Volume 6 Issue 2 - July 01, 2009
“ The key to accessible transport is a complete accessible trip chain,
Jamie Osborne is a Transit Planner and Accessibility Specialist with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. His stint as a rehabilitation engineer started with Universal Design. Dorodi Sharma of D.N.I.S. talks to him about accessibility and public transport in India.
D.N.I.S.: Tell us about your association with Universal Design?
Jamie Osborne: I am a strong advocate for good design. In most contexts, a ‘Universally’ accessible design is unfortunately not feasible, so I prefer to use the term inclusive.
I was lucky to meet architect Ron Mace (who coined the term ‘Universal Design’) in 1996 and study his brilliant approach to removing both social and physical barriers in the built environment at the Center for Universal Design. Since then, I have been doing my best to spread the word about his theories and along the way have developed my own unique perspective on peoples' interaction with their environments.
D.N.I.S.: Tell us about you experiences as a rehabilitation engineer.
Jamie Osborne: My experiences as a rehabilitation engineer have helped me to identify and clearly communicate both the obvious and unspoken access needs of individuals of all ages and abilities. I have worked with people with moderate to severe physical, sensory, and cognitive disabilities to assess their needs and abilities, and then through an interactive process, develop specific technological or procedural solutions to help them be more independent in their homes or workplaces.
The spaces that I initially worked on designing with people, while accessible, were private. They were confined to one specific individual or one particular place. While it was incredibly satisfying and productive to create individually tailored tools and spaces, I was interested in learning how to appeal to broader constituencies and think about design and inclusion more deeply. My desire to create inclusive public spaces led me to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (S.F.M.T.A.), where for the past three years I have worked as a transit planner and accessibility specialist.
D.N.I.S.: What is your take on the public transport system in India?
Jamie Osborne: It was through my travels in India that I came to understand the power of public transport. With less than 11 percent of the households owning automobiles or 2 wheelers, bus and rail networks are the lifeblood of Indian society and prime movers of the local economies. Crores and crores of rupees are spent on public transportation infrastructure projects across the country, yet for the most part the services are only benefiting non-disabled transit users. People unable to walk to transit stops, read destination signs, climb steps, or squeeze themselves into inadequately designed transit vehicles are required to hire taxis, auto-rickshaws or proceed by other more costly options.
All citizens and even non- citizens are potential public transit users. Rural and urban systems in India are moving immense numbers of people, but they have been designed with a certain user in mind. Through advances in technology and social discourse, we find ourselves in a world where seniors and people with disabilities have become ‘new’ Indian citizens. The world is changing and transit systems especially need to demonstrate adaptability to meet the needs of this new group of users.
D.N.I.S.: What are the major problems that you see in accessibility as far as transport and public places are concerned?
Jamie Osborne: I have interviewed dozens of people with disabilities, access advocacy organizations, government officials and consultants about these issues. According to the experts, the major problems are easy to identify. There are 4 major hindrances. One is that public space, public transport facilities and public transport vehicles have simply not been designed for people with disabilities.
Designers, planners, administrators and politicians are also not aware of the needs of people with disabilities.
Again, where accessible public facilities do exist they lie unused because they often exist in isolation, surrounded by hostile environments that render them inaccessible. Or no one knows they exist! Essential access information is not communicated to users. An excellent example of this is Mumbai where three percent of buses are ostensibly accessible but no one knows what routes they are on or where and when they might come.
Moreover, the social stigma and past experiences discourages people with disabilities from using public transportation, even if it might be accessible now.
D.N.I.S.: What is the biggest challenge in making transportation accessible to people with disabilities?
Jamie Osborne: The biggest challenge in general for accessibility in India is the absence of domestic legislation that mandates that designers and planners follow specific access standards and creates a regulatory framework to enforce compliance with the standards. The Disability Act, 1995 was a step forward for Indians with disabilities, but the Act provided minimal impetus for meaningful change related to public spaces and the built environment. The U.N.C.R.P.D. ratified in 2007 offers some more specific guidance and a valid framework for positioning access as a civil right, but the effectiveness hangs on individual states’ taking appropriate measures. Also in 2007, India’s XIth 5 year plan included specific demands that departments develop access standards and reserve resources to fund access improvements. We will see how closely the plan is followed and whether vigilant public interest litigations are necessary for progress to be made.
D.N.I.S.: What about public transport?
Jamie Osborne: Accessing public transport in India is simply a challenge for all users. This is secondary to environmental and operational constraints. For example, when traffic congestion and conditions prevent buses from pulling to the curb, all people who need to board from this location are denied access. As a transportation mode, public transit in India has the lion’s share. This high rate of usage results in ‘standing-room only’ conditions on vehicles at most times of the day. Under these conditions, it is often impossible to provide boarding and appropriate space for a wheelchair user. These are significant challenges that will need to be addressed by appropriate planning, allocating resources and developing operational procedures.
D.N.I.S.: Do you feel the recent spate of construction have better accessibility?
Jamie Osborne: Recent developments in Delhi hold much promise for people with disabilities. While neither the Delhi Metro nor the D.T.C. B.R.T. corridor, are perfect, they include specific accessibility features that are not common to any other systems in India. The density of Indian cities requires both bus and rail to effectively reach users, so these two systems will be models for the rest of the country. At this point, I feel that it is essential to document the experiences of people with disabilities and properly evaluate the performance of Delhi’s B.R.T. and Metro systems so that the next generation developments can improve on mistakes and oversights and provide a better service for all users.
As stand alone systems, these may be very accessible and potentially usable by disabled riders, but the key will be providing a complete accessible trip chain. It is unrealistic to expect all people with disabilities to move to locations that are served by Metro or B.R.T. corridors. If a wheelchair user cannot get to the metro via bus, auto, or rolling, how in the world will he or she be able to utilize the metro?
D.N.I.S.: What are the areas that you think need special attention?
Jamie Osborne: All users of public transport are pedestrians at the beginning and end of their travels. I think that it is important to develop accessible pedestrian infrastructure such as streets, curb ramps and pavements adjacent to transit facilities.
It is extremely important to provide appropriate training for transit operators, conductors and facilities staff. Regardless of how much you invest in obtaining accessible vehicles and facilities, an untrained operator or station agent can easily deny access to people with disabilities.
Increasing awareness should be at the core of any training on accessibility, but lack of awareness of another’s identity should never be an excuse to deny access. In many ways, awareness is a good evil to fight because the costs are low and the results are not quantifiable.
Finally, repair policies must be developed and resources for maintenance need to be set aside from the beginning. All too often, I’ve seen access features such as toilet facilities, pedestrian crosswalk signals or vehicle access ramps in states of disrepair and disuse. Refusing to support the ongoing use of access methods negates their presence.
D.N.I.S.: Among the Indian cities you have been to, which ones fare better in terms of accessibility?
Jamie Osborne: In terms of accessible infrastructure, there is no question of Delhi’s leadership. As the seat of the national government, and host for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, it seems to me that the government has invested heavily in Delhi as an example of inclusive planning and development.
While I’ve spent time in several Indian cities over the past 5 years, my experiences have been concentrated in Delhi and Bangalore. I’m looking forward to equally significant investments in other urban and rural areas.
D.N.I.S.: What has been your most challenging work till now?
Jamie Osborne: As a transit planner focusing on accessibility issues with S.F.M.T.A., I am often stuck in the crossfire between access advocates and agency bureaucrats, administrators and engineers. Access in the U.S. has been an uphill battle and people with disabilities have had to fight tooth and nail for their rights to transit and public space. In San Francisco, this struggle has created a fierce group of access advocates with well-honed tactics. I feel that my most challenging work is striving to keep a balance between the needs of the agency and the needs of the user.
D.N.I.S.: Suggestions for making public transport more accessible in India.
Jamie Osborne: In my opinion, people with disabilities need to be better organized. This is an exciting time to work on disability and access in India and it is great to see so many organizations addressing these issues. I hope that these organizations can rally together and develop a common platform; I also hope that they can work productively together to create and advocate for common standards and practices. When access advocates are fragmented and not coordinated their efforts can be easily dismissed. Frankly, the power to change India’s existing access paradigm lies in organized tactics and numbers. A true cross disability coalition (including senior groups) should be developed so that people with disabilities can demonstrate the power of numbers and demand more.
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