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Pedesting app aims to open Calgary to people with mobility challenges

For Calgarians who don’t have mobility challenges, exiting a downtown office tower, taking a CTrain to another destination, and then being able to access that place is simply a matter of picking a convenient time.

But for those Calgarians who do have challenges walking, or have to use wheelchairs, that ease of mobility becomes a real challenge.

Ensuring that they can find the exit or entrance with powered door openers, having to ensure that they are taking modern CTrain cars at level instead of older style ones that have limited wheelchair-accessible doors, to finding ramps that don’t require extreme effort to navigate—all of which is even more complicated if that same person wants to find and use an accessible bathroom that is more than just code compliant.

Nabeel Ramji, co-founder and CEO of the mobile app Pedesting, is one of those persons.

“I have to make a conscious effort to put myself out there. There is a sense of being isolated and not leaving the house, because it’s too difficult,” he said.

Ramji and his co-founder and Chief Creative Officer Erin Shilliday officially launched the Pedesting app on Sept. 20, after several years of development and more than a year in beta testing.

The goal of the app is to help users navigate the world, but with a pedestrian focus instead of a vehicle focus like competitor products like Google Maps—although Shilliday prefers the term pedesting instead of pedestrian because of how the later term fails to cover the challenges of users who rely on wheelchairs or other mobility aids.

“Google Maps, they collect their data with cars. They’re primarily for vehicular navigation, although a lot of people use it to find where they’re going. But it doesn’t have any data about the about the accessibility of the pedestrian realm,” said Shilliday.

Reconsidering what it means to travel by wheel

He said the challenge frequently comes not from navigating the outdoors, but rather from the indoor realm where navigational aids are not as obvious.

What Pedsting provides users is routing that considers the actual physical space for both outdoors and indoors, provided by crowdsourcing and through interior building plans provided by companies wanting to make their spaces accessible.

“The app provides that confidence. Our focus is on where people gather in public spaces and popular pedestrian-oriented spaces to give people a better sense of what might work for them,” said Ramji.

On the user side, what that means is a free system that provides—when data is available—better navigation, better access to amenities, and a greater sense of confidence when travelling.

Ramji used the example of how that works for him, by referencing the difference between finding accessible bathrooms that are just code-compliant versus ones that have power door openers and handles placed on the right side of a toilet that allow him to use his stronger arm.

It also means that it gives people greater dignity because they can co-select locations that allow those with mobility challenges to be fully present,” he said.

Ramji used the example of a friend who was invited to have drinks and go to a movie with friends but couldn’t because the locations were not accessible—the difference maker was five steps on a short staircase entrance.

“They had to leave their friends for the evening and go home to watch a movie,” Ramji said.

In another example, Ramji showed where even buildings designed with accessibility in mind, like the Calgary Central Library, made it so people who could walk would take a direct route through the building, but wheelchair users like himself had to take a tighter ramp on the edge of the space that couldn’t accommodate a group walking and talking together at the same time.

The app, he said, would help people regardless of their mobility to navigate together instead of separately by helping to show routes beforehand.

Accessibility is smart business

On the business side of Pedesting, it gives businesses and spaces that house businesses a new and relatively untapped market of customers.

Shilliday estimates that there are tens of thousands of Calgarians who are in some way mobility challenged based on demographic statistics, but posited that those individuals don’t have a visible presence in most people’s lives.

“If you look at the statistics, and this kind of always blows me away, that about eight to 10 per cent of us have a mobility or sight limitation. Meaning they need assistance to get around… and that’s over 100,000 Calgarians. Yet, we could pedest back to the office and you might see one, maybe two,” he said.

“We’re hoping as more people get out and about, and the business community starts to see ‘Wow if I just made these slight accommodations, I might get the same traffic that this other business gets right down the street.’ We’d like to think that that’s what will happen in time, and it’ll be greater representation.”

He said that they are one of the few, if any, for-profit enterprises operating in a business space that also aims to improve the lives of people with mobility challenges.

The goal, said Shilliday, is to continue to build off the partnerships they’ve already created with downtown businesses like the Telus Convention Centre to assist their customers, and in turn, assist those forward-thinking businesses with meeting their own equity, diversity, and inclusion goals.

“We’re just getting started and there’s no doubt about it, it’s new to a lot of these business owners,” he said.

“Some real estate companies that have a wellness division that deals with the air quality and the safety on their site, and now some of them are starting to include accessibility into that. EDI—equity, diversity, and inclusion—now has an A attached to it for accessibility. So there’s this trend in our society to be more open and welcoming.”

Pedesting can be downloaded for free from the Apple App Store and Google Play, and more information is available at pedesting.com.