by Daveed Mandell
(Editor’s Note: Daveed Mandell is a member of ACB’s Transportation and Pedestrian Environmental Access Committees, and a member of the California Council of the Blind’s board of directors.)
I would like to acknowledge and thank Ron Brooks, of Accessible Avenue (accessibleavenue.net), and Dr. Billie Louise Bentzen, of Accessible Design for the Blind (designforblind.org), for their invaluable assistance, without which this presentation would not have been possible. I would also like to thank ACB Pedestrian Environmental Access Committee expert extraordinaire Eugene Lozano, and American Association of Visually Impaired Attorneys past president Steve Mendelsohn, for their support and encouragement.
Introduction: Accessible Wayfinding
First and foremost, accessibility is a civil and human right. For most people with disabilities, accessibility means independence, spontaneity and freedom of movement. When a transit network is fully accessible, anyone should be able to navigate it without assistance. To date, no transit network in this country is fully accessible or universally designed. Regrettably, for the most part, accessibility is too often treated as merely an afterthought. Shockingly, current federal law does not require accessible wayfinding.
There is a legal concept in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) known as “effective communication.” We in the American Council of the Blind’s Transportation Committee believe that effective communication includes accessible wayfinding. All information given to non-disabled people must be provided to people with disabilities. Currently, this is not happening.
Most public transit advocates talk about the need for, and the right to, affordable, reliable, frequent and predictable public transit. However, accessibility goes far beyond those requirements. Many questions and concerns come to mind.
Let’s first consider fixed-route transit. Later on, we will talk about ADA paratransit.
- Is fixed-route transit available whenever you want or need it? Quite often, transit riders are like Cinderella, rushing to catch the coach before it turns into a pumpkin at midnight.
- Is fixed-route transit easily reachable? Or do you have to walk on sidewalks filled with cracks, and cross a busy 5-lane street filled with potholes, to reach your bus stop? Are there sidewalks where you live? Are bus stops miles apart or fairly close together? Is your bus stop easy to locate?
- Is fixed-route transit easily rideable? How easy is it to find the fare box or card reader? Can you easily find a seat or the exit door? Does your transit agency offer frequent local service and direct routes to many sought-after destinations, such as grocery stores, senior centers and medical buildings?
Can you easily:
- locate subway station entrances?
- navigate the concourse to the fare gates?
- pay for your ride and enter the area that leads to the platforms?
- go from the concourse to the platforms?
- find where to catch your train?
- enter the train and find a seat?
- exit the train and find the correct escalator, staircase or elevator?
- locate the exit gates?
- locate the correct station exit?
Above all, it’s important to remember that a transit network starts from your door or origin, and ends at your destination’s door. It does not start or end at the bus stop or subway station. In other words, a transit network encompasses and includes an entire neighborhood’s infrastructure.
What Is Accessible Wayfinding?
- Websites, mobile applications, printed materials and/or signage, including tactile and large print maps, that provide information and schedules regarding the location of bus stops or routes, subway and train station entrances and exits, and the location and/or status of transit vehicles.
- Textures, electronic beacons, design concepts, or any other product, service or procedure that is utilized to provide navigational assistance to, from or within a transit network.
- Websites and electronically prepared documents must meet all applicable provisions of Section 508 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act, or Level AA success criteria set forth in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), whichever offers the greatest accessibility for people with disabilities.
- Printed information that is designed to be public-facing, or that is likely to be requested by a member of the public, must be made available upon request of a person with a disability in an alternate format that is accessible to that individual. In accordance with ADA requirements, consideration should be given to providing the document in the format requested by that individual; but if providing the document in the requested format is not practicable, the agency should work with the individual to provide the document in a format that is accessible.
- Facilities and signage must meet applicable guidelines set forth in the ADA Accessibility Standards, as promulgated by the U.S. Access Board, (and/or in California Title 24 — whichever standard offers the greatest accessibility). Other products and technologies must meet all appropriate and applicable accessibility standards. However, at this time there are no comprehensive legal national accessible wayfinding standards in this country. There are only guidelines.
What Are Some Components of Accessible Wayfinding?
I have only scratched the surface in this presentation. It is important to understand that no transit agency in this country strictly adheres to the following requirements. We people with disabilities have much work to do.
Bus Stop Placement: Bus stops should be placed near accessible, safe intersections. They should be easy to locate and should not be jammed up against news racks, parking signs, trees, garbage cans and other obstacles. They should have clear paths of travel and should not be placed in congested areas. We still don’t know how to easily identify floating bus stops that are placed near boarding islands in the middle of the street. (Some jurisdictions are installing accessible audible beacons to allow blind people to cross safely to these bus stops.) Transit agencies must insist that all jurisdictions within their service areas comply with these requirements. It is the ultimate responsibility of these agencies to ensure that riders have easy and efficient access to all bus stops. Finally, transit agencies must provide one standardized pole for all bus stops.
Bus Stop Displays: All bus stop displays should be easily reachable and fully accessible. They should provide both visual and audible information. The audible information should be identical to what is offered visually. The information should be provided in several languages.
Bus Stop and Train Locations: Customer service agents must be adept at giving clear, accurate information about where bus stops and train stations are located, including transfer points, entrances and exits. Wherever possible, they should provide cardinal compass directions. They must also give information about transferring from one vehicle to another, and at which stops and/or stations.
Automated Computer/Phone Information Systems: In addition to accessible websites and mobile applications, several transit authorities offer automated computer/phone information systems, such as Transportation Authority of River City (TARC) in Louisville, Ky., and Minnesota Valley Transportation Authority (MVTA) in Minneapolis. Using such systems, riders can obtain a list of all routes, choose a route and follow it virtually in either direction, and choose a stop to hear expected arrival times. Those systems are available 24/7/365.
Tactile Bus Stop Indicators in the Built Environment: Countries, such as Australia, have for decades embedded tactile directional bars in sidewalks to alert blind people that they have reached a bus stop. These bars, which are easily felt under foot or cane, lead to adjacent bus stop poles that contain accessible displays. The U.S. is just beginning to adopt these essential tactile bus stop indicators.
Smart Phone Applications: Many countries, and several U.S. transit authorities, have adopted smart phone applications that map bus stops, light rail and subway stations digitally and convert this data into easy-to-follow, accurate audible directions for locating bus stops, light rail stations, and subway entrances and exits. These directions guide people within and around stations, to and from platforms, and surrounding points of interest, such as stores and coffee shops.
The Washington (D.C.) Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (WMATA) is currently making its entire Metro system and 1,000 bus stops fully accessible, thanks to a digital mapping application called Waymap, developed in the UK, which requires no Internet, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or GPS. It is intended for everyone, not just people with disabilities. Waymap (www.waymapnav.com) relies only on the sensors built into smart phones.
Accessible Websites and Mobile Applications: It is essential that websites and mobile applications be fully accessible and work with all screen readers and magnification programs on computers, tablets and smart phones.
Braille and Raised Print Placards: It is essential to affix braille and raised print placards on bus stop displays for people who are deaf-blind. Because braille and raised print take up much more space than regular print, the most pertinent and relevant information must be included, such as bus numbers, which is not an easy decision to make. These placards should be affixed to all bus stops.
High-Contrast Indicators and Large Print: People with low vision require high-contrast bus stop indicators and large print information on bus stop displays.
Signage for Wheelchair Users: Bus stop signage should be low enough to allow wheelchair users to easily read it. In most cases, redundancies should be provided, so that ambulatory riders don’t have to bend down to read it.
Bus Stop Information for Cognitively Disabled Individuals: Some people with cognitive disabilities require symbol- or pictorial-oriented bus stop information.
Bus Stop Information for Deaf People: Many deaf and hard-of-hearing people prefer video-oriented bus stop information, as opposed to document-oriented information.
Let’s turn now to ADA paratransit. Paratransit riders gave up their lord to spontaneity when ADA paratransit was established. That’s because paratransit riders can’t come and go whenever and wherever they wish. In fact, ADA paratransit has many glaring inequalities.
- Only paratransit riders have to make advanced reservations. No same-day rides for them!;
- Only paratransit riders have to pay at least twice as much as non-disabled fixed-route transit riders;
- Only paratransit riders have no predictability. They never know exactly when they will be picked up or dropped off. They don’t know how many people will share the ride with them, or how long it will take to reach their destinations;
- Hundreds of thousands of disabled people throughout the country are routinely denied paratransit altogether if they don’t live or work within 3/4 of a mile of a functioning bus route or rail line.
The trend now is to offer paratransit on demand through a transprtation network company, such as Uber, Lyft or a TNC specifically designed to provide paratransit, such as Uzurv.
Some transit agencies offer supplemental paratransit on demand, while others are trying to replace the current extremely inequitable and outmoded ADA paratransit model with paratransit on demand. The Transportation Research Board, which is affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences, has recently published a report on 18 jurisdictions that offer paratransit on demand.
Conclusion: Final Thoughts
Please keep in mind that ADA requirements are minimal and inadequate. They are the floor, not the ceiling. We must expect and demand that all local and regional transit agencies throughout the nation provide programs, services, facilities and vehicles that are well above ADA requirements, and nothing less.
All wayfinding information technologies and strategies, whether based on products, services or procedures, must be developed with ongoing input from all communities intended to be served by transit agencies, including traditionally underserved communities, communities of color, economically disadvantaged communities, older adults, people with disabilities, individuals and organizations that provide support or services within these communities, and professionals with expertise in areas relevant to accessible wayfinding.
The nation’s public agencies can and must do better in promoting and providing full public transit accessibility and insuring equity for people with disabilities and older adults. As eminent accessibility consultant Ron Brooks has stated, people with disabilities should be able to take all forms of public transit with no more effort, time and cost than people without disabilities.
In closing, it is time for the public transit industry to accept the fact that only we people with disabilities, who comprise some 20 to 25 percent of the nation’s population, have the necessary lived experience and the knowledge of what is required to make the world fully accessible to us.