Blog

Planning for accessibility from the start

5th September 2019

Read more about Sidewalk Toronto's accessibility commitments.

By Mary-Margaret McMahon and Samara Trilling

We believe in building communities that are for everyone. That’s why we’ve made sure our Toronto Tomorrow proposal centres on five major concepts: diversity, accessibility, affordability, equity of opportunity, and inclusion. As our colleagues Dina Graser and Vanessa Pfaff point out in another blog post about our commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion, we’ve not only established these principles as essential preconditions of our work, we’ve made concrete plans to put them into practice along the eastern waterfront.

In this post, we wanted to go a bit deeper on our accessibility commitments. To date, we’ve spent over 76 hours co-designing public amenities with over 200 members of the disability and accessibility communities in Toronto, including professional designers, advocates, and especially people who self-identified as having lived experience of disability. We’ve drafted 22 accessibility principles, and incorporated over 100 recommendations for improvement in our ideas.

You can read more about that work in this earlier blog post about co-designing accessibility principles with the community. You can also read a fully accessible version of our Toronto Tomorrow proposal on this page of the Sidewalk Toronto website.

In the Quayside plan, we moved to the next step of translating these principles into concrete commitments that help make the neighbourhood accessible to all. Here are a few examples of how these ideas come to life.

Creating dynamic, accessible streets

One of the cornerstones of an accessible city is the ability to travel independently and safely at street level. We propose streets that are for pedestrians first — including pedestrians using mobility devices, travelling with service animals, and with varying levels of sensory perception and attention. Here are a few design features that help us ensure that’s the case.
 

A street diagram shows a set of accessibility features, including wayfinding beacons, wide sidewalks, and curbless streets.
Quayside’s streets are designed for accessibility by featuring heated pavement, wayfinding beacons, adaptive traffic signals, wider sidewalks, and curbless streets. (Sidewalk Labs)

Modular heated pavement. Sidewalk and road maintenance can be a common impediment to accessibility. The Quayside plan features modular pavers that can be individually and quickly replaced if one cracks or breaks. Pavers at key street crossings and intersections would also include heating elements that can prevent buildup of snow and ice on pedestrian throughways, making streets more passable to people using wheeled mobility devices and more comfortable for service animals year-round.

Wayfinding beacons. Beacons are small objects, about the size of Post-it Notes, that emit signals that can be picked up by smartphones or other Bluetooth-enabled devices. Beacons can broadcast navigational information about the environment that is especially useful to people who are blind or partially sighted — for example, that there is a garbage bin to the right of the staircase. In Quayside, beacons would enable the use of BlindSquare and other wayfinding apps as part of the default streetlevel experience. Related areas for wayfinding innovation that we have identified included audible traffic approaching signals and artificial intelligence floor describers.

Adaptive signals. To further improve street safety and work towards a Vision Zero goal of no street fatalities, we’ve designed an adaptive traffic management system that can prioritize pedestrians and detect when people need more time to cross the street. This system would be particularly useful for people moving slower or experiencing physical disability.

Sidewalk width. All thoroughfares in Quayside are planned to have at least enough room for two people using mobility devices (wheelchairs, scooters, white canes) to ride or travel side by side or for two people to sign while walking. Even more room would be provided wherever possible. Critically, thanks to feedback during the co-design sessions, the sidewalk pavers themselves are designed to be large enough to fit a wheelchair or scooter.

Curbless streets. In Quayside, instead of a vertical step separating the vehicle right-of-way from pedestrian paths, tactile indicators would indicate the line between pedestrian-only areas and spaces shared between pedestrians, bikes, and low-speed vehicles.

Accessible, affordable autonomous vehicles. Self-driving vehicles have the potential to transform travel in cities, and have particular potential for people experiencing reduced mobility or sensory perception. We commit to partnering with ride-share services to provide a physically accessible and affordable autonomous vehicle experience.

Designing accessible buildings and homes

Our accessibility plans go beyond mobility. For housing, we plan to build adaptable “Loft” spaces that make homes easier to renovate, allowing them to serve the individual needs of their tenants.

To ensure we were on the right track, we talked with Chris Stigas, CEO and co-founder of HandiHelp, who helped us make sure Loft units would enhance the experiences of people using wheelchairs or other mobility devices. For example, during our conversation, we discussed using fold-away tables and doorways that were threshold-free to make maneuvering as easy as possible.

In fact, a session co-hosted with the Inclusive Design Research Centre focused on improving these “threshold” moments: transitioning through a door into a home, between floors in an office building, or past a badged access point. That’s because getting through a door with an armful of packages can be difficult for anyone — and may also be difficult for people who are partially sighted, using a wheelchair, or experiencing reduced dexterity.

An illustration shows a person entering a building without push buttons or fob keys.
Digital technology can provide safe and secure building entry without push buttons or fob keys. (Sidewalk Labs)

The difficulty of these threshold moments can be eased or eliminated by applying simple technologies, like automatic doors. Where access control is necessary, doors can have a contactless scanner for a card, fob, or phone. Participants in the co-design session highlighted these as useful innovations, particularly when they are all knit together, such that a single access device can open doors, call elevators, negotiate access controls, and request street crossings.

We commit to a design principle that “fewer doors are better.” When doors are necessary, designs should preference sliding automatic doors over button-controlled doors.

Wherever possible, we incorporated best practices in DeafSpace, architectural principles tailored towards the deaf community. We saw these concepts in action at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., where they make use of easily controllable window shades (so that your eyes won’t be strained when signing) and soft corners inside buildings.

Creating infrastructure that reports back

What causes a frustrating delay for some commuters can create an arduous ordeal for others — the wheelchair user faced with a broken elevator at her transit station; the student with cognitive disabilities whose bus route unexpectedly changes; the older adult experiencing sight loss whose daily walk is interrupted by road work.

An illustration of a watch that provides wayfinding directions following a public transportation delay.
Wearable tech can provide wayfinding instructions and alert people to obstacles or delays. (Sidewalk Labs)

But imagine if people could be alerted immediately when station infrastructure breaks down, when transit service gets delayed or detoured, or when street maintenance occurs — and be instantly re-routed via a smartphone or wearable device. Participants at a Sidewalk Labs accessibility hackathon prototyped just such a technology, which would allow pedestrians using the BlindSquare app to be safely guided around construction sites.

We commit to developing infrastructure capable of reporting itself as broken and to working with existing navigation tools to ensure every journey in Quayside is accessible, safe, and convenient for all.

Always looking to improve

By no means is our work in the accessibility sector done. We’re currently in the process of hiring an accessibility consultant in Toronto and have consulted with the CNIB Foundation on designing our wayfinding and publicly available technology systems to be open to all.

Through these innovations, we hope to see the breakdown of systemic barriers that often make it harder than it should be for members of our community to easily enjoy all aspects of Toronto life. By putting accessibility at the forefront, we believe we can create one of the most inclusive communities in the world.

Mary-Margaret McMahon is Director of Community at Sidewalk Labs, based in Toronto. Samara Trilling is a Software Engineer at Sidewalk Labs, based in New York.

We have made important updates to the Sidewalk Toronto project. Learn more.