All SeaBus and SkyTrain stations now have hands-free accessibility for those who can’t tap a Compass card

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      When TransLink introduced the idea of fare gates at SkyTrain and SeaBus terminals in 2016, not all Vancouverites were pleased with the suggestion. While previously all passengers could board using the honour system, many were worried that the fare gates would prevent certain people with disabilities from using the service.

      Concerns were raised that the introduction of the barriers would limit the independence of those who are unable to tap a Compass card on the reader. Forced to either phone ahead before arriving at a SkyTrain station and request that an attendant come and meet them, or to travel with a companion that could open the fare gate, some individuals would see their journeys become much more complicated. The addition of the barriers, advocates said, would have a concrete impact on the quality of life of those with mobility issues. People with disabilities have a rate of unemployment that is six percent higher than the general population because of difficulties getting to work.

      When the story hit the press in 2016, it caught the eye of Hyperlight Systems cofounders Ashish Sachdeva and Han Wei Chan.

      “They saw this story unfold in the media, and they knew they had the solution,” says Molly Millar, director of business development at Hyperlight, on the line from Vancouver. “They had a hands-free fare gate solution that would get people with disabilities through the barriers. They were applying wireless technology solutions to several physical barriers—so doors, elevator buttons, and intersection buttons, for example. All of those experiences can be made hands-free for those who can’t tap. They approached TransLink, and fortunately TransLink was also looking for a solution. That was really the beginning of our public-private partnership that resulted in the world’s first hands-free fare gates.”

      The technology uses long-range, radio frequency identification (RFID) chips present in a card the same size and shape as its Compass equivalent. As an individual approaches the fare gates, sensors installed near the barrier scan the card and confirms their identity, and the Hyperlight platform sends a message to TransLink’s systems to open the gates. After the person has passed through, it triggers a sensor on the other side of the barrier, which closes the doors.

      Now, Hyperlight and TransLink have rolled out the technology to every SkyTrain and SeaBus station, and individuals can pass through the gates hands-free using the larger, wheelchair-friendly doors.

      “TransLink was such a visionary—a fantastic partner—because they’re committed to excellent customer service, and they use innovation to solve challenges,” says Millar. “It’s harder for big organizations like a transit agency to apply innovation, but TransLink really [made sure] that was part of their values and their company goals. They decided to not do the status quo—not to do a manual solution—but look for something innovative that can restore independent and equitable access for this group of customers.”

      Hyperlight Systems

      The program cost $9 million to implement, and was taken from the $740-million public transit infrastructure fund. Half of the money came from the federal government, 33 percent from the provincial government, and 17 percent from TransLink.

      Building on the success of their SkyTrain barrier solution, the company is now looking for other ways to help Vancouver become a smarter city.

      “The fantastic thing is that the fare gate project got us looking at cities and public transit, and we saw that they are full of physical barriers, that for people with disabilities can make journeys impossible, and for people like you and me—able-bodied—they’re a major inconvenience,” Millar says. “You’ve got to your residential building, hands full of groceries, and you’ve got to find the fob to get into your building. We designed the platform for persons with disabilities for whom a hands-free experience is a must-have, but our vision is to deliver these hands-free experiences for everyone. We see elevators as the next extension, especially in public transportation agencies.”

      Kate Wilson is the Technology Editor at the Georgia Straight. Follow her on Twitter @KateWilsonSays