The transit systems and social services of major metropolitan areas should be appealing to people with disabilities. Managing a condition that affects one’s vision, mobility, hearing or cognition is often easier in these environments — at least it should be in theory. The disconnect between theory and reality starts with problems in urban planning and development.
Despite efforts within the U.S. to create inclusive and accessible cities, national laws don’t specify how municipalities should integrate any digital services for disabled people. Because of this oversight, cities will sometimes adopt new technologies without considering the implications for certain disabled individuals in their community.
As an example, New York City introduced LinkNYC Kiosks in 2016, without any instructions in audible form and without screen-reading functionality. The American Federation for the Blind had to take action to correct the problem, and though the kiosks are now updated, touchscreens are still not fully and as easily accessible for the disabled.
Even with these setbacks, the progress hasn’t slowed down. Smart glasses from start-up Aria enable people with visual impairments to navigate complex interior spaces with the assistance of sighted “agents” at remote locations. The service is available for free at certain stores and places, like Heathrow Airport in London.
With the benefits and drawbacks of modern technology, how can engineers and planners work around issues of accessibility? What conveniences are available in smart cities for people with disabilities, and what problems present themselves? This article seeks to answer those questions, examining the subject of inclusive infrastructure in metro areas.
Benefits of smart city infrastructure
Almost 25 percent of citizens in the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas are over the age of 65 or living with disabilities. Planners need to account for specific needs of nearly a quarter of the population when designing infrastructure for accessibility. These planners have integrated a range of tech-driven solutions to assist them in that mission. As cities begin to incorporate the Internet of Things, enhanced connectivity will allow them to address system-wide issues, like accessibility and disability, with system-wide solutions.
This connectivity will have clear benefits for user-contributed data solutions like digital-accessibility maps — expanded on in the next section — but this is only one small advantage of smart city infrastructure. On a more immediate, palpable level, innovations in payment services for transportation will make it more convenient to navigate cities for those with visual and physical disabilities. Transport of London’s Oyster Card exemplifies this convenience.
Transport of London has connected London’s various transport options in a new system, with a pre-loaded contactless smart card as way of ticketless payment. These smart cards reduced the transaction time and eliminated the need for registration at each link in the transportation chain. In doing so, they’ve removed obstacles like point-of-sale touchscreens which, as mentioned earlier, are sometimes challenging for those with disabilities.
On a larger scale, city policymakers have access to analytic capabilities which improve their approach to planning. They have the ability to layer health, transport and demographic data over their plans for economic development, viewing potential pitfalls and attending to them before work begins. Cities and their policymakers can then identify and solve problems far in advance of construction, ensuring that new opportunities are available to citizens living with disabilities.
At the same time, disabled people face different challenges in different places, and solutions which would otherwise prove effective in one place aren’t always useful in another place. A study of toilet accessibility in India found that wheelchair-accessible restrooms fail to help when a disabled person uses a mobility device — such as a skateboard or cart — which the infrastructure doesn’t support. It’s only one example of the challenges of city planning and development, and as you’ll see, many others exist.
Smart city challenges and solutions
The problem of poor planning isn’t a new one, and over the years, disability activists have devised their own solutions. They’ve stressed the importance of wheelchair ramps, signage, curb cuts and other features through hand-drawn maps, illustrating areas in need of improvement. Ad-hoc design practices and “guerrilla urbanism” have changed the landscape of inclusivity and accessibility in very physical ways.
These activists have taken a digital approach in recent years — all around the world from Nashville to Paris — improving on many of the methods they used before. Instead of hand-drawn maps, they employ smartphones that enable them to document and rate features that accommodate the needs of disabled people. They look for wheelchair ramps, automatic doors, braille text, low-flicker lighting, scent-free soap and glare-free floors, among other signs. After gathering this information, it’s entered into a database to be used by others to find accessible locations.
Digital-accessibility maps are an example of the earlier mentioned intelligent, effective solutions, because they quickly provide user-contributed data while educating the public about best practices in accessibility. Some speculate that these apps will lead to the emergence of the “smart citizen,” people like you and me, who invest their time and energy in generating data about everyday life.
While this is an optimistic view of the future, problems still exist in the present that need to be addressed by planners. With 22 percent of adults in the U.S. having some form of disability, immediate action is necessary to provide a solution, not tomorrow, but here and now. Business owners can assist through contributions like accessible bathrooms. Citizens can participate in “map-a-thons,” researching other options which will help the transition toward greater accessibility.
A model for the integration of smart city concepts already exists, it’s an initiative called the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities. It brings together cities, industry, research, banks, SMEs and other smart city actors to develop solutions and implement them with less issues. If replicated elsewhere, this type of initiative has promise for the inclusion of disabled people and their participation in city planning.
Clearing the Way Forward
Citizens with disabilities will continue to face challenges with accessibility, but smart city infrastructure will evolve to meet their needs more and more. These technologies have negative aspects, of course, but they also create opportunities and allow for convenience in areas that would otherwise prove challenging.
As policymakers and planners embrace big data and IoT, one thing is certain. Even with its growing pains, change is ultimately necessary
*) This article was written by Kayla Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org), tech journalist and writer.