For the blind, shared streets and smartphone apps have downsides

Advocates for the blind say the lack of curbs in some 'shared streets' designs, such as this one in Guangzhou, China, can be disorienting. (NACTO)

Denver’s 16th Street Mall is a vibrant tree-lined pedestrian boulevard with restaurants, boutiques, and the occasional street performer. In many places, wide sidewalks slope gently, almost imperceptibly, into the street. The curb-free design is meant to send a positive sign to pedestrians — the street is their space, too.

But Claudia Folska finds it unnerving. Folska, a director on the Denver Regional Transportation District board, began losing her sight to degenerative retinal disease at age five. She says designs such as wide “virtual corners” leave pedestrians with sight loss nothing to indicate the shift from sidewalk to road — meaning they could find themselves in the middle of an intersection before they know it.

“A few years ago, someone decided to take away the corners,” she says. Now, buses sometimes make tighter turns, cutting into the virtual corners — a risk for the blind. “When a human is in a conflict with a vehicle, the human loses 100 percent of the time.”

For the sighted, the idea of ‘shared’ or ‘complete’ streets is an innovation meant to restore balance between people and automobiles. Such spaces are shared by vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians, who acknowledge and give way to each other in a complex dance. Shared streets calm traffic, make downtowns more walkable, and often give local businesses a boost.

But they don’t work for everyone — especially not people who are blind.

“As an architect, I fully understand and appreciate the intention — to slow or calm traffic,” says Chris Downey, a San Francisco architect who lost his sight in 2008. “But there are all sorts of challenges. The rules are inherently different. That whole system is based on negotiation between pedestrians and drivers to negotiate the right of way, and that negotiation is facilitated through eye contact.

[See: 4 ideas from 4 continents: helping the blind navigate cities]

“If you’re blind, subtlety isn’t your friend,” Downey continues. “A curb gives great clarity; you can’t accidentally walk off the curb and into the street.” Downey recommends cities install textured guide strips in these areas to indicate where the sidewalk ends. Denver has installed these strips at some of those virtual corners.

Shared streets are one well-meaning urban solution that doesn’t quite work for the blind. The growing ecosystem of smartphone apps is another, although there has been progress when it comes to wayfinding.

Last year, the San Francisco airport began installing location-marking beacon technology to help blind travellers find their way around indoors, where GPS systems do not work. The bottlecap-sized beacons connect to a smartphone app to help users find the security area, coffee shops, or even power outlets in the wall. Location beacons are also being tested in London’s Heathrow airport, major department stores, tourist attractions, and across the city of Warsaw.

Folska and Downey agree that these apps offer great convenience for those who wish to use them — and they have the potential to be useful for everyone, sighted or not.

“It brings the GPS environment into the indoor environment where GPS doesn’t penetrate,” Downey says. “There’s no database of road maps for the inside of every airport.”

But, he adds, there ought to be standards for such applications, the way map applications use the same GPS system anywhere in the world. By contrast, indoor wayfinding works differently from one app to the next. “Nothing’s worse than having to download an app for every single place you go to.”

At the same time, people with sight loss still need navigation skills, Downey says. “GPS will get you there and it gets you close, but it doesn’t tell you how to get around safely.”

Meanwhile, Folska doesn’t own a smartphone at all. She prefers to pre-plan her route meticulously — where she is going, how many stops or how long it will take to get there, and how she will get back.

She adds: “Even if you build the perfect [accessible] environment with all the money in the world, the challenge is overcoming the stereotypes and fears that people without disabilities have about people with disabilities,” Folska says. In the end, there’s no substitute for a simple human willingness to help someone in need.

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Grace Chua is an award-winning journalist who covers science and the environment, from national climate change policy to community anti-littering projects.   Full bio

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