In 2022, CNIB received funding through the Government of Canada to try to understand the barriers facing Canadians living with sight loss when navigating island/floating bus stops. The research took place in 2023 with the final report being published in the fall.
The “island platform transit stop” design, which provides a separated cycling facility that routes cyclists between a bus stop and the sidewalk, is gaining traction in Canada with inclusion in the TAC Geometric Design Guide and several implementations nationwide. For cyclists, this design offers enhanced safety by removing interactions with transit vehicles. For people with sight loss, however, the design introduces various challenges:
- Finding and Navigating the Bus Stop:
The unconventional layout can be disorienting for people who are blind and lack key tactile or auditory cues that people rely on for navigating bus stops.
- Many users are unable to identify the stop at all when searching for it, introducing new barriers to transit use for people who are blind.
- Detecting Cyclists:
Especially in an urban environment, cyclists are difficult to hear above the background noise of automobile traffic and other urban sounds due to their quiet movement, raising safety concerns. As evidenced in the BC Human Rights Tribunal case referenced in the final report, some people who are blind avoid these stops due to fears of undetected cyclists.
- Negotiating Right-of-Way with Cyclists:
This design often leads to uncertainties in right-of-way, with some studies showing a significant percentage of cyclists failing to yield to pedestrians even when crossings are marked.
Since this is a newer design, many transit users aren’t prepared to navigate a bike path immediately upon exiting the bus. Some studies suggest pedestrian inattentiveness as a key source of conflict, an assertion that fails to adequately consider the needs of pedestrians with disabilities such as vision loss.
In 2020, a BC Human Rights Tribunal ruling drew attention to the ways in which the existing design of a floating bus stop in Victoria discriminated against people who are blind, affirming the challenges being faced by visually impaired individuals as new forms of multi-modal infrastructure were planned, designed and implemented. This landmark decision has contributed to a nationwide re-evaluation of bus stop designs by transit agencies, with an increased focus on accessibility.
With the hopes of better understanding the impact of these designs on people with sight loss, CNIB successfully secured a grant from the National Active Transportation Infrastructure Fund in 2022. Using this grant, CNIB partnered with WSP Canada Inc. to study the design’s impact on passengers with sight loss. This study aims to determine the effects of island platform transit stop designs on the safety and comfort of people with vision loss, and to make recommendations for future designs and future research topics to strengthen guidance on their implementation.
First, a review of academic literature and existing design guidance was conducted. The background review confirmed that people with sight loss encounter significant challenges at island platform transit stops. They struggle to detect approaching cyclists and have difficulty orienting themselves and navigating the raised platform. Presently, there are inconsistencies in design guidance documents, especially regarding crossings and provisions for people with sight loss, which creates confusion and introduces risk for all users.
A common interaction at these stops involves cyclists and sighted pedestrians using eye contact to determine right-of-way instead of adhering strictly to pedestrian priority. When conflicts arise, “pedestrian inattentiveness” is cited within the existing literature as a common cause of the conflict; however, this explanation overlooks the experiences of those with sight loss who cannot rely on eye contact to negotiate in these situations. Consequently, many people living with sight loss report negative perceptions of cyclist behavior, and some even avoid these crossings due to fear. Available literature highlights the importance of audible cues as a navigation tool for people with sight loss, but the current literature does not make specific reference to audio-based solutions to improve navigation, representing an important gap in the current understanding of these designs.
Evidence from the background review suggests that implementing a strict compliance-based approach for pedestrian priority at bicycle path crossings may not be effective, especially for those with sight loss. Marking crosswalks across the bicycle path can enhance awareness, predictability, and wayfinding, which leads to fewer conflicts. Additional measures such as channelizing pedestrians using furniture or railings, decluttering the platform area, and enhancing sightlines can also bolster safety and user experience.
The design’s effectiveness may also depend on location-specific factors, as interactions between pedestrians and cyclists tend to increase with higher bicycle and passenger volumes, as well as more frequent bus services. This suggests the potential value of having distinct design criteria (or seeking alternate design treatments) for high-volume locations.
With the base understanding developed in the background review, the project team assembled an inventory of 22 constructed island platform bus stops across Canada and systemically narrowed them down to five sites for field testing with the input of the project’s Advisory Committee. The sites were selected to cover a range of Canadian climate conditions including Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, London, and Montreal. The CNIB recruited between four and six paid participants with sight loss for each site and WSP developed and implemented a standardized testing procedure for the study. In May 2023, participants were asked to identify and navigate through an island platform bus stop, board a transit vehicle, and alight at a similarly designed island platform bus stop downstream.
The field study validated that people with sight loss experience challenges in identifying and negotiating with cyclists when crossing bicycle paths. Participants also experienced a high degree of difficulty identifying and orienting themselves to the bus stops. In many instances, participants passed the bus stop without noticing it, while in others, participants crossed at incorrect locations or encountered difficulty navigating around poles and clutter.
The study concludes by identifying five key elements of the journey where people with sight loss encountered difficulty, along with a list of recommendations for improving the experience.
The study includes the identification of factors that, when present, increase the risk of conflicts between cyclists and pedestrians (including people with sight loss). These are:
- High volumes of pedestrians (e.g., downtown environment)
- High volumes of cyclists (e.g., major cycling route)
- High frequency of bus service (e.g., 10 or more buses per hour)
- Two-way cycling facility
- Downhill grade on cycling approach (e.g., 2% or greater)
Especially in these situations, consideration should be given to adding a controlled crossing (e.g., flashing beacon or accessible pedestrian signal) or removing the conflict altogether, such as by moving the bus stop or route, or relocating the cycling facility.
The full list of recommendations was shared with both the project Advisory Committee and a subset of study participants for feedback. Key themes raised by municipal staff include addressing space constraints (particularly platform width) and the importance of enclosed shelters for passenger comfort in certain climates. While TWSI are currently not being implemented consistently across Canada, there is a collective desire to do so. Study participants generally agreed with the recommendations and continued to emphasize the concern of not being able to detect approaching cyclists.
The study concludes with recommendations for further research. While this study validates the need for more tools allowing people with sight loss to detect oncoming cyclists, the project team was unable to identify any successful techniques in practice. Further work should be undertaken by researchers and/or practitioners to identify technology or auditory based solutions. Another key knowledge gap commonly experienced by municipalities is how to address constrained situations where there is insufficient space for a full-size island platform. Further study should be conducted on the performance of constrained designs to understand the impacts of various trade-offs (for example, providing a narrow platform compared to providing no platform at all).