Cities Are Getting Smarter. Are They Becoming More Accessible?

Smart Cities Are Promising, But They Also Might Be Erecting More Barriers

accessible citiesIn the summer of 2018, start-up companies Lime and Bird flooded the streets of my hometown of Dallas with their electric scooters, which were followed by Razor scooters in the fall. Lime brands itself as “Smart Mobility for the Modern World,” and its Web site says that the company “is founded on the simple idea that all communities deserve access to smart, affordable mobility” with the ultimate aim “to reduce dependence on personal automobiles for short-distance transportation and leave future generations with a cleaner, healthier planet.” Bird espouses similar beliefs: “Bird shares a mission with cities to reduce traffic congestion and carbon emissions by providing people with a safe, affordable, and environmentally friendly alternative to cars. Together, we can create a more livable city for our communities.”

Lime’s and Bird’s aims mirror many of their users’ desires for cities with cleaner air, safer streets and less traffic. But when I saw a wheelchair user attempting to navigate around a Lime scooter that had been abandoned on its side in the middle of a sidewalk, I wondered: Who are we creating more livable cities for? When tech companies such as Lime claim they are “smart mobility for the modern world,” whose mobility are they talking about, and who will be included in this everchanging, more technologically advanced world?

For everyone involved in the wheeled mobility segment — from people who use wheelchairs, to the manufacturers who design and produce wheelchairs, to the clinicians and assistive technology professionals who recommend and fit them — mobility is a human right, one that is often challenged by a myriad of obstacles to accessibility embedded in infrastructure and public services. For mainstream tech companies such as Bird and Lime, it seems mobility revolves around making already mobile able-bodied people more mobile.

Making mainstream mobility and transportation faster, cheaper and smarter is not inherently a bad thing, but if its implementation only accommodates the experiences and needs of able-bodied people, the result will be a world that leaves people with disabilities behind.

Smart Cities & Accessibility

Smart cities are urban areas that rely on various types of data collection from citizens and electronic devices to supply information that city planners, tech companies and other stakeholders use to manage city resources more efficiently. These resources include everything from transportation systems to energy usage to community services. The electric scooter is only one type of technology that is changing urban transportation and transforming cities in the hope of cutting down on fuel emissions and traffic within cities. Hydrogen buses, ride-sharing services, electric cars and autonomous vehicles are all included in visions of more economically and environmentally sustainable futures.

With accessibility obstacles embedded in current transportation systems and infrastructure, smart cities have an opportunity to integrate anew the needs of people with disabilities to ensure they are included in future urban landscapes. And their needs should be far from a niche concern for developers and designers, as the number of people with disabilities living in city centers is on the rise.

Currently, Pew Research Center reports that nearly 40 million Americans live with a disability, and the largest group within this 40 million comprises people with mobility-related disabilities. Additional data gathered by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research found that more than 6.8 million community-resident Americans use assistive devices, such as wheelchairs, scooters and walkers, to help them with mobility. More to the point, the population of disabled people living in city centers is increasing: Currently, 25 percent of people living in U.S. cities are seniors or are living with a disability, and by 2050, Pew estimates that worldwide, at least one in seven people will be a city dweller with a disability.

Despite the opportunity that smart cities have to provide better infrastructure and technology for people with disabilities, most smart cities do not seem to be accommodating people with disabilities much better than current cities do. The advocacy initiative Smart Cities for All found that 60 percent of the more than 400 global experts they surveyed from government, industry and academia agreed that smart cities are failing people with disabilities.

The Problem with Mobility Technology

Innovation in both private and public transportation is integral to smart city visions, and electric autonomous vehicles are included in plans for urban transportation overhauls. In addition to cutting down on fuel emissions and traffic collisions, autonomous vehicles are often viewed as beneficial for people with disabilities, providing mobility solutions for wheelchair users, the blind community and seniors. Do a basic Internet search on autonomous vehicles or self-driving cars, and you’ll see that most people think this sophisticated technology benefits people with disabilities.

Auto manufacturers, tech companies and members of Congress responsible for setting regulations for this sophisticated technology attest to its advantages for people with disabilities. But when Amy Schoppman, Director of Government Relations for the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA), hears people say that autonomous vehicles promise to revolutionize transportation for people with disabilities, she said, “I nod my head and smile, and I say, ‘How?’ And there is no answer.”

Schoppman has been working with Congress, federal agencies and various stakeholders in accessible transportation to help them understand the specific automotive mobility needs of people with disabilities before autonomous vehicles are deployed en masse to the streets. “We do all of that because people with disabilities and seniors with limited mobility are consistently identified as the obvious beneficiaries of autonomous vehicle technology,” Schoppman said.

“It’s often been stated in Congressional hearings and op-eds and agency press releases — nearly anything — that this transportation revolution is coming and is going to be a total game-changer for these specific populations who really deserve to have more options for public or private transportation. It sounds great from a political and social perspective. Who’s going to disagree that autonomous vehicles hold promise for people with disabilities? Because absolutely, they do. But part of what NMEDA is working towards is ensuring that these populations aren’t being exploited for PR purposes and that autonomous vehicle developers have a real intention and are using accurate information to make these systems accessible and safe.”

Autonomous vehicles can in theory provide mobility solutions for people with disabilities; the problem is that in implementation, they don’t because the very design and structure of autonomous vehicles do not account for the needs of this population. Existing autonomous vehicles suggest they are built with able-bodied people in mind. For wheelchair users to be able to use this technology, developers must consider the frame of the vehicle, the design and structure, and the interior space.

For example, autonomous cars are electric because they lend themselves more naturally to the computer software required to make them autonomous, and electric cars, even without self-driving features, cannot accommodate wheelchairs. Schoppman explained that in an electric car, the large and heavy battery is in the floor of the car, not the hood, so the floor can’t be cut out, lowered and replaced to accommodate a wheelchair. “The battery is not something that is like a little siren that you can put on top of the vehicle or just move it someplace else. Right now, that’s where they are,” Schoppman said.

Even if the design of the vehicle itself was built to accommodate a wheelchair, use of these vehicles in public transportation, ride sharing and on-demand services like that of Lyft and Uber bring even more questions. Public transportation is already an obstacle for many wheelchair users, with four of five users reporting to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research that their local public transportation is difficult to use or even get to. But as challenging as current public transportation is, a person with experience and training is available to assist a wheelchair user in securing their wheelchair if needed. What happens if there is no driver to assist?

Schoppman considers a stable of questions: “Are we taking into consideration individuals who have what are typically referred to as high-level disabilities? And if a high-level quadriplegic in a power chair wants to on-demand order an autonomous vehicle, how do they interact with the application if they don’t have use of their hands? How do they enter and exit the vehicle if they cannot wheel themselves up a ramp? How can we ensure that their personal mobility devices are appropriately and safely secured within the vehicle?”

To this end, NMEDA has been able to make inroads with members of Congress who will be responsible for determining the regulations and exemptions for this technology. The SELF DRIVE Act (H.R. 3388), introduced in the House in July 2017, sought to establish the federal government’s role in ensuring the safety, development and deployment of self-driving cars. It also included very specific language regarding accessibility: “DOT [Department of Transportation] must … establish the Highly Automated Vehicle Advisory Council to, among other things, develop guidance regarding mobility access for the disabled, elderly, and underserved populations.”

The SELF DRIVE Act passed the House in September 2017, but it died in the Senate as the newly titled AV Start act. Still, Schoppman sees this as a success because it’s a real move in the right direction toward starting a serious conversation about accessibility and smart technology. “What we wanted to do with both of those bills, and we were successful in both the House and the Senate, was to ensure that language was included,” Schoppman explained. “It’s really a first step to ensuring that public transportation and privately owned autonomous vehicles, whether they’re for personal use or ride shares or some kind of on-demand service, are accessible and safe for American seniors and people with disabilities.”

The Problem of Infrastructure

Even if the technology itself could accommodate people with disabilities, there is still the problem of infrastructure. “The roads to which those vehicles would be exposed are not currently prepared from an infrastructure standpoint to accommodate autonomous vehicles,” Schoppman said. “The testing they’re doing is conducted on private tracks. It’s usually in good weather, places like Arizona, and in environments that are contained or relatively simple, like campuses or retirement communities.”

The real-world landscapes in which these vehicles would operate are much more complex: crowded urban areas, deteriorating roadways, and areas that experience inclement weather. This is a problem for any individual who uses this technology, but for wheelchair users who have less control over their environment, the problem is much more acute. For example, Schoppman asked, “What happens when a driverless vehicle pulls up to whatever location the wheelchair-using passenger wishes to arrive at, and the door automatically opens, and the ramp or exit system deploys in front of a six-foot pile of snow that’s just been shoved there by the city cleanup crew? Is the vehicle going to be able to detect that?”

Both the technology and the infrastructure must be designed with accessibility in mind, which requires cooperation and communication among federal and local government agencies, stakeholders and organizations and individuals who have the expertise to know what does and does not work for wheelchair users and people with disabilities. As Schoppman said, “We have to have these conversations and consider these elements in advance if we’re really going to produce these life-changing outcomes that everyone talks about so often.”

These are the types of conversations that Jennifer Sanders is interested in having to make things right for wheelchair users the first time. Sanders is the Executive Director and co-founder of the Dallas Innovation Alliance (DIA), a nonprofit, public-private partnership executing a smart city plan for Dallas. Currently, she is focused on implementing projects in South Dallas, but first the DIA needed to understand the unique equity and access challenges faced by those specific residents. “I’ve taken a year to a year and a half to make sure that I’ve met with community organizations and leaders, and I sat down and listened,” Sanders said. “I think so often people come in and say, ‘Congratulations! We’ve solved this problem for you!’, but no one has talked to the community and it’s not aligned with what they actually need. It’s based on a very distant perception. I think with any vulnerable population, listening first is critical.”

Dallas is no exception when it comes to problems of infrastructure. Sanders pointed out that Dallas was not initially designed as a pedestrian city — a reality reflected in the city’s infrastructure. To tackle the challenges that an already inaccessible infrastructure presents, Sanders said, “We look first at what we have, what do we need and where is the data that allows us to make the decisions of where those investments need to go in terms of getting existing infrastructure up to that kind of base layer? And then we look at the technology to make sure that it’s integrated in a way that makes sure that all populations are being served.”

Sanders explained, for instance, “If we’re taking into account that we know there are seven assisted living facilities within a certain three-mile radius, we need to make sure that services are heavily focused there.” Sometimes this includes adding a basic need, such as a sidewalk, before any advanced technology can be supported.

This is where bringing in the right people matters. Smart cities and smart technologies run on data collection to feed their algorithms that in turn tell developers how and where to make improvements to anything from watering systems to traffic flow. That’s why it is crucial that data collection does not come from homogeneous able-bodied groups — when that happens, technologies become better and smarter for some while becoming increasingly inaccessible for others.

Sanders offers the example of integrating smart traffic signals to mitigate traffic flow. “What is the need for?” she asked. “How do you have those algorithms also correspond with pedestrians? Because if you can shorten a signal time to help with traffic flow, that’s great for cars. But what if there’s pedestrians in the crosswalk? If you shorten a crosswalk timing, you leave that population at risk.”

Beyond considering pedestrians with no mobility challenges, the data would need to become even more granular and targeted to account for wheelchair users and other people who use mobility assistive devices. “From a mobility perspective, you have to look at the multimodal impacts and all of those populations when you create new strategies and zoning policies — all of those elements,” Sanders explained.

What Stakeholders Can Do

Despite all these criticisms, smart cities do hold potential promise to remove accessibility barriers for people with disabilities, allowing them to participate more fully in the social and cultural life of their neighborhoods. But the promise will remain only a potential until the needs and experiences of people with disabilities are prioritized in the design and development stage of smart cities.

In addition to NMEDA working on the federal government level, advocacy groups and nonprofit organizations heavily focused on city planning around the country are making inroads in their local areas to make sure their voices are heard in both the civic and public sectors. Sanders recommended joining one of these local groups because those groups provide a direct line of communication to city representation, tech startups and other stakeholders. “Having that advocacy that’s directly engaging is really important,” she said.

Sanders also suggested learning which departments in the city focus on smart development. “Often it is within the IT departments and the innovation and infrastructure departments. Those are really great contacts that perhaps don’t seem like the most direct connection, but those are the folks that are doing the infrastructure planning and would pull a lot of that information in.”

The fast-approaching future of cities is exciting. But before cities can become smart, they must become accessible. Otherwise, they risk duplicating existing barriers to accessibility or even making them worse.