Accessibility in the Smart City
Smart city mobility discussions often involve autonomous vehicles (AVs), micro-transit and adaptive public spaces and streets. But how will our most vulnerable road users navigate this rapidly evolving urban streetscape?
Conventional approaches to improving street and intersection navigation for people with disabilities involve a variety of physical interventions, including the use of accessible pedestrian signals, tactile walking surface indicators, curb ramps, and depressed curbs. However, as smart city adaptations increase the complexity of the streetscape, it becomes more challenging to intuitively apply these features.
In the future, we can expect that our urban environments will become more flexible in their function. The same space may be used as a roadway during certain parts of the day, provide parking at other times and serve as a wide sidewalk on the weekends. How can we support people with a wide variety of access needs to understand these shifting scenarios?
Already, a variety of technology-based solutions are helping to answer this question. AccessNow, an app created by Ryerson University student Maayan Ziv, relies on crowdsourcing to help identify and track accessible destinations throughout cities. Technological solutions have also expanded to the hardware front, covering the suite of mobility devices. “Smart canes” for the visually impaired are now available with enhanced capabilities, including GPS navigation, object detection and location sharing.
Specific locations are also looking to address accessibility using smart city technology. At San Francisco International Airport, a Bluetooth-based navigation and mapping system has been installed so that people with visual impairments can use a smartphone app to independently circulate through terminals.
How else can we expect to see accessibility accounted for in the smart city? Just as we anticipate a future where AVs communicate with traffic signal systems, it is important to enable the two-way communication between people and systems – particularly for those with visual impairments, mobility impairments or other disabilities. This communication will likely occur through various means, both physical and technology-based such as smart canes or app-based wayfinding. In addition, our conventional tools may evolve to allow for increased flexibility. Perhaps we will introduce tactile walking surface indicators that can raise and lower as street functions change, or pavements that can send electronic messages directly to users’ devices. Regardless of the specific intervention, the smart city must be a city for everyone.
Zibby is a transportation planner and engineer whose work focuses on active transportation and complete streets. She regularly collaborates on multi-disciplinary teams to bring a pedestrian and cycling perspective to planning and design projects, and is a certified Road Safety Professional (RSP).
Lead image by Raysonho via Wikimedia Commons.