Conflict in Public Benefit: Carfree cities? Not so fast!

accessibility
Ipek from Supersense
3 minutes reading time
January 31, 2021

Carfree cities sound great, at least for most of us. No noise, no pollution, no fights over scarce parking lots. Reduced accidents. Wouldn’t it be great if cars would just disappear and we’ll wake up to an environmentally-friendly and noise-free morning and then… Well, not so fast. Some of us love to hate cars, but it is important to realize how many of our systems depend on them.

Last year a blog post published on Cane Adventures blog pointed out that carfree cities might not be so appealing to a portion of the population: people living with disabilities. The writer’s focus was on blind people, who might need assistance though they are able to use public transportation; because public transport options are not enough to carry people from doorstep to doorstep, and the urban environment can be hectic for a blind person to hop from one means of transport to another. The needs of people with different disabilities vary. The Inclusive City Maker website summarized those needs perfectly. The city, a complex pheonmenon as it is, is not “user-friendly” at all. Especially when something unusual happens, such as road constructions, breakdowns, power interruptions, stop changes, etc. Finding an alternate route or mode of transportation could be difficult, or, for example, if the change of itinerary or route is not announced beforehand, last-minute changes can disrupt people’s everyday lives. But for disabled people, there are other obstacles as well.

a woman sitting inside of a bus.
Photo by Ant Rozetsky on Unsplash

The Inclusivity of Public Transportation

Public transport evolves every day. Today we talk about autonomous buses, high-speed trains, carsharing systems, and micro-mobility solutions such as bikes, cargo bikes, electric scooters, etc. These are all great, but the public transport system and in larger context mobility has one bigger problem: inclusivity. Transport specialists and urban planners are trying to find solutions that cater to a wider range of people. However, the needs of disabled people are usually pushed further down the list because the decision-makers do not know where and how they should start.

When first designed, urban transport systems had only one type of user in mind: a non-disabled, average male who uses public transport to go to work. This was about 100 years ago. It is time to move on. Until recently, inclusivity was only a vague concept that is overused in reports and plans but under-implemented in actual transport solutions. Another problem with inclusivity is that it is usually integrated into processes after everything is done. It’s a last-minute add on, or even better, a plugin, which from time to time stops working altogether. Public transport, among other public services and public places, should not exclude the elderly, children, women, transgender individuals, blind people, or people with different physical or mental disabilities, which is more than half of the world population. This list can go on.

Age-old Problems

A recent research paper investigates the policy shortages in public transport in relation to ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) based on a Harris Poll, and the findings are disconcerting. The paper says that the majority of the respondents do not have access to public transport or paratransport facilities. So they either rely on their cars, or they walk. When these two options are unavailable, they are simply homebound and need assistance from other people for errands outside of the home. There are also other problems, like not all stations and facilities in the urban transport system being accessible, or even if they are, the maintenance issues cause disruptions. Plus, complementary paratransit options are not in service of everyone with disabilities for a variety of reasons. Another striking finding is that even pedestrian networks that lead to public transports nodes lack accessibility due to the “lack enforceable regulations.”

But the case is not lost yet. And the current lack of inclusivity (or lack of crisis management of the transport system) can be overcome by including inclusive solutions from the beginning. After decades of trial and error, risk assessment became a part of the planning process, resulting in more resilient cities prepared for every condition.

Inclusivity assessment, like risk assessment, should be part of the process as well. From the beginning to the end. Getting more people with disabilities on board while planning transportation systems should be the first step, but we can also come up with thousands of other solutions, such as integration of the new technologies like beacons into bus stops or coming up with free devices or apps that people can use while traveling. In the age of flying cars and quantum computers, this cannot be that difficult.

An illustration of a smartphone

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