Access denied: planning for the disabled-access city

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated that over 1 billion people are living with some form of disability worldwide – that’s about 15% of the world’s total population. And, with trends in life expectancy and the prevalence of chronic health conditions on the rise, the number of disabled people living in cities is expected to only increase in the coming years.

Despite this, many cities remain unfriendly and widely inaccessible to their disabled populations.

Those with physical disabilities can be presented with barriers built into the smallest details of manoeuvring around the city, which could be seen as trivial and unobtrusive to the average able-bodied commuter.

From impassable steep kerbs, to sandwich board-cluttered streets, to shops and restaurants without lifts- – the makeup of the typical streetscape is lined with potential obstacles and restrictions. Moreover, for people who are neurodivergent or learning disabled, a bustling urban environment can cause harm through sensory overload, anxiety and stress.

Transport is another everyday aspect of city living where disabled people can feel excluded.

In many big cities, the metro is the most convenient way to travel. A recent study found that only 31% of London Underground stations are accessible by wheelchair or mobility scooter from street to platform. Considering that a number of those still require staff assistance and ramps to board trains, the number of fully accessible stations is even less. Another study found that similarly poor access exists across the world’s major metro systems.

Disabled people commonly report that accessibility worries can be a major deterrent to engaging in public spaces that are unfamiliar.

“I must always be thinking about accessibility in the back of my head” says Grace, in a Guardian article where readers with a disability share their experiences of city access. “The barriers start before a trip begins” adds Stef, talking about autistic-unfriendly travel.

Discussing New York, Lucy describes how accessibility barriers can make her feel excluded in her own city: “I often end up feeling like a second-class citizen who doesn’t even appear in the thoughts of city planners”.

Numerous studies have found that disabled people are less likely to work or socialise in areas with poor accessibility. Moreover, cities are losing out on economic benefits from inaccessibility-– the ‘purple pound’ (signifying the spending power of disabled tourists) was estimated to be worth around £250bn in the UK pre-pandemic.

Whilst disabled access is rising in prioritisation amongst city and transport planning, there is undoubtedly still a long way to go in many cities. But there are also some good examples of cities taking action to make their spaces accessible to all.

Opening up Chester’s ancient streets

The first British city to win the coveted European Access City Award, Chester is now regarded as the UK’s most accessible city. Famous for its Roman heritage, the city pledged to make its many tourist sites fully accessible for disabled people–a sizeable challenge, considering the city’s ancient streets and medieval walls.

Chester has implemented fully accessible, wide passageways with tactile paving and added handrails above the walls and famous Chester Rows, which were previously only accessible by steps. Narrow and secluded walkways have now been connected by 17 wheelchair access points. In addition, there are disabled access focused tours, access guides, signs and online information platforms.

Transport has been revamped, as council policy requires all public buses and licensed taxis to have wheelchair access, induction loops and colour-contrast handles. The council has also committed to including a specifically designed Changing Places toilet in all new developments, adding to the numerous facilities already deployed in busy spots.

The successful implementation of an extensive access plan has not been quick, but is rather the results of Cheshire West and Chester Council’s long-term commitment to improving disability inclusion. The council has had a designated access officer since 1991 and a disability forum of 16 organisations that actively promote accessibility in new developments – such as the multi-million pound Storyhouse arts centre that has received accolades for its standard of access.

Chester’s award has seen the city become a model to other city governments from across the world, who are now visiting the city for inspiration. “We’ve had them from Dublin to Israel, they want to see how it’s done”, says Graham Garnett, Chester’s previous access officer.

Accessible route mapping in Seattle

Primarily designed for commuters in vehicles, most online routing maps can be unhelpful for people with limited mobility, lacking detail on hills, steep kerbs and access points. Aiming to rectify this, however, is the University of Washington’s Taskar Center for Accessible Technology, who have designed the AccessMap platform for the hilly city of Seattle.

AccessMap allows users to receive tailored routes dependent on customised preferences, such as only showing sloped pavements or limiting the incline of streets. As platforms such as Google Maps currently don’t take such factors into account, AccessMap will provide the user with an alternative route that is not based upon journey time or distance, but rather on safety and ease of access.

The map even uses recent data from the Seattle Department of Transportation to accommodate for real-world conditions on pedestrian pathways, such as a construction site or potentially hazardous surface conditions. In addition, the developers are aiming to turn the platform into an open street map, where users and volunteers can create up-to-date entries about the conditions they encounter.

The research team behind the project want to use their development to provide the toolkits and instructions to create similar maps in other cities. They have identified 10 urban areas in the US with the potential to replicate successful platforms, such as New York, Boston and San Francisco.

Final thoughts

Chester’s motivation in becoming fully accessible is exemplary of a city that is leading the way in disability inclusion, ensuring that it is inherent to city government planning. Likewise, the mapping project in Seattle shows how alternative tools can enhance the experiences of disabled people.

But although these examples are encouraging, they are exceptions. As long as planners fail to acknowledge the needs of people with disabilities, most of our cities will remain, in effect, no-go areas for a substantial section of society.


Further reading: more on diversity and inclusion from The Knowledge Exchange Blog:

How data and smart city infrastructure can support transport planning

Image from Flickr user JustGrimes, licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License

Image from Flickr user JustGrimes, licensed under Creative Commons

By Morwen Johnson

Efficient transport is vital to the smooth running of businesses and everyday life in a city. The emergence of new technologies is rapidly transforming both traffic management systems and the analysis of travel activity and transport modelling.

At the Open Data Awards last week, the Greater London Authority won the Open Data Publisher Award, with the opening up of Transport for London’s data infrastructure being highlighted as an example of how whole systems thinking can create an ecosystem and value chain supported by data.

Smart transport solutions

Within the UK, initiatives such as the Future Cities Demonstrator (based in Glasgow) and the Catapult Centres, both established by Innovate UK (fomerly the Technology Strategy Board), are exploring innovative ways to use technology and data to make life in cities safer, smarter and more sustainable. The UK Government has also continued its support with its announcement in the March 2015 budget of new funding to support the technology market around the Internet of Things.

Smart solutions involve data gathering, real-time processing, data analytics and visualisation. Using data ultimately aims to support better decision and enable innovation. New technologies and availability of data, and the near-universal uptake of mobile devices, therefore offers an opportunity to innovate in order to make our urban areas more adaptive and resilient.

‘Intelligent mobility’ is a sector of the wider transport industry which is predicted to be worth around £900 billion a year globally by 2025. A recent report suggested however that the UK faces major transport-related data gaps which limit its ability to take advantage of this market. In some cases this relates to datasets which do not yet exist at all in the UK, and in other cases to datasets which exist only in ‘silos’ or which are not yet open or freely available.

Data supports transport planning

Transport for London has allowed their data, which has been collected from Oyster Smart Card use, to be open and available to developers to create a range of Apps which allow the public access to travel information, much of it real-time.

Many councils across the UK are using data to improve journey planning in a similar way. The itravelsmart App from Cheshire West & Chester Council won the Best Smarter Travel App award at this year’s Smarter Travel Awards for a tool that integrates travel information, interactive maps and public transport timetables.

At a city-wide level, using an intelligent transport system can also help improve capacity and manage traffic flows. Cities such as Amsterdam, have been leading the way in using open data to support transport planning – back in 2012 Amsterdam won the World Smart Cities Awards 2012 with its Open Data Program for transport and mobility. Since March 2012, the city’s department for Infrastructure, Traffic and Transportation (DIVV) has made available all its data on traffic and transportation to interested parties. Data about parking (tariffs, availability, time), taxi stands, cyclepaths, and stops for touring cars are public now, as well as real-time information on traffic jams on main roads around the city.

The Urban Big Data Centre was established by the UK Economic and Social Research Council to address social, economic and environmental challenges facing cities. It launched in 2014 and focuses on methods and technologies to manage, link and analyse multi-sectoral urban Big Data, and to demonstrate the use of such information, for example in transport planning.

From smarter data to smarter decisions

To make a city smart and to use smart infrastructure, it’s vital that the transport system functions to the best of its ability. By utilising data from a variety of sources, such as open transport data, sensor data, crowdsourcing and other social media sources, it seems there is potential for a huge improvement in efficiency by increasing integration.

Encouraging modal shift can also have an impact on environmental problems, such as pollution and carbon emissions. Using data, whether it is open data or big data, can help inform evidence-based decision-making in these important policy areas.


We’ve written a briefing on the emerging use of big data and open data in transport planning, including case studies from the literature.

Idox has recently announced its acquisition of Cloud Amber Ltd, a leading supplier of integrated transport solutions to local authorities.

The Idox Knowledge Exchange are also hosting a Big Data Knowledge Transfer Project in collaboration with Salford University.