December 13, 2016

When Accessibility Becomes Inaccessible

After almost four years of writing, I am pleased to announce this is my 100th post! With a boneheaded motion to allow vehicles with disability permits to park in bike lanes coming to city council this week and I haven’t covered accessibility issues yet, this milestone post features interviews from two accessibility advocates and reasons why city council should reject this motion. Having two advocates for this post helps provide a glimpse on how diverse accessibility issues are.
Accessibility is a lot more than having elevators at transit stations!

Daniella Levy-Pinto is part of Walk Toronto’s steering committee who provided the perspective of someone who is totally blind and relies on guide dogs. During our conversation, Levy-Pinto stressed the need for consistency regarding road design. “Safety for all needs to be more important than convenience for some,” said Levy-Pinto. “When cyclists are at risk (due to blocked bike lanes), they go onto the sidewalk; resulting in conflicts with other people with disabilities.”

When discussing road design elements, Levy-Pinto mentioned bike lanes need proper separation throughout and believes Queen’s Quay could use tactile markings to reduce the risk of walking onto the Martin Goodman Trail. Several other challenges the blind face include the inability to make eye contact with motorists at pedestrian crossovers, the quietness of electric vehicles, motorists making right turns on red (a.k.a. right hooks) and resorting to unnecessary honking, and the inconsistent application of audible signals at intersections.
Bloor and Colborne Lodge - One of 716 intersections with audible signals
I was curious to find out what the sounds from audible signals (a.k.a. Accessible Pedestrian Signals or APS) meant. Levy-Pinto said the cuckoo sound denotes north-south crossings, while the chirp is for east-west. As per the City of Toronto’s website, 716 intersections have APS signals and the Road Safety Plan calls for installation at 20 new intersections per year in addition to installations at all new signals, which is insufficient. APS signals are currently being reviewed to improve consistency.

Other accessible equipment Levy-Found to be useful include using GPS to explore new areas (but still ask about neighbouring buildings), built in iPhone screen readers, and apps identifying obstacles and light changes (which can be distracting). During the winter, Levy-Pinto said, “I never cover my ears in the winter because they are needed in lieu of eyes.”

Fellow Walk Toronto steering committee member Adam Cohoon uses a power wheelchair to get around Toronto. He described Toronto’s wheelchair accessibility as getting better (7/10), but with some touchy areas to resolve such as improper curb cuts, Financial District alleyways, and crossings at condo buildings and shipping at office buildings.
Making Stopgap ramps at Open Streets TO
However, the main issue for Cohoon and other wheelchair users is the fact only 60% of storefronts (e.g. restaurants, amusement) are accessible. While organizations such as Stopgap are helping address this issue, Cohoon said, “There needs to be better service provided once in the store.”

Cohoon has some legitimate concerns regarding interactions with cyclists. When he used to live at Bloor Street (near Huron Street), he was concerned the bike lane pilot project did not properly accommodate Wheel-Trans operations. He was also concerned about the bad cyclists who were more focused on speed, which was reflective of a cultural problem of people in wheelchairs being too fast for pedestrians and too slow for cyclists. Power wheelchairs and racer wheelchairs are, however, capable of going as fast as bicycles, which prompted Cohoon to suggest allowing such wheelchairs on some bike trails and wider separated bike lanes such as Queen’s Quay and the Lower Don Trail.
Sample accessible lay-by (SOURCE: Federal Highway Administration)
Other cycling ideas brought up include clearly marking mixing zones in bike lanes for wheelchair users to board Wheel-Trans buses in which cyclists need to yield; not unlike Sherbourne Street’s bus stops. He suggested a network of quiet streets and arterial roads, in which racer cyclists should use quiet streets while bike lanes should be put on arterials with shops for a slower pace. As for Bloor Street, Cohoon suggested removing parking in favour of wider sidewalks. “While cyclists may view Bloor Street as a victory,” said Cohoon, “there is a need to fix the pedestrian experience first. The business downturn is not because of the bike lanes, but rather sidewalk saturation.”

Both Cohoon and Levy-Pinto spoke at a press conference on Monday urging City Council to reject the disability permit motion, which was organized by an Accessibility Coalition including Stopgap, Cycling Without Age, Friends and Families for Safe Streets, Walk Toronto and Cycle Toronto. Both expressed concerns about the lack of provisions to park on side streets and called for additional road safety measures such as lower speed limits, enforcing blocked intersections, and banning right turns on red. The full text of Monday's press release can be found here.
A recumbent bike at Open Streets TO
Discussing the perspectives of wheelchair users and the visually impaired only scratches the surface about the diverse nature of disabilities. One thing not mentioned during the interviews is many people with disabilities use bicycles such as recumbents, adult trikes, electric assist, and tandem bikes as a backseat rider. Since you can never know when you could end up being disabled, it is only fair to always be respectful towards other vulnerable road users, especially the disabled.

Empathetically yours,
Rob Z (e-mail)

UPDATE (2016/12/15) - In a nod to Cycle Toronto and accessibility advocates, the motion in question was referred back to staff with a 17-11 vote in order to properly consult on addressing accessibility issues involving bike lanes.


  1. As an accessibility advocate myself, (also having advocated to several councillors on this topic,as I'm at city hall on a regular basis) I also am multiply disabled myself.
    Being both legally blind & physically disabled, I use a power wheelchair myself, I also lived in Scarborough for 4yrs & had to deal with rogue cyclists regularly, who have no respect for the rules of the road, nor have any respect for other pedestrians.
    As a new resident of downtown, as I was lucky enough to move to the former athletes village, I am more focused on the bike lanes now, as I love using them, (my power wheelchair is slightly faster than a fast walk) , it's been speed reduced due to my being legally blind.
    Sidewalks are a horrible mess of distracted pedestrians who are so locked into their iphone/phones/music, that they are oblivious to those around them, especially those in wheelchairs or who are using a white cane.
    I am not only a huge advocate of the StopGap movement, but also food trucks & many thing to do with the TTC.
    I am well known & liked at city hall, which I cherish & respect, I was unable to be at the press conference that Adam did, I did follow it though.
    I enjoyed your blog post.

    1. Thank you! I do find there tends to be too much accusation and not enough listening when it comes to interacting with road users. While it's the interaction between drivers and other road users that is the most toxic, there are some cyclists out there that give the rest of us a bad name in spite of the vast majority being law abiding.