Universal design: how do we improve mobility for everyone?

When you talk about improving the environmental impact of the built environment, the topic of public or non-motorized transportation almost always comes up. Like many of my peers, I am blessed with fully functioning muscles and legs; I have never even broken a bone in my life. With the exception of a few mean hills on lazy days, I can walk or bike pretty much anywhere on grounds, and the idea of being able to zip through traffic on a bike makes me never want to return to the suburbs ever again. So when I first began learning about bicycle infrastructure and completely non-motorized transportation, I jumped on the idea like this lemur on a cupcake.

Image from https://twitter.com/DukeLemurCenter
Does this lemur look excited? Yes. Image from https://twitter.com/DukeLemurCenter

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I first became interested in cycling when I spent a semester abroad in Copenhagen. My friends and I were amazed at the number of cyclists and the typical lack of car congestion. Our wonder at the freedom we felt pedaling around the city blinded us from a more insidious truth: that the cobblestone streets and cycle-heavy roads were difficult to navigate for the elderly and people with disabilities. The city was a playground for young, able-bodied people like us, but I imagine my experience would have been much less positive if I were not as physically healthy.

The need to design for people of all ages and abilities came to the forefront of my mind last month after a family member became severely ill and heavily dependent on a wheelchair. Suddenly, the idea of popping on to the metro for a trip to the National Mall became much less appealing. The topic of sustainable transportation encompasses a larger issue than reducing carbon emissions from vehicles– truly sustainable systems must also be socially responsible, catering to underrepresented groups as well as able-bodied folk.

The three factors of a truly sustainable system. Image from wbdg.org.
The three factors of a truly sustainable system. Image from wbdg.org.

On one hand, areas with highly developed public transportation systems may better serve people with disabilities because it allows them alternative methods of transportation other than motorized vehicles. For example, someone who is legally blind or wheelchair-bound and can’t drive has no bus system to rely on in a rural area. However, even public transportation in well-urbanized areas needs sufficient improvements to better cater to those without mobile independence. Even over twenty years after the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, many transit stations around the country do not have functioning elevators to accommodate wheelchairs or do not have working PA systems to announce arriving buses or upcoming stops for those with visual and cognitive disabilities.

Providing accessibility to people who can’t drive, bike, or walk to work or errands provides a strong incentive for further developing high-density city structures and better public transportation. As we continue to improve urban networks to create a better quality of life and improve carbon emissions, we must remember that designing to improve the quality of life of everyone should be just as important as reducing environmental impact.

Further reading:
The Role of Public Transportation in the Lives of Elderly and Disabled Riders
Ensuring Fair Transit Options for the Elderly and the Disabled




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