • On-board DMS
  • Talking signs
  • Hand-held personal communication devices

Difficult to enter/exit vehicles

Accessible vehicle/facility design

Vehicle automation and assist


  • Low floor/ kneeling vehicles
  • Ramp and lift devices
  • Precision docking w/ level boarding/alighting

Difficult to transfer between modes and/or to move around transit facilities

Improve physical accessibility within and around transit properties


  • Talking signs
  • Way-finding technology
  • Wheelchair/ mobility aid securement system
  • Hand-held personal communication devices

Difficult to identify where to get off

Communication between vehicle/operator and on-board passengers


  • On-board automated annunciation
  • On-board DMS
  • Way-finding technology
  • Hand-held personal communication devices

Confusing/complex payment methods

Single payment media

  • Require agreements with individual human service programs
  • Electronic universal fare payment/ collection system
  • Accessible fare payment/ collection devices

Privacy/ identity protection (form of payment)

Universal payment media

  • Increased fraud/benefits abuse
  • Electronic universal fare payment media

System reliability and safety

Lack of confidence in on-time performance

Real-time fleet tracking, monitoring, routing and dispatching

Real-time traveler information

Operations decision support

  • Need to monitor, manage and communicate with fleet in real time.
  • Require the ability to respond to unscheduled service disruptions
  • Dynamic scheduling, routing and dispatching system
  • Automated notification system
  • Multi-media real-time traveler information

Unfriendly/unsafe stop locations, including drop-off locations

Enhance facility security measures

Reduce exposure


  • Video surveillance
  • Emergency phone/push button
  • Silent alarm
  • Automated notification system
  • Multi-media real-time traveler information

Uncertainty (worry) about missing connections

Connection protection

Operations decision support


  • GIS/ archived ITS data analysis for system planning
  • Dynamic scheduling, routing and dispatching system

Unfamiliar with emergency evacuation

Customer education and training


  • On-board automated annunciation
  • On-board DMS
  • Virtual reality travel training

Uneasy sharing rides with strangers

Enhance on-board security monitoring


  • On-board video surveillance
  • Silent alarm

System flexibility

Unable to satisfy spontaneous trip demand (advance reservation requirement)

Lift advance reservation requirement

  • Require the ability to communicate with operators and modify manifest
  • May require coordination with other transportation providers’ services
  • Automated trip planning and reservation system
  • Dynamic scheduling, routing and dispatching system

Unable to change/modify itinerary when needs arise.

Enhance dynamic scheduling, routing and dispatching capability

  • Need to communicate with operators and modify manifest
  • May require coordination with other transportation-provider services
  • Eligibility limitation to chain trips with different trip purposes
  • Increased billing complexity
  • Automated trip planning and reservation system
  • Dynamic scheduling, routing and dispatching system
  • Automated billing and reimbursement system

Note: The term “multi-media” used throughout the table may include, but is not limited to, the following media devices: landline telephone, FAX, wireless telephone, telecommunications devices for the deaf (TDD), accessible internet, personal digital assistant (PDA), interactive voice response (IVR), kiosk, etc.

In addition to the above summary table that links technology with unmet mobility needs and gaps facing the transportation-disadvantaged, other major observations derived from the foundation research effort include:

  • Most applicable ITS technologies have been individually proven and well-documented, with widespread deployment. 
  • Most field experience of ITS transit deployment is aimed at fixed-route applications and limited in scope to a single agency.  The actual use of ITS to facilitate/enable inter-agency coordination, both from operators' and customers' perspectives, remains sporadic.
  • Existing ITS for human service transportation applications are largely related to fleet management and operations for efficiency gains, and less to customer-oriented functions such as advanced reservation and trip planning through single point of access – the need for the latter being a recurring theme in stakeholders' input.
  • More stakeholder outreach and technical assistance actions are needed in promoting awareness and commitment among the stakeholders.  One focus is to demonstrate, through empirical real-world experiences, the quantitative benefits of ITS in service quality improvements, cost reductions, and safety and security increases.  This is especially important for many rural communities where local transit service providers often face large service coverage with very limited budgets and inadequate local technical expertise with respect to ITS.  
  • There is evident need to examine the gaps in the existing national ITS architecture and related standards for incorporating human service transportation operations as an integral part of the overall transportation system, as well as the area’s transportation planning process (i.e., long-range transportation plan and transportation improvement program.).
  • While technology may be a powerful tool that enables smarter and better-coordinated operations and improved customer service, non-technical factors appear to play crucial roles in setting up necessary local conditions to support technology deployment for intended outcomes. 
  • Based on field experience, literature review and stakeholder input, the study identifies the following non-technical issues as keys to successful deployment of ITS technologies in advancing human service transportation delivery.
    • Leadership and partnership
    • Institutional/turfism/perceived barriers
    • Statutory/regulatory
    • Cost allocation
    • Planning practices
  • Stakeholders have cited lack of understanding of ITS technologies in general, and of ITS architecture and standards in particular, as a major technical concern.  Again, inadequate representation of human service transportation in the traditional transportation planning process, including the development of regional ITS architecture, is yet another hurdle to overcome.


Currently, 62 federal human service programs fund transportation.  Each year, the federal government spends billions of taxpayer dollars to provide transportation assistance to individuals.  Despite all the good intentions, uncoordinated human service transportation delivery has resulted in expensive operations and poor quality of service.

This study explores unmet mobility needs and gaps facing the transportation-disadvantaged, including persons with disabilities, older adults and lower-income individuals.  It identifies areas where ITS technologies may contribute to filling these unmet needs and gaps through efficiency gains and accessibility improvements.  The outcomes suggest that most ITS technologies applicable to overcoming unmet mobility needs and barriers have been proven and are widely available.  As such, the current focus of the Mobility Service for All Americans initiative should not be on the development and testing of new ITS technologies; rather, the program should address the planning, design and deployment of existing technologies for ITS-enhanced human service transportation models. 

While lack of technical assistance and ITS expertise continues to affect many agencies’ ability to deploy ITS, especially in more rural areas and remote frontiers, non-technical issues appear to be greater hurdles to overcome in ultimately achieving the project goal - that is, to build replicable and scalable models of travel management coordination centers that support operations integration and single point of access for customer service.  With respect to this, the Mobility Services for All Americans project has adopted approaches to foster closer coordination and resource-sharing with the United We Ride initiative.  The United We Ride initiative is another federal initiative, led by the Federal Transit Administration and overseen by the Federal Interagency Coordinating Council on Access and Mobility (CCAM), that takes a more comprehensive view of human service transportation coordination issues and barriers, including regulatory and institutional issues.  Field evidence suggests that ITS deployment may help to alleviate some of the non-technical barriers once people start understanding the potential of ITS and begin to witness/experience some of the “tangible” benefits, such as ridership increases and cost reduction, resulting from ITS deployment.  While the authors have been writing this paper, the MSAA and UWR teams have been exploring mechanisms to coordinate available resources (including funding) from both initiatives and jointly conduct demonstrations of replicable/scalable models of travel management coordinate centers that support operational integration and empower customers with a single point of access in meeting all mobility needs. 

Finally, it is hoped that the MSAA initiative is just the beginning of a sustaining effort and commitment from the transportation and human service communities to redefine the role of human service transportation.  After all, human service transportation should be an integral part of the overall transportation system that is not only appreciated by the transportation disadvantaged, but also welcomed by the traveling public as one more legitimate travel mode of choice to meet their mobility needs.


The authors would like to thank Donald Roberts, Susan Proper and Steve Mortensen from Mitretek Systems for their invaluable discussions and comments.  This paper is a condensed and modified version of the Mobility Services for All Americans foundation research final report prepared by Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) for the United States Department of Transportation (July, 2005)


Boenau, R., Roberts, D., Torng, G., “Linking Technology with Accessibility for Seniors and People with Disabilities,” In Proceedings 11th World Congress on ITS, Nagoya, Japan (ITS Asia).

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Government Accountability Office (2003), Transportation-Disadvantaged Populations – Some Coordination Efforts Among Programs Providing Transportation Services, but Obstacles Persist, Washington, DC.

Government Accountability Office (2003), Transportation-Disadvantaged – Many Federal Programs Fund Transportation Services, but Obstacles to Coordination Persist, Washington, DC.

Government Accountability Office (2004), Transportation-Disadvantaged Seniors – Efforts to Enhance Senior Mobility Could Benefit from Additional Guidance and Information, Washington, DC.

Transportation Research Board (2004), Strategies to Increase Coordination of Transportation Services for the Transportation Disadvantaged, Transit Cooperative Research Program Report 105, Washington, DC.

United States Department of Transportation (2005), Mobility Services for All Americans foundation research final report, prepared by SAIC, Washington, DC.