It’s not the bus that’s inaccessible

Imagine you could travel to only 1% of the city where you live – areas that were easily accessible to other residents. The main problem is it’s not the bus system itself that’s inaccessible. It’s all the infrastructure around it such as footpaths and kerb ramps. That’s the claim by researchers in Columbus, Ohio.

“People with mobility disabilities need to get to and from bus stops to use public transportation, and that isn’t easy in many parts of the city.”

The roadway is marked with the words "bus stop" in yellow lettering.

The study of wheelchair users who rely on public transport, found that powered wheelchair users were a little better off than manual users. The researchers used high-resolution, real-time data on the usage of buses by people with and without disabilities.

In one analysis, the researchers found how many of the bus stops could get users to various places in the city within 30 minutes. Manual wheelchair users had 75% fewer bus stops they could use compared with non-disabled users. For powered wheelchair users, they experienced 59% fewer stops. Even when they gave them more time to complete the journey, it was little better. That means wheelchair users are confined to self-segregated parts of the city.

Public transit is not a business, it is not just a social service.  It is crucial urban infrastructure and footpaths are part of that.

Ohio Theatre facade showing a level footpath and kerb ramp for the crossing. It isn't the bus that's inaccessible.

The title of the article is, Why buses can’t get wheelchair users to most areas of cities. It was published on the website.

The research paper is titled, Disparities in public transit accessibility and usage by people with mobility disabilities. You will need institutional access for a free read.


Many people with mobility disabilities (PwMD) rely on public transit to access crucial resources and maintain social interactions. However, they face higher barriers to accessing and using public transit, leading to disparities between people with and without mobility disabilities.

In this paper, we use high-resolution public transit real-time vehicle data, passenger count data, and paratransit usage data from 2018 to 2021 to estimate and compare transit accessibility and usage of people with and without mobility disabilities. We find large disparities in powered and manual wheelchair users’ accessibility relative to people without disabilities.

The city center has the highest accessibility and ridership, as well as the highest disparities in accessibility. Our scenario analysis illustrates the impacts of sidewalks on accessibility disparities among the different groups. We also find that PwMD using fixed-route service are more sensitive to weather conditions and tend to ride transit in the middle of the day rather than during peak hours.

Further, the spatial pattern of bus stop usage by PwMD is different than people without disabilities, suggesting their destination choices can be driven by access concerns. During the COVID-19 pandemic, accessibility disparities increased in 2020, and PwMD disproportionately avoided public transit during 2020, but used it disproportionately more during 2021 compared to riders without disabilities.

This paper is the first to examine PwMD’s transit experience with large high-resolution datasets and holistic analysis incorporating both accessibility and usage. The results fill in these imperative scientific gaps and provide valuable insights for future transit planning.

Design guide for active travel

This design guide aims to improve infrastructure for people wanting to walk, cycle, scoot, and ride mobility devices. That means anyone and everyone who is not a driver of a motor vehicle. This is part of the ACT Government’s policy is to support active travel.

In the Canberra context, unless designated, all paths are shared by people walking, wheeling, cycling and using mobility aids.

Few people fully understand road rules, which is why design treatments must indicate that pedestrians have priority.

A diagram of an intersection taking from the Design Guide .

People using mobility devices and older people are given the label of “vulnerable” pedestrians. This is default language in transport jargon, but serves, unfortunately, to reinforce stereotypes. In reality, all pedestrians are vulnerable compared to motor vehicles.

When all pedestrians are incorporated into designs, we should just talk about “pedestrians walking and wheeling”. And with a Safe Systems Approach there should be no delineation between who is safer than whom.

Movement and Place framework

The Movement and Place framework together with a Safe Systems approach puts people into the centre of the frame. The lens has always been on vehicle traffic flows and the convenience and economics of reducing traffic delays. If we are to have active travel really happening, we have to re-think this priority.

The Design Guide is comprehensive and serves as a “how-to” tool for transport planners. It covers:

  • principles of safe design
  • street types
  • walking
  • cycling and micromobility
  • intersection principles and elements
  • signalisation
  • pedestrian and cycling provision at intersections
  • public transport
  • intersection guidance
Photo of a cycle path from the ACT Design Guide.

The 63 page guide is in its final draft and comments closed 2 June 2023. The title of the guide is, Design Guide: Best practices for urban intersections and other active travel infrastructure in the ACT.

There is also a draft active travel plan on the ACT Government website.

Images are from the Design Guide.

Road rules should put walking first

Do vehicles cross pedestrian paths of travel, or do pedestrians cross vehicle paths of travel? We probably assume that unless it is a designated pedestrian crossing, vehicles have the right of way. “Giving way” is complicated. Drivers must exercise duty of care, so whose fault is it if there is a collision with a pedestrian? Janet Wahlquist of WalkSydney, says road rules should put walking first. That includes wheeling as well.

Drivers must always give way to pedestrians if there is danger of colliding with them, however pedestrians should not rely on this and should take great care when crossing any road.

Two women using wheelie walkers are crossing the road in a country town.

However, the above statement is not supported by a road rule, according to Wahlquist. Does this mean a slow moving person can’t cross the street because they might cause a collision? The law gives the benefit of doubt to the driver who can choose whether to give way or not. A person walking into a car makes no sense, but a car hitting a person is life threatening. Wahlquist references the UK Manual for Streets which reverses our ideas of who has right of way.

A diagram showing the order of who should be considered first. The order is Pedestrians, Cyclists, Public Transport Users, Specialist service vehicles, and last, other motor traffic in the road rules.

A recommended hierarchy of street users from the UK Manual for Streets.

Pedestrians first

Public policy aims to promote walking (and wheeling) but preference is still given to motor traffic. However, drivers and pedestrians alike are not aware of the current road rules of who gives way to whom and under what circumstances. This is particularly important for slow moving pedestrians who fear a collision if they are not quick enough to cross the road.

The title of Wahlquist’s article is, Why road rules should be rewritten to put walking first. The article presents a good arguments for putting pedestrians first. The article was originally published in The Conversation. There is a 2010 update to the Manual for Streets.

Intersections as continuous footpaths

“We believe all intersections without signals – whether marked, courtesy, or unmarked – be legally treated as marked pedestrian crossings. (It might help to mark them to remind drivers of this.) We should think of these intersections as spaces where vehicles cross an implicit continuous footpath, rather than as places where people cross a vehicular lane.”

Manual for Streets

Motor vehicles have dominated road design and road rules for most of the last century. With public policy promoting walking and wheeling this has to change. With this in mind, the UK Government’s Manual for Streets gives pedestrians a higher priority on streets and roads.

Research carried out in the preparation of Manual for Streets indicated that many of the criteria routinely applied in street design are based on questionable or outdated practice.

Street patterns last for decades so we have to get them right for the future.

Front cover of the Manual for Streets showing a residential street scene with a child in the foreground.

The Manual for Streets begins with a rationale and context. The main body of the document covers design principles and detailed design issues. It includes:

  • Layout and connectivity
  • Street users’ needs
  • Parking
  • Traffic signage
  • Street furniture and lighting
  • Materials and maintenance

The likelihood of walking goes beyond a level, uninterrupted footway. It is influenced by the quality of the walking experience and how safe people feel. Design that accommodates the needs of children and people with disability will suit all users.

Pedestrians need easy ways to cross the street in their line of travel. The Manual advises that there should be little need for dedicated cycle lanes, but doesn’t advise sharing space with pedestrians. Rather, they should share the roadway space. These ideas might have changed more recently.

This is a large document but there is also an 8 page summary document, which is great for an overview. The Manual was published in 2007, but the ideas remain current because there is still more work to do. Although it is a UK publication, much is transferrable to Australian conditions.

Manual for Streets 2

An update to the Manual for Streets was published in 2010 and builds on the guidance contained in the original document. It explores in greater detail how key principles can be applied to busier streets and roads.

Universal design and psychosocial disabilities

The COVID 19 pandemic has given rise to new thoughts about planning and design of the built environment including public transportation. People with psychosocial disabilities respond in different ways to situations. Travelling was easier for some because of less crowding, but others feared contamination. Facial masks increased anxiety in some, but others found that people not wearing masks a problem. This is where a universal design approach can help.

” … universal design should include the social and organisation environments, in addition to physical design, in terms of making the transport system accessible to everyone.”

A man stands on a train platform looking at his smartphone. He is wearing a hat and has a bright yellow backpack.

Between 20% and 25% of the population have a mental illness at any given time. People with psychosocial disabilities travel less than others leading to social isolation and worsening symptoms. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that by 2030 mental health conditions will be the leading burden of disease.

Improving travel with universal design

Few studies include mental health with reference to universal design. Anja Fleten Nielsen’s study asks “How can a broad understanding of universal design be used to improve travel for people with psychosocial disability?” She investigated the impact of COVID-19 and the main barriers to using public transport.

Nielsen’s study involved in-depth interviews focusing on barriers, travel behaviour during the pandemic and suggested solutions. Recruiting participants was difficult in terms of getting written consent – signing a consent form could raise anxiety levels. Nielsen explains more about methods and the literature review.

The key results are fell into: physical environment, social environment, organisational environment, and individual aspects.

The roadway is marked with the words "bus stop" in yellow lettering.

Physical environment: Crowding, important information during the journey, lack of toilet facilities and sensory overload.

Social environment: Negative experiences with fellow passengers and interaction with transport personnel, and being afraid to ask for help.

Organisational environment: Availability and ease of access, and lack of seamlessness between modes with long waiting times.

Individual level: Planning difficulties, travel induced fatigue and financial barriers.

COVID-19 made barriers more apparent

Nielsen’s paper discusses each of the four aspects in detail. The pandemic increased symptoms in many participants and has made them more visible to transport planners. To answer the question about universal design, Nielsen claims that environmental factors are of greater importance. This is because the individual factors are related to special and customised solutions.

The title of the study is, Universal design for people with psychosocial disabilities – The effect of COVID-19.

Planners and designers need to look beyond physical impairments. Universal design is just as relevant for people with psychosocial disabilities. Social and organisational environments are of equal importance for this group. These are factors that also improve journey experiences for the travelling public.

From the abstract

During and after the pandemic, most informants travelled less and/or used their car more than before. Some stopped using public transport due to fear of contamination, while others found it easier to travel during the pandemic due to less crowding.

Use of facial masks were perceived by some as an additional problem increasing anxiety, while others found it more problematic with fellow passengers not wearing masks. In general, findings support prior studies in terms of barriers related to crowding, lack of seamlessness, financial issues, problems with staff, lack of access in rural areas, and low knowledge of support systems.

Lack of toilet facilities, negative experiences with other passengers, sensory overload, travel-induced fatigue, and problems related to planning are considered problematic. Station areas may pose a barrier for people with former drug addictions. Hence, universal design should include the social and organisation environments, in addition to physical design, in terms of making the transport system accessible to everyone.

Access and inclusion for transport in Queensland

Different government departments are responsible for different aspects of transport services and infrastructure. Consequently, not only do we “mind the gap” at the platform, we have to mind the gaps elsewhere in the system. And these gaps are sometimes just too wide for some people with disability. Queensland’s department of Transport and Main Roads seeks to overcome these gaps with their Access and Inclusion Strategy.

Queensland is a popular tourist destination and accessible tourism needs accessible travel to support this sector. Queensland is also hosting the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games and this has provided an extra reason to get things right.

A boy in a powered wheelchair is mounting the ramp into the Queensland Rail train. A woman stands behind him and the station guard looks on. A man with a baby stroller and boy wait nearby to enter the train carriage. The image is from the Access and Inclusion webpage.

The Access and Inclusion Strategy aims to create a single integrated network accessible to everyone. The Strategy was developed in consultation with customers, employees and partners, and it covers services, products, information and infrastructure.

The Accessibility and Inclusion Plan 2023-2024 supports the Accessibility and Inclusion Strategy. The Plan has 27 actions across three key pillars: strategy, culture and process.

The web pages for the Strategy and the Plan have a summary and links to alternative formats of the documents including Auslan and a narrated version. There are alternative language summaries and video transcripts as well. An Easy English version is missing though.

New mobility and universal design

On one hand, new mobility technology increases opportunities to improve transport systems. But on the other, the technology is unevenly distributed in terms of access and inclusion. This means many will be left out, especially those with reduced mobility. 

The new technology can create unintended barriers: physical, technological, economic and mental – each one a challenge to universal design. Public policy also has a role to play in reducing barriers to mobility.

Norway has a whole of government universal design policy and has done good work in making public transport accessible. However, many advancements require digital skills in using smartphone apps and electronic ticketing. And that’s just one universal design challenge. 

The challenges to universal design and new mobility are discussed in a book chapter by Jørgen Aarhaug. The chapter title is, Universal Design and Transport Innovations: A Discussion of New Mobility Solutions Through a Universal Design Lens. It’s open access.

From the abstract

Most technological advances in mobility result in better accessibility for many, yet the benefits remain unevenly distributed. New and improved mobility technologies typically result in increased mobility. However, most new technologies create both winners and losers. Who wins and who loses depends on how the mobility solution in question is introduced to the mobility system.

This study finds that many of the new mobility technologies that are introduced, though not directly relating to universal design, strongly affect the universality of access to mobility.

The chapter aims to give insight into how certain new mobility solutions affect different user groups, and to highlight how the outcome is a function of the interplay between technology and its implementation. The paper concludes by pointing to the need for regulation to align the objectives of the actors behind new technologies and an inclusive society.

Automated vehicles: mobility and accessibility

The transportation and mobility sector has a design history focused on infrastructure efficiencies. User perspectives are being introduced in other sectors and it is time for the mobility sector to catch up. 

An article from Norway discusses the issues introducing universal design and co-creation.  The author uses three vignettes to highlight some of the issues users encounter. 

The title of the article is, Automated Vehicles Empowering Mobility of Vulnerable Groups – and the Pathway to Achieve This.

From the abstract

Many people in Europe still have limited access to transportation modes overall. Socio-economic constraints, and cognitive, sensory and physical impairments affect everyday life, posing challenges to accessing mobility services.

Technologies for vehicle automation have advanced in recent decades. Yet, the implementation and use of automated and autonomous vehicles (jointly referred to as AVs) entails chances but also hurdles regarding accessibility and inclusivity of vulnerable groups.

This concerns both the use of the vehicle by humans as well as the interaction between humans and vehicles as participants in road traffic.

In this chapter, we identify opportunities and risks narrow down the vulnerable social groups we are looking at. Subsequently, we present the benefits that co-creation and universal design can have in overcoming or, in the best case, avoiding these obstacles.

Detailed recommendations for action cannot be given within this framework, but suggestions for solutions are outlined.


Train station design

The Design Council in the UK has published a full report of the work they did on train station design. The aim of the project was to find a generic train station design that could be rolled out on the various rail networks. For this they undertook some serious community engagement. 

A concept image of the train station design. It's an aerial view showing how the station fits into the existing residential area.

The majority of rail stations are small to medium size situated in the heart of local communities. This is why they have to deliver more than just trains for commuters. 

The community engagement process gave architects design concepts that work as a whole or a kit of parts. This works well when upgrading existing train stations. Key design elements are

The clocktower – acts as a beacon to help identify the station and orientate people.

The welcome mat – extends the public space outside the station. It creates space between people and cars, inviting people to spend time here.

The activity framework – can be adapted to the needs of each place. Provides space for local communities and small enterprises alongside station facilities.

The photovoltaic canopy – even the smallest stations will include a timber framed platform canopy with integrated PV panels.

The pods – create extra shelter under the platform canopy or activity framework. These can include space for passenger facilities such as waiting rooms, toilets or a ticket office. 

Train stations are evolving from a focus on rail infrastructure to a focus on passengers and the local community. This is how you do universal design – with a focus on users.

The full report of the process and the outcomes is documented in Explore Station: Building momentum for a future passenger hub.


Universal design and future of transport

What will transport in the future look like, and will it be universally designed? Engineers Australia’s new discussion paper takes a fresh look at transport systems and infrastructure. That means taking a long-term view of the relationship with community, government policy and regulations. A big job with lot of dots to join up. 

Front cover of the future of transport discussion paper. Transport systems are designed to move people and freight, but they need different things. If we are to reduce emissions, we need innovative transport options. That means talking to consumers – passengers, pedestrians, drivers, and riders. It also means revising regulations and digital infrastructure. 

The title of the discussion paper is The future of transport. The section on access for all discusses universal access in terms of people with “mobility challenges”. Reference is made to the the Universal design for transport discussion paper and lists the benefits of accessible transport.

Benefits include better access to employment opportunities and participation, and enhancing quality of life. Getting the design right at the beginning saves money, increases patronage and enhances economic activity. The next section has more information on the earlier universal design for transport paper. 

Engineers Australia welcomes feedback on the latest discussion paper to help inform future work. To provide feedback please email 

Front cover of the Universal design for transport discussion paper.Universal design for transport

The paper’s purpose commences with disability statistics followed by reference to disability discrimination legislation and standards. There is a list of benefits and some case studies followed by recommendations. Although the document uses “universal design” in the title, it uses “universal access”. Not quite the same thing. 


The recommendations from Universal design for transport are:

1. Recognise that compliance alone doesn’t mean good accessibility – focus on universal access.
2. Support the DSAPT (Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport) modernisation process.
3. Leverage existing programs (fleet purchasing, major projects) to get universal access outcomes.
4. Need for long term program and state commitment to retrofitting existing infrastructure to achieve DSAPT standards – including a funding commitment.
5. Make more use of state-based accessibility groups in understanding solutions and prioritisation of finite funding- i.e., maximise accessible benefits.
6. Need to make sure there is access to public transport for those who are reliant on public transport for mobility due to their disability, including in regional areas.
7. Leverage technological advances including internet of things (IOT) and artificial intelligence into wayfinding, access to services etc.
8. Engineers and designers (and regulators) need to have agile mindset to new technologies and ways of providing accessible transport options.
9. Opportunities for new vehicles to be designed for more accessibility- zero emission busses (ZEBs), new trams and trains.
10. Universal access needs to be a guiding principle through the design process not post-design check.
11. Harmonise public transport and active transport infrastructure design standards and best operating practices.
12. Subject matter experts should be engaged at project commencement to identify appropriate standards that lead to good accessibility outcomes.

Universal design should be part of land-use planning, transport planning, and sustainable development, not just equity and inclusion.

The Universal Design for Transport: Transport Australia Society Discussion Paper was published in April 2022

The future of transport discussion paper was published January 2023. To provide feedback please email 


Shared space on streets and roads

Perceptions of safe walking and cycling routes relate more to visual separation than physical barriers. Bushes provide little, if any, protection for pedestrians and cyclists, but they are sufficient to give a sense of safety. That was a finding in a new report from Germany. So the issues related to shared space on streets and roads is more about the sense of separation not provided by road markings.

Shared space on streets and roads is often contested space. In urban settings, shared space also includes sharing with buildings, street furniture, kiosks, trees and other vegetation.

A cycle-way divided by yellow bollards with a man on an e-scooter and a man on bicycle travelling in opposite directions. Pedestrians are visible on the separated footway.

Many pedestrians avoid shared paths due to the likelihood of cyclists approaching suddenly or silently. It makes them feel unsafe. Cyclists find they need to concentrate more when sharing space with pedestrians. So it seems the shared pathway experiment needs a serious review. What better way than to ask pedestrians and cyclists?

A total of 408 participants took part in a study on this topic. Four options were provided to participants using 3D virtual presentations followed by a survey. The four options for dividing shared space were, bollards, stones, bushes and no treatment. Both pedestrians and cyclists put bushes as their first preference and no treatment as their last preference. Visual separation in the form of lines or road and path marking are considered an insufficient solution.

The study also shows the importance of involving street and road users in design decision processes.

While the researchers challenged the concept of user integration, they do not recommend eliminating the shared space concept. Rather, they propose we re-think the shared space concept for all street and road users, particularly vulnerable road users.

The title of the article is, Reimagining shared (space) street design: Segregating to
better integrate?


The shared space concept proposes to reduce traffic control to integrate road users. Yet, defining boundaries to create a pedestrian safe zone is particularly relevant for a successful implementation. Therefore, to determine if road users also expect a protective barrier delimiting the safe zone, this paper presents part of the results of an online survey that evaluated the preferences of pedestrians and cyclists.

A total of 408 participants completed the survey and ranked the alternatives (i.e. none, bollards, bushes, and stones) according to their preferences. Approaches suitable for ranking data were then applied to further understand the results, which indicated that only providing a safe zone with visual separation is not necessarily preferred when compared to the provision of additional physical barriers.

Both pedestrians and cyclists prefer bushes over the presented alternatives. As bushes objectively provide less physical protection than bollards and stones, it can be assumed that the sense of segregation, rather than the physical protection itself, should be considered in shared space design.

By challenging the concept of user integration, this paper suggests reinterpreting the shared space design to combine physical barriers in an attempt to better accommodate vulnerable road users.

Accessibility Toolbar