Accessibility & Sustainable Transportation

Last week I attended a meeting at my university campus regarding sustainable transportation options for the next five to ten years. We’re at an interesting point in time here, as both the transit routes and the university are putting in long-term planning, so we may have a chance to push for real, useful, interesting change that can have long-term impact on both the university community and the greater community.

I would say “Ask me what wasn’t covered at all!” but I’m sure you can all guess – accessibility was never mentioned, even though the initial study into the needs of students, faculty and staff on campus had raised issues of accessibility.

But! Credit where credit is due. I brought this up at the meeting, and then again (as in, ten minutes later) with head of my particular branch of student government, and this afternoon attended a meeting including myself, the president of my particular branch of the student union, and student accessibility services to talk about concerns regarding accessible transport and sustainable transport.

Basically, the topics of conversation were around the fact that we’re a growing campus, we have greater needs regarding getting people to and from campus every day, but we want those needs to be Green in focus. The initial meeting I attended last week focused on things like faculty bus passes, incentives to car pool, and what encourages people to walk or bike to campus.

What we talked about today were more focused ideas that were inclusive of people with physical and sensory disabilities. I wanted to talk about this here, because I have no illusions: Even with student accessibility services there, we were still only talking from a limited perspective. I focus a lot on mobility needs, and more specifically on the needs of people using wheelchairs, for reasons I think are obvious, and the gentleman from student accessibility services then focused a lot on issues around students with low-vision, or who are blind.

I figure I’ll use our meeting for a greater discussion here. I want to both bring attention to others about sustainable transportation conversations and how to include concerns about accessibility and people with disabilities in them, but also I want to have more feedback and input. There are new students every year, new faculty who may have different issues regarding transportation and accessibility. The more we talk, the more we collectively can ask for things that will aid as many of us as possible.

Things that were brought up:

– Sidewalks. We talked about how horrible they are around the university, although this is pretty universal in our city. SAS brought up the needs of students who are low-vision or blind about sidewalks, including the need for high-contrast paint jobs on the curbs and around obstructions, and to have some sort of guide on the actual sidewalk for canes.

– Buses. More seating for bus stops around campus. Pushing to get more accessible routes to come here. Stop announcements (municipally they’re on the agenda for next year). Giving out cards to people so they can just show their card (usually something bright) so the bus driver will just lower the low-floor buses without you needing to ask. A recording to indicate when the next bus is coming.

I happen to know from looking at the current five-year plan regarding the bus service here that it will cost $1500 per stop to get a stop up to what they want for accessibility needs, and that a route must be entirely made up of those stops before it is allowed to carry people who use wheelchairs. This is a long-term project, sadly.

– Parking. I confirmed that here there is no additional charge for parking passes if you have a disability, you get guaranteed parking, and if there is a greater need for parking in front of a building, Facilities Management will actually designate more spots accessible. I don’t know how that plays out in reality, though. (I note there’s only one accessible parking space in front of the Library, for example.)

What are your thoughts regarding this?

By 12 February, 2010.    accessibility, autonomy, politics, social attitudes   


  1. I think being able to flash a colored card is BRILLIANT. Sometimes it is just too exhausting to ask for things.

    When I was in college I used the campus bus a ton, and what helped were the sheer number of stops, so I never had to go incredibly far to the next one. I know even the public school buses / city buses around here are all about reducing the number of stops to reduce fuel costs and carbon emissions, but reducing stops makes the bus service inaccessible to people who can’t travel so far to make the new spread out stops.

  2. I’m not sure where you are located, but in the US (west coast, at least), a car bearing the handicapped sticker or pass can park at any onstreet metered parking with no charge. For the universities located downtown, this is very good. However, there is no guarantee that there will be a spot near the entrance one wants to enter.

    Ms. M – that issue (number of stops) came up at a transportation meeting I attended. The other issue besides carbon emissions is that frequent stops often means longer rides, and people are less likely to use public transportation if they feel the rides are too long (preferring to walk or drive). Having different lines run along the same central corridor can help with this, though – so long as the rider is wanting to stay in that corridor.

  3. The stop announcements sound like a great idea not just for those who are visually impaired, but for people like myself who have impaired direction/spatial awareness and have a real struggle working out where they are. I tend to take trains/trams in unfamiliar places where possible for this reason.

    This is a general observation, but I’ve found a lot of the environmental initiatives aimed at increasing use of public transport are aimed at people who would otherwise drive and therefore will use it for their regular commute but will drive if the weather is bad/they plan to be out late/they have something heavy to carry. Those of us who don’t have that option, whether for disability or other reasons, often get screwed by lack of luggage space, late/early services etc.

    And I’ve no idea if it is the case where you live, but piped music through the bus can be hell to people with sensory processing issues – and it’s so pointless; if I want to listen to music, I’ll bring my own.

    Proper seats in bus shelters, as opposed to those slopy things (which are also too high for the average woman, grrr), are nice too.

    Sign as bus stops (like they have in train stations) showing which way the bus is bound from which side of the road. Spatial awareness/sense of direction thing again.

    Sorry, this turned into a list of my personal grievances. I think what has been suggested there sounds like some really concrete proposals which could make a difference for a significant range of users.

  4. Anthea:
    The stop announcements sound like a great idea not just for those who are visually impaired, but for people like myself who have impaired direction/spatial awareness and have a real struggle working out where they are. I tend to take trains/trams in unfamiliar places where possible for this reason.

    YES. I have the same issue– although I can see, sometimes I get totally confused as to where the bus is, especially when it’s in an unfamiliar area.

    And it’s only worse at night. Half the time I can’t even see the signs on the buildings to identify where I am.

    Sign as bus stops (like they have in train stations) showing which way the bus is bound from which side of the road. Spatial awareness/sense of direction thing again.

    Ooh, good idea! Sometimes I’ve gotten a bit confused about that– heck, I get confused as to which side of the road traffic goes on, and honestly have to think about it quite a bit to realize which side I should wait on. (The fact that I live in the US and some of my favorite TV shows are from countries that drive on the left side of the road does not help matters here. :-p)

    Also, on that note, signs on bus stops showing what routes go by that stop. You’d think this would be common sense, but based on many of the transit systems I’ve used, it’s not. And it can be very difficult to figure out where the stop you’re waiting at is on the system map if your spatial sense is anything like mine– assuming there even *is* a system map…

    Something else that bugs me: when announcements are solely made out loud for things like “the bus is running late, please let me know if you need to make a transfer so that bus can wait”. I’ve actually missed several transfers because I was so overloaded I couldn’t comprehend what was being said– or because I was so overloaded I couldn’t say the name of the route!

  5. MATA is a joke here. I think there are some buses that lean down for people who use wheelchairs, but the signs are not helpful and neither is the website. The only helpful people are the few regular riders – one of the benefits of living in the South!

    The signs in Vancouver Washington were a bit better – they told you what routes used that stop, I think. And most of the buses leaned.

    Is public transportation better outside the US? We are so car-centric it makes me sick.

    Anna – I am so happy for your university and town for talking about the issue and possibly doing something!

  6. @Kaitlyn – Is public transportation better outside the US? We are so car-centric it makes me sick.

    In my experience, public transportation is both more available and more utilized in other countries (I am only familiar with western Europe and Latin America). However, I would not say it is more accessible. I spent a few months in western Europe and was pretty appalled – even then, when I wasn’t particularly thinking about these issues – at how nearly impossible it would have been to get around had I been in a wheelchair. Yes, the cities and towns are more compact and people are less car-reliant, but uneven, narrow streets (people go rushing/bumping past you all the time), 300 year old buildings without elevators and every street-facing doorways with a 1-2 step riser aren’t friendly to people with mobility issues. I never saw a bus with a riser. (Not saying there aren’t any, but I never saw one.) People walk a lot (which is nice, if you come from a walking culture and like to/can walk as I do). The only buildings I saw with ramps or push button doors were newer, or government-run, or tourist sites. In England and Scotland I did see accommodations for the blind in the form of braille and road intersection aides – in fact, it was there that I first observed audio walk signals. The trains also were pretty good about announcing things. But by and large, I think the US does better with wheelchair access, flatter stairs, smoother and wider walkways/entryways/corridors, and just overall more spaciousness in rooms (particularly water closets!), vehicles, and between humans.

    In Latin America, I could not imagine being a person with severe sensory issues or social anxiety disorders – yes, almost everyone rides public transit – but that usually means hitchhiking, riding in the back of someone’s truck/bike, or being crammed in a seat with several other adults and their belongings. Forget bus schedules or shelters in many places – you might wait 2 hours for a bus and it simply never show up – or it will pass you by because it is so full that people are literally hanging out the doors. Something relatively minor like having a broken foot in a cast can sideline you from most activities and methods of affordable transport. Again, visibly disabled people were largely invisible. Don’t get me wrong, I love Central America and the Caribbean and almost daily dream of returning to live and raise my child there, but getting around by oneself would be very difficult.

    Just my thoughts.

  7. I should add – because it is not my intention to offend anyone from these places or to claim to be an authority on the subject – that this was simply my experience. And also, I think in the US there is more of an emphasis on “independence” and so a lot of things are structured here to give people that sense of autonomy, even if it is from an ableist perspective. But, for example, I was able to do my grocery shopping by myself when I was in a wheelchair and used the store scooters – but only because the doorways and store aisles were wide enough! (and because the wheelchairs & scooters were available)

  8. More seating at bus stops period would be nice. I can only think of one in the HRM with seating, and it’s on the other side of the harbour from you. Hell, even the terminals have little to no seating.

    I’m curious about parking at UKC now, and how they handle disabled students. The residences are all pretty inaccessible, and to say parking is limited is an understatement.

  9. @Jayn Here in Dallas seating at bus stops is a contentious issue–as are bus stops period. Owners of businesses that aim at a high-end market hate having bus stops in front of their businesses, especially if people actually use that bus route. They say having benches there encourages homeless people to hang out and that drives away business. It probably won’t surprise anyone to know that most of the bus users in Dallas are poor people of color so oh yeah there are race and class elements to this.

    One owner of a rather expensive clothing store complained to the transit authority a whole lot about the bench outside the store. DART said they weren’t moving the bus stop or the bench. The several hundred pound concrete-and-steel bench mysteriously vanished not too long after. The thieves were thoughtful enough to cut the bolts that had secured the bench to the sidewalk off and grind them flush so nobody would trip and get hurt. Wasn’t that nice of them? The store owner, of course, had no idea who would do such a thing and got offended at any implication that ou might have been involved in some way.

  10. I’m *mostly* fine using the train here, since I’m unlikely to miss stops: it stops everywhere anyway, each stop is announced, it has a very set schedule (and delays are also usually quite clearly announced), it stops for fairly long amounts of time, giving me time to read which station I’m at (almost always in plain sight outside the window) and then step off anyway if necessary. Only problem there is time: I have a lot of difficulty calculating anything and no time sense at all, and while there is a journey planner online, I have to calculate some stuff myself sometimes, and there is just no guarantee it works out. I’m not sure how others (with the same or other disabilities) experience our trains.

    Buses and subways are hell. Especially buses. Still most of them don’t have any way of announcing stops, so then I have to ask the bus driver in advance to let me off somewhere specific, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been conveniently forgotten (once all the way until the bus was set to return to wherever it’s parked when not in use). For one, I have to ask. Then, I have to hope they’ll actually do it. Usually they’re none to pleased about it. When they do have a way of announcing stops in advance, it’s so short before we get there that when you press the button the driver has pretty much already passed the stop. Also when stuff like smells or sounds bother me in trains there is often the possibility to move to another compartment, but buses only have one. Also, sometimes you have to stamp your own ticket in a machine on the bus, and you have to know or be able to calculate how many bars to strike off. I can’t. I’m too scared to travel by bus on my own.

    Hsofia: Heh, I’m not offended by your experience or the USA doing some accessibility stuff better (also I can only take your word for it, never been anywhere in the US), but I did think it funny you talk about Western Europe as some sort of whole :D. To me, and probably many others, the differences in this kind of stuff between countries is huge, even for example between the Netherlands and Belgium. We’re more per country oriented.

  11. @Norah: EVERYTHING that you said about trains and not busses. My partner never understands why I’m so reluctant to get on a bus. But they are far too disorienting, even when they announce stops it’s too late to ring for them, and I always find that two minutes in I have a pounding headache. This doesn’t happen with trains. And I’ve also been forgotten after having asked to be let off somewhere. When I do ask, it’s clearly The Most Troublesome Thing Ever.

  12. Norah:
    Only problem there is time: I have a lot of difficulty calculating anything and no time sense at all, and while there is a journey planner online, I have to calculate some stuff myself sometimes, and there is just no guarantee it works out.

    I have the same issue with buses. It’s not quite so bad when it’s something that only needs a single route, but when there are transfers involved, it gets quite tricky coordinating all the schedules. Particularly because not all buses stop at the transfer station at the same time; some get there a quarter after the hour, some get there a quarter until the hour.

    And here, each schedule is printed on a separate letter-sized piece of paper (or separate PDF, which is a lot easier for me to manage than letter-sized paper). There’s also a schedule viewer on their website, but it shows only one stop at a time, which is absolutely terrible for the purposes of “when do I need to leave X so I can get to Y at this time?”– and even more ridiculous when there are transfers involved.

    I have to ask the bus driver in advance to let me off somewhere specific, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been conveniently forgotten (once all the way until the bus was set to return to wherever it’s parked when not in use).

    Gaahh! This has happened to me quite a few times. Particularly bad when I’m going to some place I’ve never been before, so that I have no idea what the necessary landmarks even remotely look like.

    At least now they have the automated stop announcements here, though they do often come up way too close to the actual stop. Even then, it’s still better than how it used to be; when they didn’t have the automated announcements, I think the bus drivers actually announced the stops less than a quarter of the time.

  13. My disability affects my muscles so I have poor muscle strength, control, or rigidity. On a bus I flop all over the place and fall out of the bus seat unless someone grabs me. Wheelchairs are even worse as far as stability goes. I also have Sensory Integration Dysfunction and my abilities to know where my body is located at any time are lacking.

    I would love it if the Disability designated seats had a seat belt option. I would also like it if there was some way to lock in a wheelchair (manual or motorized) so that they don’t slide around as much on the bus.

    Another feature I would love to see on buses is some kind of electronic system that the disabled person could swipe their brightly colored card that has their desired location programed on it. This electronic system would then notify the driver prior to the stop that their is a disabled passenger that needs to get off at that stop. Then you don’t need to count on the “memory” of the bus driver.

  14. Our local bus routes play advertisements intermittently. They are loud! I know they serve to defray the cost of public transportation, and our city’s bus system has been losing money steadily, but there has to be a better solution. Dividing my attention from watching where we’re going to processing speech is not a good idea on the best of days, and loud pointless announcements hurt!

    There are two major grocery stores along my route plus the public library. I wish they’d been given clearance to go into the parking lot of both stores. There’s another bus that goes nowhere near my house that does have permission to drop people off at the first grocery store’s door. Right now in the middle of “Snowmageddon” it sure would be nice not to have to navigate patches of black ice and uncleared snow just for fresh produce. Although they announce major intersections, it would be nice if they’d also announce the library branches, hospitals and major shopping centers, if not announcing every stop. The announcements are automated for the intersections which is really nice since about thirty percent of the drivers don’t know what roads are on their routes.

    I love the idea of a colored card to flash for them to “kneel” the bus. Our local drivers automatically do so if you have mobility assistance devices, but otherwise you have to yell up at the driver over the sound of the bus.

  15. I am pleased to see “accessibility” and “sustainability” in the same sentence. Of course, they can go together. Not enough people are doing so, however.

    Quick comment about announcing stops on a bus. Make sure the equipment works and is properly maintained. Make sure the bus drivers are trained to speak clearly and trained to use the microphone properly.

    I live in Denmark where I think we have rather accessible transport, although there is room for improvement. Loudspeakers in the underground stations are often impossible to understand – and I have good hearing. It seems no one has tested them with a platform of trains and people talking and rushing about! It’s pure echo chamber. On the bus, you get slurred speech or heavy breathing in announcements for stops. It sounds like the driver is about to fall asleep – and swallow the microphone in the process.

    Anna – couldn’t a lot of this project be done fairly cheaply by having classes do the work – interaction designers, user experience designers, technical communicators, graphic artists – all tested thoroughly by a team of users with disabilities that range from mobility to vision to hearing and beyond? To convince the business types – Maybe you can draw in alumni influence? It could set a standard for other schools – give a little prestige perhaps?