Skip to main content
Start of main content

3 steps to fully accessible and barrier-free transit

May 16, 2023

By Graeme Masterton

The future of universal accessibility in public transit hinges on decisions we make now. We need to prepare for an aging population.

External consultant Tim Woods, general manager of the Autonomous Vehicle Alliance, contributed to this blog.

Today is the best time in human history to live longer.

We’re surrounded by advances in medical science and technology. We also have basically unlimited information on how to improve your health and wellness. And this has led to increasing life expectancies around the world.

Getting old is a gift. A lot of people never get that opportunity.

But aging has its challenges. Physical limitations, medical issues, and disability become more common as we age. Moving around and traveling gets harder.

What does it all mean? We need to overhaul our current transport system—and transit specifically—to better serve this community. But how?

Better transit includes the combination of autonomous vehicle technology and accessible and barrier-free vehicles.

Accessible transit is about making mobility work for everyone. There are three steps to transit accessibility that cities and agencies need to consider now.

And the combination of autonomous vehicle (AV) technology and accessible and barrier-free (ABF) vehicles can get us there.

This is critical because our aging population is going to grow. There are more than 700 million people in the world over 65 years of age. The UN says that number will double by 2050.

And there are more than 1 billion people in the world living with a disability. More than 60 percent of people with disabilities report major obstacles related to mobility.

That lack of mobility—and the limitation of adapted transportation—impacts them as well as their caregivers.

Removing barriers

Cities often say ABF vehicles and infrastructure are a need. Of course, what exactly that means is constantly evolving. Universal and accessible design, emerging mobility trends, and technological improvements all impact transit options.

Stakeholders need to look at the varying and common needs between transit consumers. They also need to view how people of various abilities would interact with and utilise vehicles and infrastructure.

When we talk about barriers, we mean more than physical limitations. Barriers can also include:

  • Cost
  • Coverage area
  • Safety/security
  • Awareness
  • Technological limitations
  • Transit design and maintenance

Our team contributed to a report by The Autonomous Vehicle Alliance, which included research with various stakeholders. Those included regional transport authorities, municipalities, and people with different disabilities and movement aids (e.g., wheelchairs, canes, walkers, etc.). 

This is the time to coordinate the design languages between vehicles and infrastructure.

The biggest issue that ran through all of those conversations was ingress and egress. That could be entering and exiting either the vehicle itself or getting to the location of the vehicle (for example, a subway platform or bus stop).

Many potential users told us they don’t even try to take public transit. Why? Because of the embarrassment and difficulty in accessing the services.

There must be a better way.

We’ve identified three main opportunities to improve transit accessibility from the beginning of a journey right through to the end.

3 steps to universal accessibility

When looking to the future of ABF transport, personalisation of the mobility experience must be the main focus. If there are people with specific needs, the vehicles and transport system must understand who those people are and what they require.

If an AV fleet can be malleable to the different needs of different users, that is the key to true ABF transit.

So, what are those three steps that can get us closer to barrier-free mobility?

  1. Merging physical and digital: Utilising digital tools and technology will help users better navigate the physical transit environment. It can be audio cues and/or the use of smartphones and other devices. Also, ensuring users always have access to real-time information, on-demand booking rather than set schedules, and wayfinding for curbs and sidewalks to make entering and exiting easier.
  2. Using a universal design language: The tenets of universal design are accessible, usable, and inclusive. It means using a method of designing that proactively meets the needs of all users. For ABF transit, that can mean interior vehicle features that work for any user, including zero-step entry. When you use universal design language, you assume that barriers to transit use are in the design of the environment, not in the user.
  3. Coordinating design languages: Vehicles and infrastructure must work together to address transit accessibility. It doesn’t matter if a vehicle is fully ABF if users with disabilities are unable to easily access it. For example, a fleet of buses may be accessible to all, but the bus stop itself is hard to navigate and has barriers for users. In this scenario, it doesn’t matter how accessible the bus is. Users can’t get to the bus. The coordination of design is key. Buy-in must come from all stakeholders.   

Vehicles and infrastructure must work together to address public transit accessibility. It’s key that design languages are coordinated.

This is an exciting time for the ABF movement because people are talking, and stakeholders want to make changes. So, this is the time to coordinate the design languages between vehicles and infrastructure. As more manufacturers design and build autonomous vehicles, they need to be designing for an ABF experience at the outset.

Can we back into ABF? Sure.

But will it be a lot easier when we all work together to make this part of our approach and process? You bet.

A holistic approach is the only solution to help transportation users have a seamless experience from start to finish. And that’s our goal.

  • Graeme Masterton

    For the past 26 years, Graeme has focused on building an in-depth understanding of community transit needs and the psychology of using transit.

    Contact Graeme
End of main content
To top