City streets, sidewalks and pathways are becoming a bit more crowded these days. With the growing availability and variety of electric mobility options there are more people competing for the same space to get around. How we move about cities is changing rapidly not only technology but also rapidly shifting work patterns. At the same time regulation is lagging to keep up in managing the use of different mobility options leaving sometimes conflicting understandings of what can be used where and who has the right of way?
Here we will dive into the rapidly growing use of a variety of electric mobility vehicles beyond the automobile and typical transit systems.
First off there are many forms of scooters and electric or e-mobility devices. From e-bikes, electric standing scooters to riding scooters that can sometimes more resemble small motorbikes and now electric unicycles. Some of these options can move at speeds up to 60km per hour! Crash helmets sold separately. Rules for each vary by the type of vehicle and the jurisdiction where it is used. Some are permitted to use sidewalk spaces while other are limited to road use only. Others are not yet be approved for use but uptake is ahead of government approval. Many municipalities are stuggling with questions of regulation such as in the City of Fredericton. How would bylaw officers chase after an electric unicycle?
This growing variety of uses, undefined or unacknowledged rules of where they can travel can create particular challenges to accessibility. First, for the pedestrian on the street who may feel unaware of these other mobility devices. They may feel threatened by sharing spaces with high-speed vehicles moving in unpredictable ways within pedestrian space. Will the person on the electric mobility vehicle have enough time or mindfulness to avoid the person with a white cane, walker or stroller? Even when unattended obstacles may be created by these vehicles being left in inappropriate places.
Second the ability of people with accessibility needs to access these forms of mobility for their own use. Some of these vehicles are available on the market and thus available to anyone for purchase. Others are part of sharing systems supported by municipalities such as they City of Calgary, local non-profits or private business. Sharing systems are typically accessed through application based systems on person mobile devices so those apps need to be up to current accessibility standards with features live dictation, voice control and high contrast options. Use of these devices in low traffic areas would further accommodate people who want to participate but may be uncomfortable on busy streets. This later point of course is a tricky balance between creating safe spaces for the electric vehicle user, pedestrians and other uses.
There are a variety of options to help improve the experience and safety of all users that city planners, regulators and community activists can promote:
Caption - Street scene in Malmo of pedestrians and cyclists navigating a traffic circle before a street of traffic with a local farmers market in the background. A multitude of users navigating shared space creating a diverse urban space full of activity.
Recently I had the fortune to visit the forward-thinking city of Malmo, Sweden. I had heard many stories about Malmo through colleagues, planning journals and one of their former mayors who spoke at a conference here in Canada many years ago. Malmo is known for being one of the most cycle, transit and active mobility friendly cities in the world. It also happens be just across the strait, or only fifteen minutes by frequent train from Copenhagen, Denmark who holds a similarly well-deserved reputation.
Malmo is the second largest city in Sweden with a core population of 344,000 people that is growing quickly. Founded in 1275, this is a city that has seen and continues to live through many transformations. From its old world city centre, two distinct eras of industrial waterfront development, new and modern styled shore development and a fairly young population the city blends a diverse variety of neighbourhoods and eras of infrastructure. Thus, consistency in accessibility features is one of their main challenges in accommodating visitors and locals alike.
In all my travels I have yet to uncover a place that has mastered accessibility, designing all their public spaces in ways that are consistent in their wayfinding, design features and accommodations to meet the needs of diverse users. So with that context in mind I enjoyed discovering Malmo, observing and learning what was working well and where progress could be made. The accessibility of space and desire to create inclusive environments is evident however with room for improvements.
Overall Malmo has made deliberate efforts to balance investments in infrastructure and services to help people move by transit, bike, scooter and foot. E-scooters have become commonplace in the city over the past five years and like in my other cities around the world are the latest user and competitor for space on the street. That said there does seem to be an odd hierarchy given to users. Cyclists and scooters tend to be given priority in all spaces above vehicles and pedestrians. This leaves pedestrians, and those with mobility limitations in a much more vulnerable space. There is a strange norm that a senior with a walker, mother with a stroller or person with a cane gives way to a cyclist. Staff from the city advised there is a dedicated role supporting coordination of cycling infrastructure and even another for skateboarders however nobody dedicated to pedestrians, the most vulnerable user.
After having some time to observe all these users dance through the streets, I was struck by the more mellow pace everyone moved at compared to North America. There is a collective consciousness among all the users; drivers, walkers, cyclists, scooterists that others are moving around them and to be patient. This is a key cultural factor for why everyone seems to stay safe and overall be less stressed. While having separated infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians helps with the safety aspect creating a cultural norm of shared, respected space is a far greater success factor in establishing accessibility.
A few specifics of good practice worked and where gaps existed for improvement:
Travel and tourism is a powerful way to break down barriers, learn about different cultures, make new friends and challenge conceptions. Humans have an innate curiosity about our surroundings near and far. A tourist may be exploring a far away country home to a very different culture or another city only an hour away from home. Sometimes we can even be a tourist in our own city when trying something new or welcoming visitors.
Imagine you are a visitor to a new country, city or place away from home. What challenges are you likely to face? Language, culture, currency, different laws or norms, people who may look or act differently than you. These are all daunting things to absorb. If you travel often to new places this adjustment can become more commonplace however even veteran travellers face culture shock, stress and various other challenges.
Now imagine that you also face some form of physical, mental or psychological barrier. This may add an overwhelming or even impossible layer to you visiting a new place, aside from your adjustments upon arrival. Preparing for your trip may require much more planning and attention to detail. Thinking about how you will get around, your path of travel, what infrastructure and human support services may be in place or available on request.
Increasingly tourism agencies are more aware of accessibility needs and able to provide in formation. Public and private buildings are making information on accessibility for their spaces available online or by phone. Wayfinding apps can also be useful in navigating public streets and public transportation.
Conversely, being willing to travel will also need to come with a high level of comfort to adapt and figure things out on the go knowing that accessibility details may not be available beforehand. This will often need to include a willingness to ask for assistance, a task that is often not easy to do as it involves communicating personal challenges and vulnerabilities. Cultural sensitivity toward “disability” is also highly varied around the world.
As a tourist you are already in an unfamiliar place. Your surroundings will constantly be changing and new to you. From crossing borders, to navigating airports or checking-in to new accommodations. Even if you have visited a place previously, memory fades and recognition of landmarks, streets and destinations will remain challenging. You may be traveling with someone and thus have support available, even if on a limited basis as you need. Alternatively you may be solo, planning or navigating on your own. Both are rewarding experiences.
However you travel and wherever you choose to go know that it will be different from home and you are welcome to be there. People with physical, mental or emotional limitations have equal rights to travel as those who are barrier free. Right and reality however do not always align. Many cities around the world are working hard to make improvements to the infrastructure, wayfinding systems and social services to improve accessibility for all. These efforts are not entirely uniform and I have yet to find a city that has really nailed visual and physical accessibility in a persistent and systematic way.
If you have a passion for travel, big or small, or know someone or faces obstacles to exploring their dreams here are some techniques you can consider:
If you are a city planner, municipal leader, community advocate or other person looking to improve accessibility for visitors to your community here are some techniques you can consider:
Writing this in July of 2021 it has been just over the past sixteen months since our ways of living, working and socializing were transformed in March 2020. Following three progressively intense ways of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada the future is now starting to look brighter. Vaccines are rolling out rapidly here in Canada, people are eagerly lining up for their shots and health restrictions are easing in informed ways in most places. People are starting to make life plans again, businesses reopening and the long-lost hug has returned! We are fortunate here yet the rest of the world still has a ways to go even as we in Canada move to what health officials are calling the endemic phase.
While governments and health authorities have planned out the gradual reopening of all aspects of our society the hardest phase is only beginning, the personal re-opening. Everyone will re-engage with society at their own pace. Comfort levels when it comes to social interaction, and in person services will be highly varied. We have all been through a form of trauma in the last months, in different ways and degrees. Virtual services will continue to be needed and those of us eager to open up again will need to adopt a healthy dose of mindfulness and respect.
People with a variety of physical and cognitive disabilities have been impacted in unique ways by pandemic restrictions. A recent survey by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind captured the experiences of some people living with vision loss. In person services have been disrupted, home visits beyond those most essential stopped, social groups transformed and even the freedom to explore your own local community all become virtual, shut down or a mental risk analysis. Benches and seats disappeared and congregating spaces like malls and community centres closed or became restricted to essential business. The result; alongside keeping people safe from the virus, has been complemented by considerable isolation that itself comes with a unique set of health hazards both mental and physical.
On the flip side some services have become more accessible. At least to those comfortable with technology. Social groups have moved online from virtual travel meet-ups to guitar lessons and knitting circles. Working remote become the norm for most previous office work with the aid of Zoom, Teams and other technologies that helped push business and society into functional online collaboration. This can create more opportunities for people with limited mobility to engage socially and in the working world.
Now, anyone who has been working from home in front of a screen since March 2020 can probably relat to eye strain, Zoom fatigue and for some a loss of social ties that come with going into an office. Consider now anyone with a visual limitation or blindness; that duration and intensity becomes a burden.
Federal support programs to people with disabilities; alongside seniors, have also been very limited over the pandemic. This has left many in more financially precarious positions than they were before the pandemic. Thus their means to engage with re-openings may be more limited than those who may have been had access income support or even been able to save more with reduced travel, work or activity costs. This is certainly not to say anyone has it most difficult; they have lived this experience in different ways and find themselves at the re-opening on different footings. Small business owners for example have navigated considerable uncertainty and may now hold alarming levels of debt, face different but no less challenging realities.
As society continues to re-open let’s all be mindful of the need to be patient, bringing everyone along who may not have the same, means, abilities or experience while respecting their personal pace. The pandemic has introduced some ways of collaborating that enable people with disabilities, such as more work remote options, collaboration technology and e-services. At the same time the human touch is critical to people who may normally live with more isolation, who may have less ability to use technology or just need to find that balance between our real and virtual world.
If you would like further reading on accessibility during COVID-19 and ways to make communities more accessible with recovery programs check out these resources:
At the time of writing this post the word is now six months in to a truly transformative global event with COVID-19. Large portions of society have moved to working from home while others navigate changing work environments to manage the risk of being exposed to a contagious virus. We behave differently in grocery stores, public transit and even on the sidewalk. As we dodge people to socially distance on crowded sidewalks, squint a little harder at a monitor for hours while working from home everyone is adapting around new barriers to living everyday life.
In many ways the pandemic has been a great unifier around accessibility as everyone experiences different barriers to their mobility or freedoms. Lockdowns, health restrictions, social / physical distancing and the use of face masks are changing how we interact as a society. Our newly forming habits combined with how we spend time are also starting a wider conversation around how we use public spaces both indoors and outdoors.
With the closure of many indoor spaces and more people working at home our streets, parks and public spaces have become prized real estate! Our provincial and national parks are increasingly seen as welcome escapes from cites not designed for social distancing. That is putting pressure on rural communities with people coming to their communities. Tiny condos or apartments once seen as resting space when not out socializing now become true homes and havens.
On the positive side this is getting more people interested in the importance of park spaces, wider streets for mobility, and other amenities and places where we can safely spend time. Cities across the country are making short term adaptations to accommodate the reallocation of space on streets to accommodate pop up spaces, patios and more. A recent guide outlines many examples and references for other cities to follow.
At the same time some innovations are putting up barriers to people with low vision and limiting equitable participation from people from all walks of society. Rules around social distancing can be challenging for someone with low vision or blindness who relies more on touch and physical contact to understand the world around them. Their ability to access public transit becomes more daunting both from fear of the virus and as service frequency is reduced in response to low ridership. Drive in only concerts and movies enable the show to go on but only for those who come with a required drivers license or access to vehicles.
As we move from the immediate health crisis to a managed opening of our economy that will be with us until a vaccine is available it will be important that health guidelines enable inclusive participation while balancing public health objective for the population as a whole. This is even more essential as we learn how COVID-19 has impacted lower income and less mobile groups in our society. Consider for a moment the priority given by governments to the re-opening of boat launches and golf courses against public parks, libraries and playgrounds.
So what can we do to keep the conversation going in support of a transformation that supports more accessible and inclusive spaces for everyone during and coming out of this pandemic?
Managing Eye Strain
For anyone working from time over the past few months you have probably felt growing pressures on your eyes. Whether using a monitor, tablet or smart phone most of us have seen a doubling or tripling in our respective screen time in our work hours alone. Screen time outside of work hours only adds to this demand. Combined this places more demand on our eyes and mental concentration with strain accumulating over time.
Below are some suggestions on how people can reduce and manage eyestrain.
Just over a month ago now Ottawa was introduced to a much anticipated transformation to transit. The new O-Train Confederation Line otherwise known as the LRT (light rail transit) is Ottawa’s first substantive introduction to rail based transit since the initial start of the smaller Trillium Line back in 2001. The 12.5km line is the first phase of a much larger plan implemented by Ottawa’s transit provider OC Transpo. All along the route trains are separated from traffic traveling at grade, below ground and above ground.
This new line has had a few challenges getting up and running which are not uncommon to major transit projects. Delays during construction pushed the opening date back by nearly 18 months and the transition from buses to trains has lead to some crowding and disruption to routine. Some time will be needed for both the system and passengers to adapt.
Along with being transformative this new line brought forward an opportunity to introduce more accessibility to the transit system and surrounding area. This line should be encourage to spur more connectivity between stations and surrounding buildings, parks, services and other amenities while adopting accessible design features that improve mobility throughout the city. Phase 2 of the O-Train expansion is already underway. This will include extensions of both the Confederation and Trillium Lines. A refresh to the older Trillium Line should hopefully see many of the accessibility design features adopted for the Confederation Line applied during the redevelopment.
Below I provide a quick run-down of my observations on how the new system performs. Overall my assessment is that the system has been built with good attention to accessibility. There are some areas for improvement however most of these could be remedied with minimal costs.
A special word about Blair Station. This station gets a special comment as it is the only station on the new line that still makes use of the infrastructure left over from the former Transitway station. Passengers traveling from the new Blair O-train station to the Gloucester shopping centre or adjacent bus station must travel up an over the bus corridor. On one end the new station has multiple elevators and modern staircase (no escalators). At the other end passengers descend through the former bus Transitway station that includes one small elevator and steep stairs. This represents a safety and accessibility concern given the volume of people who funnel through this corridor. The small elevator is also frequently out of service meaning that people needing elevator access must be shuttled across the road by bus! This station in particular will need some attention in the near future for improvement.
Have you ever passed through a courtyard, walked down a street, observed the interaction of people with a space and thought to yourself: whoever designed this almost got it right? When it comes to accessible design even spaces that have resulted from conscious thought about their design could do better to improve ease of mobility of people in the space. I have been in many spaces that are missing or have an incomplete element of accessible design.
The spaces where we live, work and play often cut corners when it comes to complete design. This is not usually done on purpose, but is a result of infrastructure upgrades or a lack of a strategic vision for a space that includes accessibility. Oversight over the bigger picture of a space is needed to ensure everything comes together rather than a building by building or site by site implementation.
We tend to cut corners to complete accessible design in several ways. Each of these has unique implications and solutions.
Incomplete path of travel - Good design should consider where people start and end their journey, either in its entirety or just within a space. Failing to consider the full path of travel can result in segments of a journey that include many aspects of good accessible design but in bits and pieces. The user then does not have a consistent path to follow Common examples are intersections that have audible signals, ramps and countdown clocks only at some points, and none at others.
Inconsistent application of design features - In this situation the Path of Travel is complete between the origin and destination for a user containing accessibility features all along the journey however there is an inconsistent implementation of the features throughout.
Policy conflicts - Our urban spaces are shaped by many policies mostly developed at the municipal level with input from the public. These policies can sometimes present competing objectives that play out in how a space is constructed. Examples may include tree conservation policies that limit the widening of sidewalks or permitting policies that allow expansion of patios or other private uses into public space. The weak enforcement of by-laws or policies can also play a role here.
Spatial hierarchy - Every space has a hierarchy of uses and users. Uses could include residential, commercial, recreation. Users can be defined in may ways from a specific demographic to their forms of mobility. This later point is a key consideration in achieving an accessible and welcoming space. Users can be pedestrians, cyclists, transit riders or motorists. The latter three modes ultimately become pedestrians when a particular space becomes their destination. Assessing the priority of these forms of mobility will fundamentally inform the design of the space and subsequently the comfort in mobility of other users. If the movement of automobiles is the priority in a space then it is unlikely to ever be a truly accessible space to people.
Last month I had the opportunity to speak about visually accessible cities to an audience of municipal elected officials at the High Ground for All Forum hosted by the Centre for Civic Governance. This was my first time presenting the subject to an audience of elected representatives. The session was delivered in collaboration with Amy Lubik from the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) who introduced the broader subject of social inclusion / exclusion. People facing accessibility barriers often face broader challenges of social inclusion so we found the topics to be very complementary and helped to open up the subject to a wider audience.
Like most conference sessions we each opened the 1.15 hour session with concise presentations to introduce the topic, challenges and opportunities for civic leaders to respond. More importantly the presentations were followed by an interactive table top exercise intended to take participants on a virtual walk. This was my first attempt in moving the topic of visual accessibility into an interactive format. I thought I would share a bit about that workshop exercise in particular as it proved to be a valuable tool.
Walking at Tables
Thirty minutes were allotted for the table top exercise. First up was to divide the room into table groups: two tables with 12 people per table along with Amy and I as facilitators. Table participants were provided with a handout detailing the three stage virtual walk and some prepared descriptions of characters who could face different accessibility or inclusion barriers. Readers can find a copy of the handout attached to this post. Along with the virtual walk and character description, table facilitators had at their disposal a set of 16 large cards with photos of an accessibility barrier or good practice along with a laminated print map from a real city illustrating the fictitious walking route. Both tools enabled the facilitator to illustrate the experience.
Participants reacted positively to the virtual walk! Each section of the walk provided a description of the surrounding along with possible barriers for each of the characters. Flash cards with photos of barriers matching the description along with some examples of good practices were introduced. Examples revealed real life experiences from their own communities that enabled people spoke to barriers in their own communities. In several cases people spoke to ways they had actively engaged with a group of people like those with mobility limitations or the elderly to test their experience in navigating their city. Throughout the discussion policy solutions were explored to obstacles encountered along the walk. In particular participants observed the policy conflicts, lack of enforcement and permitting issues that were contributing to the accessibility obstacles.
Where to Next?
Urban design and accessibility are both issues that are best appreciated through interaction and experience. Bringing people out into a real world situation will provide the riches experience however that is not always possible. Interactive exercises, games and tools to create the experience through visual aids and guides can be a practical alternative. Expect to hear more about interactive tools to advance visually accessible cities!
Picture yourself sitting in a restaurant. The waiter or waitress hands you a menu.. They point to the specials that are written on a board hanging on a wall at the far side of the restaurant. You start trying to read the menu, squinting ever tighter at the small, scripted font, placed on a poorly contrasting background. The menu has weird pictures and stripes of colour in the background, hampering your view. Add some dim lighting for mood. And now the server is back, waiting for you to order, when you have little idea about what is on offer. Why are they making it so difficult?
Now for almost anyone this situation seems problematic and all too common place. Layer on a visual limitation and you have a very frustrating situation and unhelpful environment that can quickly translate into lost business for the restaurant.
That is the situation with hand held menus, what about those ubiquitous hanging menus? The kind you find at fast food restaurants. Suspended behind the counter at a distance, usually in small fonts, shrinking ever more to accommodate pictures.
Are you relating to any of these experience? Luckily there are solutions. The first is easy, design for the reader. Understand that these are communication tools first and works of art second. Choose appropriate font styles, sizes and contrasts:
A Few Words About Etiquette
In many instances that best way to assist someone in need of visual accommodation is a personal touch. Here are a few points for servers, owners or just friends and companions on when and how to offer assistance:
The world has changed considerably over the past two decades when it comes to visual accessibility. The introduction of the internet, smart phones and computers alone have radically boosted mainstream tools that aid in making our everyday environment accessible for all.
In considering my own experience in coping with low vision I observe that I had the unique perspective of experiencing two eras of how the world approaches visual accessibility - the analogue and the digital.
The analogue of accessibility came before computers and internet. It involved carbon copy paper and helpful classmates for schoolwork, dome magnifiers and closed circuit televisions for reading, binoculars to read distant signs, personal assistants for navigation, while audio books came on special cassettes produced by volunteers at dedicated libraries. Efforts to standardize colors, signage and identifiers were only just beginning while actions to improve accessible surfaces with ramps or domes had not even reached Canada. In general, this era was heavily reliant on the support of others to enable daily life of someone needing visual assistance.
Many of these tools continue to exist in the new digital world however they are now complemented by advancements in technology. Now it is not just that there is new technology, clever people have been inventing solutions to help people with accessibility needs for over a century. A key difference is that most of the newer inventions benefit broader society along with those that assist people requiring visual assistance. Many of these technologies also connect or communicate with each other versus serving only a single purpose.
Today the utility of a smart phone in your pocket and the many applications that have been developed as companions integrate tools that support accessibility. Smart phone applications that might have once taken a full size computer or team of people now provide ready to use OCR scanning and character recognition for reading of books or labels, photographic recognition of objects, navigation aids, audio guides and many more. They integrate cameras for use in reading or magnification of signs along with the general comfort that human assistance is only a call away without the hassle of finding a pay phone. Digital content including audio books or e-books is now produced on mass meaning that people with low vision have more content available and accessible on demand. A smart phone of course is only one simple example.
Consider now what this means for developing visually accessible cities.
Navigation is Getting Easier!
When I first began exploring my city and later traveling abroad technology was very limited. I navigated with a paper map, spent a lot time searching for street signs, reading tiny print in guidebooks and hoped that the bus actually followed the paper schedule I had in hand! Today I have a digital guidebook in my pocket that can be magnified to any size that I need. Google has mapped the world’s streets and transit systems have real time information on most of that map.
Infrastructure can Respond to Users
Cities are rapidly becoming smarter, integrating technologies that instantly share information about people or functions of the city – how many cars are moving down a street or crossing signals timed according to rush hour periods. Similarly technologies can be applied to improve accessibility. Designer Ross Atkin provides some examples of how responsive street furniture shifts a smart city to become a clever city enabling people to experience their environment.
The digital era now sees cities blending their fixed infrastructure and digital solutions alongside human support services. None of these three can meet the full need of providing a visually accessible city on its own nor can any of them be eliminated. Our infrastructure needs to be adapted with standardized signs, fonts, curb cuts, textures and colors. Digital technologies need to be employed that can provide descriptive texts of key landmarks and wayfinding solutions integrated with the fixed infrastructure. Human support services will remain critical. Organizations like the CNIB and others dedicated to providing support for those with accessibility are needed to provide services, and raise awareness.
More Integration and Less Segregation
The transition from an analogue to digital era is not only a change in technology but has been, and will continue to be, a change in mindset. It is a process of mainstreaming accessibility and those in need of accommodation. Providing custom supports and accommodation where needed yet whenever possible adapting the everyday to include people with an accessible need. Technology has helped this process alongside the efforts of many advocates who worked for decades to encourage the inclusion of people with accessible needs into contemporary classrooms and workplaces.
Technologies Come with Strain
Now you would think this era of instant information, digital interfaces and smart technologies would be an overwhelmingly positive change however it does come with negative impacts. The most obvious to the general public can be to the wallet. These new devices and the services to support them such as cellular data, internet and other service packages come with a price tag. Concurrently those in most need of these assistive technologies are lower income and thus may find their cost a barrier to access.
Our digital ear is probably best defined by the abundance of screens that we now face every day. Computer monitors, televisions, smart phones, even crossing signals. Society now spends a considerable amount of time staring into the bring lights of these devices for long periods of time. This behavior amplifies eye strain. For someone already experiencing vision loss or impairment this can lead to faster eye fatigue, general strain or other discomfort. Researchers and technology developers should continue to look at ways to ease eye strain from our digital devices.
A time of rapid change: for accessibility and for our cities.
The last ten years alone have seen an explosion of digital solutions helping people meet their visual needs in reading, navigation and recognition. Infrastructure is being adapted and in many cases connected to the digital solutions in our pocket. Coordination should be encouraged between public and private interests to ensure opportunities to connect smart, accessible solutions with everyday infrastructure are made broadly enabling out cities to evolve.
With such a rapid pace of change it will be imperative that the traditional support services for people with accessible needs continue to have the resources to assist people in need with these technologies. Teachers, employers and support organizations need to know about new technologies, applications and services. A digital era is only useful if people know what it offers and how to make use of what is available.
Trained in town planning, an avid traveler and legally blind myself I write on issues and opportunities is see along my travels that could improve our cities from a visual perspective.