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IDEA EXCHANGE

Sharing Best Practices in the Travelers Aid Family

Melbourne’s Travellers Aid Expands By
Transporting Mobility-Challenged Sports Fans

Travellers Aid Australia, based in Melbourne Australia, has recently expanded its operations away from train stations to now serve Australian Rules football fans.

The Australian Football League (AFL) season runs each winter from March to September. This season, Travellers Aid provided a buggy (golf cart) service for fans with disabilities that could not walk the hilly 1-mile trek from the closest train station to the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground stadium. It was to have been just an 8-week pilot program but was extended to cover the whole season. Usage at each game quickly exceeded the projected 100 fans to reach 250 users per game. Each AFL game draws about 50,000 fans with around 100,000 attending games during the 6 weeks of finals.

Travellers Aid CEO Elias Lebbos said, “It appears likely that the buggy service will continue next year and with an additional rail station, from the opposite end of the stadium, included”.

For the approaching cricket season, Lebbos said that Travellers Aid has been asked to provide a similar buggy service. Cricket is a “very different beast” with matches going all day. It will be a different set of logistical challenges. The agency agreed to run a pilot service to test demand.

In addition, Travellers Aid has been asked to consider providing the buggy service for major concerts at the stadium.

Those using the service have been older individuals with mobility challenges or younger fans with “invisible disabilities,” such as heart conditions.

The service started with three leased carts and was expanded to six carts by the end of the season. Ultimately, the Melbourne Cricket Club, who manages the stadium year-round, hopes to purchase permanent carts for the service.

The buggy service begins about two hours prior to the game. After the siren ends the match, service users are asked to wait 10 minutes in their seats for the initial crowds to subside.

The fans have been the driving force for the new service. The AFL Fans Association approached the City of Melbourne seeking its assistance to get older fans to the game. These life-long fans who now experience age related mobility issues, couldn’t get to the game and were becoming socially disengaged. Because of its contracts with the city, the Fans Association contacted Travellers Aid for assistance. Over an 18-month period, Lebbos said, the agency explored various partnerships, the logistics and financing.

“Everyone appreciated what Travellers Aid brings to the table and the brand behind it,” Lebbos said. “We’ve got the systems and processes in place and can add value to the event.”

During the initial 8-week pilot, the city contributed a starting grant.  The Cricket Club’s financial support has covered ongoing operating expenses.

Part of the long lead time during the planning stage was attributed to worldwide incidents of terrorism involving vehicles plowing through crowds. “There was a real nervousness about mixing vehicles and people. For us, we are doing this on a daily basis. We were able to demonstrate that our drivers are well trained.” And, there have been no accidents, Lebbos stressed.

In its daily operations at the train stations of Melbourne, staff and volunteer drivers ferry passengers in the buggies from the stations’ entrances down onto the platforms constantly mixing with pedestrians. For the AFL service, Lebbos selected a group of volunteers and staffers who were unfrazzled by the large crowds after a game.

The stadium service is an attempt to diversify the agency’s revenue stream while also expanding its outreach to the disabled community, Lebbos said. Just over 50% of Travellers Aid revenue comes from government contracts and another 30% from transport providers.

Part of a New Strategic Plan

Last year the agency’s board prepared a strategic plan with the mission to be relevant in its second century, said Lebbos. Instead of the usual “insular” periodic self-examination of its mission and direction, Lebbos explained that over 8 months the Travellers Aid board sought out external stakeholders and those it has never worked with in the past. The board spoke to a whole range of academics, airport operators, disability groups and other transport providers. The TAA board wanted to know, “Is there a space where we should be playing, where we are not, and would we add value to the transportation system if we took that on?”

Lebbos notes that the Travellers Aid network in Australia has followed a similar pattern to that in the United States. At one time, every Australian state had several Travellers Aid agencies and now there is just one, in Melbourne. “The others did not maintain their relevance and that lead to their demise. We have been good at adapting to travelers’ needs.”

One finding of the strategic plan, Lebbos notes, is that the agency needs to be prepared for an aging society with increased mobility challenges. “There will be an avalanche of demand and right now we are starting to scale up our services to meet this need.”

In addition, Travellers Aid will continue to create more accessible facilities and events by using its expertise to provide training and consultation around facility design. The agency is also looking to expand its presence into rail stations in large regional towns as public transportation continues to expand within the region. And there are preliminary plans to include a Travellers Aid lounge in a new subway station planned for the city’s hospital district. While that facility may be 9 years away, Lebbos said, Travellers Aid is looking to creating a presence with its services now within that neighborhood, which also includes the University of Melbourne campus.

Published in Journeys, September 2018

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