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New Report: Inclusive Design in Bus Rapid Transit
A major challenge in developing good public transportation is inclusive design, that meets the needs of citizens who may be disabled, be of different ages, or use transportation for varied travel patterns.

A major challenge in developing good public transportation is inclusive design that meets the wide ranging needs of citizens, regardless of physical ability, age or travel behavior. Photo by Meena Kadri.

The World Bank recently published a report, “Technical and Operational Challenges to Inclusive Bus Rapid Transit,” compiled by Tom Rickert, a consultant with extensive experience on accessible transportation. While the technical report is intended primarily for an audience of BRT system and service planners, its release marks a recognition of the practical challenges in making public transport in the developing world fully accessible.

The guide brings “recent international experience to bear on accessibility issues that challenge the ability of Bus Rapid Transit systems in less-wealthy countries to serve persons with disabilities, seniors, and others who especially benefit from inclusive design.” The guide follows Rickert’s 2007 BRT Accessibility Guidelines, which detail best accessible design practices. This new report discusses common accessibility problems with BRT systems and offers a hierarchy of alternative solutions. Rickert explains the limitations and tradeoffs with each design option, allowing for thoughtful decision-making. This is especially helpful since countries in the developing world deal with diverse circumstances that act as barriers to good BRT systems, including varying quality in existing infrastructure, as well as minimal mandates for providing services to disabled populations.

In 1993, the U.N. developed a framework called “Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities”, but they are not compulsory for member states. The rules are meant to inform policy makers and governments. As it relates to transportation, the framework calls for services that are available to all people, particularly those with disabilities. There’s also the issue of accessibility, about which the U.N. says: states should remove obstacles to participation in areas like public transport services and other transportation modes; there should be adequate information on disability policy for planners and policy makers; and disabled persons should have access to information and communication.

Because international guidelines for inclusive design are optional, and not legislated in many countries, best practices are not consistently followed across the board. Rickert’s analysis and suggestions are important in that they show that universal design benefits a large percentage of users, not just those with apparent disabilities, and is not necessarily an expensive solution for just the few. If more decision makers understand that universally accessible BRT has significant benefits and broad appeal, they may be more likely to apply the recommended design principles. Furthermore, because many cities opt for BRT as a cost-effective and efficient transportation solution, it is necessary to continue to improve BRT implementation so that it better serves vulnerable, low-income and disabled populations.

We summed up some major accessibility challenges with BRT and the solutions Rickert offers.

Design for disability can include a broad population, including those with hidden disabilities.

Rickert says that for every wheelchair user, there are up to four people using canes or crutches or some other form of mobility aid. Three-quarters of BRT inclusive design features provide at least some benefit to all passengers (that’s a pretty staggering find), while only 11 percent of such features exclusively serve passengers with mobility, sensory or cognitive disabilities. He also points out that many people have hidden disabilities like deafness or heart conditions, which pose difficulty in counting passengers with impairments and in finding accurate data. Thus, implementing accessible BRT systems is not simply about providing access for wheelchair users. Also, good solutions generate increased ridership from those with disabilities, further economizing a BRT system with universal design in mind.

Traditionally planners have assumed “paratransit” will suffice for people with disabilities based on outdated assumptions that those with disabilities have distinct travel patterns different from the population at large.

Rickert says that the origins and destinations of trips by wheelchair users tend to mirror travel patterns of all passengers. He notes that at least in cities where the culture of independent living is replacing that of “institutionalization of people with disabilities,”  people with disabilities are not concentrated in one area, as is often thought to be the case. Therefore the transportation system cannot be accessible only at limited points, but must be universally accessible.

Passengers are limited by problems with pedestrian bridges and crossings.

Pedestrian bridges can fatigue walkers and pose difficulty for use by different populations. Rickert says that too often pedestrian bridges are constructed supposedly for the safety of pedestrians when the real reason is to remove people from the roadway to improve vehicle flow. Plus, stairs prohibit users with limited mobility. Rickert also points out that people with disabilities should cross with everyone else.

From the standpoint of accessibility, the solutions to better pedestrian crossings are, in preferred order:

  1. Ground-level crossings controlled by traffic lights (this is the best choice.)
  2. Bridges or tunnels equipped with elevators, though these systems can be difficult to maintain.
  3. Tunnels with incline ramps that follow international standards. One advantage is that tunnels result in less of a level change than elevated walkways. However, tunnels can pose security issues and maintenance problems.
  4. Bridges with inclined ramps that follow international standards are the least preferred solution for passengers with disabilities. Since pedestrian bridges over roads are often required at some BRT stations (i.e. because of roadway geometry), Rickert cautions: “care should be taken that passengers do not instead choose the alternative of crossing a dangerous roadway to reach the BRT station more rapidly.”
An image of Seattle's BRT system, Swift. There's a small gap between the bus and platform, but they are about the same height. Photo by Oran Viriyincy.

An image of Seattle's BRT system, Swift. There's a small gap between the bus and platform, but they are about the same height. Photo by Oran Viriyincy.

The bus-platform gaps

The space between the bus and loading platforms can make boarding and exiting buses difficult for all passengers, specifically for children, elderly and those with disabilities.

Rickerts ranks the solutions as follows:

1.     Most Preferable: Completely eliminate the gap with a device. One such device is a boarding bridge (in use in Curitiba, Brazil, and Quito and Guayaquil, Ecuador.) Such a device might actually reduce boarding time because people can enter and exit more quickly.

2.     Second Option: Reduce space between the bus and platform – focus should be on reducing the vertical gap. Rickert highlights a few different methods in his study.

3.     Least preferable: Control the gap for other passengers as much as possible but focus on eliminating the gap for wheelchair users in particular. Examples include bus platforms and bus stops with matching heights that might include a short ramp.

4.     Carefully train drivers how to close the gap between bus and platform when entering a station.

Accessibility to BRT corridors

The quality of pedestrian infrastructure and feeder routes influences bus accessibility, since many cities lack proper roads, sidewalks or have sidewalks that are jammed or discontinuous, and certain neighborhoods are inaccessible to transit. However, BRT systems can help catalyze citywide improvements to pedestrian infrastructure. Rickert says, “a full-featured Bus Rapid Transit corridor thus may begin its life as an island of accessibility in the midst of a sea of inaccessibility,” drawing attention to how inaccessible a neighborhood is. As a result of the BRT system, neighborhoods may start to advocate for better access to bus routes and improved sidewalks.

An inclusive planning process

BRT providers should seek broad and varied input when developing plans; they should particularly strive for input from the NGO community and those with a variety of disabilities. Input from these stakeholders should also be solicited during the construction process and once the system is opened.

The report in context

This new report advances the discussion about universally accessible public infrastructure, acknowledging practical challenges and evaluating a range of design solutions from the point of view of people with disabilities. Just as with rail transit, there is a symbiotic relationship between BRT and universal design. As more developing countries embrace BRT as a cost-effective mass transit method, its implementation can be a means to deliver high-quality, efficient, accessible and comfortable transportation to all people, giving rise to more awareness and support for inclusive urban planning and development.

Aileen Carrigan contributed to this post.

The loading dock of a BRT system in Curitiba, Brazil. Photo via Inhabitat.com

The loading dock of a BRT system in Curitiba, Brazil. Photo via Inhabitat.com

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