Roads & Infrastructure Magazine explores how accessible infrastructure can be designed for the millions of Australians who have reduced mobility.
More than four million Australians have some form of disability, which can impact the way they interact with the world.
Disability often places barriers on accessing infrastructure that an able-bodied person might not even notice. For a person with reduced mobility, the lack of lifts and ramps can make it impossible to take advantage of a public resource.
Analysing a commuter’s door-to-door journey, including the links between modes of travel, is also important to ensuring infrastructure can be accessed by all people. While a bus route may be designed for wheelchairs, if it stops on a busy street without safe access to a nearby station, it can still present dangers.
The UK Department for International Development (DFID)’s Disability considerations for Infrastructure Programmes report says that failure at any one point in the chain means the whole system fails, including the vehicles and the people who make the system work.
Potential risks can include poorly maintained pavements around transport infrastructure hubs or inaccessible overpasses to reach them.
The gap between vehicles and the platform can also present a hazard making it difficult to board, with additional falling or injury risks if a vehicle does not have adequate space to accommodate someone in a wheel chair.
Accessing the information to use transport infrastructure can even be an issue, if timetable information is not available for those with vision impairment.
Without being able to use transport infrastructure, people with disabilities can find it difficult to get to employment or education and are at higher risk of social exclusion.
According to the DFID report, these design barriers are often due to a lack input from people with disabilities and reduced mobility in the planning, design and implementation phase. This lack of communication leads to a reduced understanding of can be dangerous to someone with reduced mobility.
Professor of Practice Robert Care at the University of New South Wales’ School of Civil and Environmental Engineering says it is important to have accessible infrastructure included as part of the initial design and not included later.
“Retrofitting accessibility features onto a project often leads to increased costs and may not blend well with the design of the infrastructure, leading to a less satisfactory solution. Designers really need to try to get it right from the very beginning in the starting brief,” Dr. Care says.
“There can often be an attitude when it comes to accessibility where it is considered as an additional feature as opposed to the core concept of what public infrastructure goal is – to serve all members of the community, not just a few.”
He adds that if resources and funding is allocated separately for accessibility during the early planning stages, it can lead to compromises that affect the quality of the design. It also can miss the opportunity to add value to a project, as it can help futureproof infrastructure and avoid expensive retrofitting if policy and legislature changes.
The Australian Agency for International Development’s Universal Accessibility Guidelines for Pedestrian, Non-motorised Vehicles and Public Transport Infrastructure report outlines the concept of universal design to make infrastructure useable by all.
This has an effect on all Australians that use transport infrastructure, not just people with disabilities. Universal design allows people that have been injured, families with prams, commuters with heavy luggage or tourists with a language barrier.
Dr. Care says universal design is vital for all people with reduced mobility, which can affect anyone.
“I myself have had to struggle with public infrastructure that wasn’t accessible. A few years ago, I had recently been recovering from a knee injury and needed to get around Auckland airport, which proved to be difficult on crutches,” he says.
“I didn’t know where to go or how to get support in the form of a wheelchair or a vehicle and in the end, I just limped on. This isn’t an isolated incident either, it’s something that can happen to anybody.”
Railway stations often have additional challenges that need to be overcome due to the topography and often require an overpass or underpass to reach a certain platform. These often require stairs and in certain urban environments, space may be at a premium, presenting further challenges for designers.
These challenges can present opportunities to designers to find innovative ways of providing a safe and accessible structure, however.
One such case is the use of transparent elevators in select train stations around Sydney to reduce feelings of claustrophobia.
Low access vehicles, portable lifts and manual folding ramps can help commuters in wheelchairs board and depart from trains, trams and buses while ramps and automated elevators can reduce issues that arise from different levels.
Visual and tactile warning systems at the edge of platform, large print signage and audible announcements help those with visual and audio impairments navigate train stations and bus stops. Inside the vehicles, priority seating for passengers with a disability, illness or pregnancy, high visibility hand grips and vertical stanchions at doors help reduce the risk of falling.
To make infrastructure safer, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade recommends non-skid surfaces onto floors and using steps that are 800 millimetres wide, 200 millimetres-deep and start at 250 millimetres from ground level to make them easier to climb.
Dr. Care says technology plays a critical role for the future of transport accessibility.
“Technology like the smartphone has already begun helping those with disabilities commute through the ability to plan their journeys,” he says.
Smartphone apps such as Stop Announcer use GPS data to help those with vision impairment travel on buses and trains in NSW, alerting its user when the vehicle is approaching the stop they need.
Similarly, Transport for NSW provides its Trip Planner resource to help users plan and navigate the city’s accessible infrastructure available.
Universal design is also being implemented in new Sydney Metro stations, including lifts, level access between platforms and trains, two wheelchair spaces per train carriage and two multi-purpose areas for prams, luggage and bicycles.
Dr. Care says it is important for public infrastructure stakeholders to remember the purpose behind what they are trying to achieve.
“If a city is building a rail system to help the public in the outer suburbs connect with jobs and schooling, it shouldn’t discourage those with different levels of ability,” he says. “The public are the customers and clients for this system, so it is important that they’re all able to take advantage of the service on offer.
“As a society, we are able to put in the effort to help out those without as many opportunities as the rest. We can come together to help each other be bigger and better than we otherwise would be.”