By Justin Jones, Project Planner, WSP in Canada
In recent years, Canada has seen a significant increase in physically separated cycling infrastructure across its communities. While these facilities improve comfort for people on bikes, they have also introduced new challenges, particularly related to the mobility needs of people with disabilities. As practitioners have taken steps to separate people on bikes from motor vehicles there have been instances where the needs of people with disabilities have not been considered, further restricting the mobility and comfort of a population that already experiences some of the most significant barriers to access in our communities.
One of the most prominent examples of this issue was highlighted by the 2020 BC Human Rights Tribunal ruling. The case involved the design of an island platform bus stop on Victoria’s Pandora Avenue, which was found to infringe upon the human rights of people who are blind. This ruling garnered significant attention and prompted municipalities across Canada to reevaluate their designs of similar facilities, only to realize the absence of unified best practices. The variation in designs for island platform bus stops, without a consistent set of guidelines or a thorough understanding of diverse user needs, had become a national issue.
Responding to these concerns, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) organized a well-attended panel on cycling facility design at their "Clearing Our Path" Summit in 2022, which focuses on emerging guidance and challenges in built environment design. The panel, moderated by Matt Pinder from WSP, underscored the necessity to reexamine the design of island platform bus stops. This led to the CNIB securing a grant from the Government of Canada’s Active Transportation Infrastructure Fund in early 2023 to investigate these designs more thoroughly.
In partnership with CNIB, WSP embarked on a nationwide research project, assessing island platform bus stops in five different Canadian cities through the experiences of people with vision loss. The innovative research approach, led by Yousteena Bocktor, Engineer at WSP Canada, combined a review of best practices and literature, in-person walk-throughs of existing stops, and collaboration with municipal stakeholders. The team leveraged WSP’s international expertise by consulting with Jared Thomas, Technical Principal - Behavioural Science, WSP New Zealand, who shared his insights on similar research done by WSP New Zealand. This comprehensive study not only illuminated the specific needs of people who are blind but also offered valuable guidance for municipalities planning to install new island platform bus stops.
WSP's Project Manager Justin Jones piloting a Tandem Bicycle with the CNIB's Project Manager, Lui Greco at WSP's Bike and Hike to Your Roots event, held at Ottawa during the 2023 TAC Conference & Exhibition
A crucial outcome of the study was the explicit recognition of the needs of people who are blind in relation to the design of island platform bus stops. While these stops serve the needs of sighted transit users, transit operators, and people on bikes by enhancing safety and convenience, the specific requirements of people with vision loss were previously not well understood. The study delved into the previously identified challenges faced by individuals who are blind, especially their difficulties in detecting people on bikes and navigating the right of way at crossings. The near-silent movement of bicycles in urban settings creates significant challenges for people who rely on auditory cues for navigation. For a person who is blind, it can be nearly impossible to detect a person on a bike as they approach, much less to ensure that they will yield the right of way at the crossing of the bike lane, further adding to the sense of risk introduced by this design.
What was missing from previous reviews of island platform transit stops, however, was a comprehensive review of issues that extend beyond the interaction with people on bikes. People with vision loss faced hurdles in finding and navigating to the bus stops, exacerbated by the inconsistency in design. The study highlighted the need for uniformity in the placement of stops, design elements like the stop pole, crossings, and shelters, and even in the naming of these facilities across Canada. It emphasized incorporating design elements that aid in locating and accessing the island platform, such as shelters for echolocation, detectable separation between sidewalks and cycle tracks, directional TWSIs (tactile walking surface indicator), and clearly defined crossing points. The project also recommended reducing clutter on platforms to facilitate easier navigation.
The challenges presented by interactions with people on bikes are not easy to solve through design but can be mitigated with some thoughtful interventions. These include ensuring that shelter side panels do not obstruct visibility, narrowing cycle tracks, introducing sharp tapers, and providing raised crossings to emphasize the importance of yielding to pedestrians. While complete compliance might be challenging to achieve, these measures can foster safer interactions between cyclists and people with vision loss.
The collaboration between WSP and the CNIB drew on WSP’s national expertise and international experience to substantially improve the understanding of the needs of people who are blind regarding island platform bus stop designs in Canada. By focusing on consistency, detectability, and safe interaction with cyclists, the study provides a framework for municipalities to develop more inclusive and accessible public transportation facilities. This project demonstrates WSP’s commitment to innovation as we partner with our clients to solve the challenges of today while planning for tomorrow, creating guidelines and solutions that truly create Great Places For Life.