Co-Designing Crossing the Street for Accessibility, an IDRC and Sidewalk Toronto Event

Waterfront near future Sidewalk Toronto community.
I attended the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University and Sidewalk Toronto event on 8 August 2018, which I wrote about here. Five groups of four or five people each spent the morning and afternoon co-designing as per the format given to us. I wrote about the afternoon session and my group MASS Design co-designing an accessible TTC in a previous post. Today, I’m writing on my morning group Surfing the Design.

Surfing the DesignIn the morning, we were lead to our table to sit with our pre-chosen group. We chose our group name and filled in our sign-in sheet. When told we had to come up with a group name, I figured being a writer, I should be able to, no problem. My mind remained stubbornly blank. So I brainstormed with myself: where is Sidewalk Toronto? What is nearby? The lake! Suddenly: “Surfing the Design” popped into my head. The group liked. I was chuffed the rest of the group adopted it.

We found on our tables three pieces of paper with a word or phrase written on each and one blank piece. These represented the Context they wanted us to co-design, with the blank one in case we had other ideas. My morning group “Surfing the Design” chose Street, specifically “Crossing the Street.” And we narrowed that down to signal-controlled intersections, you know, the ones with traffic lights that are supposed to be safe for everyone. Rolling my eyes here.

Yonge and St. Clair intersection gridlock
The CNIB considers this the most accessible intersection in the city. Not much has changed since I took this photo. It's typical for every intersection in Toronto. Intersection blockers. Right turn jumpers. Too much traffic.

Well, I knew that crossing an intersection on the green in Toronto wasn’t the safest thing, but I was stunned when our group began to share our stories and difficulties with each other and the list grew and grew . . . and grew. We had to stop at some point, but I’m sure we could’ve come up with more. Why don’t you add your nightmare difficulty in the comments below?

Here’s our list:
  1. Accessible Pedestrian Signal not available or hard to use or broken.
  2. Accessible Pedestrian Signal should activate light.
  3. Light cycle too short for safe pedestrian crossing.
  4. No zebra crossing to denote visible where the pedestrian crossing is to the drivers so that they won’t drive on it like it’s just another part of the road.
  5. Painted lines gone or can’t see them.
  6. Insufficient lighting.
  7. Potholes:
    1. Can’t be seen by visually impaired.
    2. Can’t be stepped on or over when have balance problems.
    3. Hard to roll over in a wheelchair or scooter.
  8. Drivers try to beat pedestrians on right turns.
  9. Drivers don’t wait for pedestrians to reach sidewalk safely.
  10. Cyclists come up from behind silently, weaving in and out on sidewalks and crossings.
  11. Drivers block pedestrian crossing.
  12. Lighted intersections too far apart, forcing pedestrians to jaywalk.
  13. Police and politicians telling pedestrians to stare at a driver into their eyes to keep oneself safe. How can a visually impaired person stare at a driver? Or read a driver’s intentions?
  14. No one instructs the public on how to use features like the Accessible Pedestrian Signals.
  15. No safe island to stand on in wide intersections.
  16. No bench nearby to sit on (fatigue, stamina means sitting while waiting is necessary).
  17. Curb cuts or blends are badly made.
  18. Thoughtless crowd behaviour.
  19. No photo radar or red light cameras for the epidemic of red-light runners and intersection blockers.

Accessible Pedestrian Signal
There was so much, I became overwhelmed at how to do it all in our group, and we divided into two groups of two. Since the man sitting next to me was also visually impaired and needed the Accessible Pedestrian Signals even more than I did, the two of us took on that mammoth task while the two sitting across from me tackled some of the rest of the list. Our task: fill in an action and feedback chart within a time limit.

In the chart titled, “How to navigate the scenario,” we had to write in an action or event. Then answer the question, “What are the barriers, challenges?” in the box below that. In the next box below, we were to answer, “How do you feel?” Oh wow, no one outside of health care professionals has ever asked me how I feel about all the barriers I encounter daily! Below that box was one where we were to fill in, “Who is responsible?” And lastly, notes.

How to navigate the scenario chart filled in for Accessible Pedestrian Signals actions

Since this was a timeline chart, the next part of the process was to go back to the top and in the second column, write in the resulting action from the first action/event, encountering barriers to that action, and reacting to it. It took us awhile to fill in the chart for the Accessible Pedestrian Signals. It was a bit stuffed.

First Action

The scenario was to reach a traffic-light controlled intersection and search for the Accessible Pedestrian Signal. Assuming we could find one, the last part of the action was to try and use it by holding down the button for five seconds. (Why five? No one presses these for even half a second.)

Many of the buttons are so hard for me to hold down for the count of five that I find I often have to try once, twice, thrice, then give up in frustration. It’s further complicated by the fact that oftentimes the speaker is broken so that you don’t hear the loud click that tells you it’s been activated. You don’t know if you simply weren’t strong enough to activate it or it activated but the speaker is broken. It’s further complicated by how the chirps that give you the auditory signal to cross when the pedestrian light turns to a white walking sign, don’t sound until it’s safe for pedestrians to cross on both sides of the intersection. During an advance green, it’s safe for only one side to cross but neither side sounds in case someone way, way over on the other side hears it and thinks it’s safe for them. This would not be such a factor if the signals worked because the chirp that sounds right beside you is so obviously different in volume than the one on the other side of the street. On the other hand, a person with cognitive difficulties could get confused and not realize there’s a volume difference and cross. Also, a person who isn’t familiar with how the feature works, could get confused. The one consolation is the button vibrates for the deaf-blind when the walking sign lights white. Keeping your hand on the button in an intersection with an advance green will let you know in the absence of a chirp on your side that it’s safe to cross. This is why systems need to be designed to include all while giving everyone the same ability to cross when their walking light turns white.

But I digress.


First Barrier

Finding the Accessible Pedestrian Signal. There simply aren’t enough. The city is supposed to install them in new intersections or upon request, up to 40 per year for the latter. They don’t. Two years after requesting several, I’m seeing some being installed. It’s supposed to take a year.

They are not located in a consistent place relative to the pedestrian crossings. They’re sometimes on short poles away from the street or so close to the curb, it feels like you’re taking your life in your hands if you go to push it. Who wants to try getting the stupid thing to activate while cars are roaring by centimetres away at 60kph, juggling for speed and distance supremacy?!

Second Barrier

When found, the Signal doesn’t chirp, click, or vibrate. It’s not exactly an inclusive design if much of the time it doesn’t work.

Third Barrier

No geographic location markers. There is a locator sound on it. This is insufficient for my visually impaired partner, partly because its location is inconsistent from intersection to intersection. I find that with my excellent hearing I can hear it while my CNIB orientation and mobility trainer who is not hearing impaired, cannot. I have called or tweeted 311 a few times to up the volume in loud intersections, and staff have, for some immensely incomprehensible reason, only checked and upped the volume for the one corner I mentioned. Having to specify four corners just makes my head hurt. Do they think that the loud noise of traffic affects only one part of the intersection?

Fourth Barrier

Too hard to press.

How do you feel?

Frustrated! Pissed off! Angry!!

What we wrote:
  • Frustrated.
  • Fearful.
  • Forgotten about.
That last is really the underlying feeling of life with a disability.
We also wrote:
  • In danger.
  • Confused when have to cross and it doesn’t work.

Who is responsible?

311 and the city of Toronto.

Second Action

Call 311 and complain about:
  • Chirps signalling safe to cross start too late.
  • Too hard to press.
  • No sounds — no click or chirps.
  • Not loud enough.
  • Not long enough to chirp.


First Barrier

  • Given the wrong information: told to call the Ministry of Transportation. Seriously? The Ministry hasn’t anything to do with a Toronto initiative!
  • Given the right information for a different complaint: told to talk to city staff to install a new Accessible Pedestrian Signal. This info is incorrect for fixing it, though. 311 takes care of fixing it, not city staff.

Second Barrier

Take the complaint and don’t transfer the call to staff as stated would do.

How do you feel?

Frustrated as nothing resolved.

Who is responsible?

Umm . . . 311 who doesn’t do their job.

Notes, Insights

Register a formal complaint with either management or HR. (I personally have never done this — no energy or stamina or cognitive ability to navigate bureaucracy.)

Alternative Second Action

Tweet 311 and complain about:
  • Chirps signalling safe to cross start too late.
  • Too hard to press.
  • No sounds — no click or chirps.
  • Not loud enough.
  • Not long enough to chirp.


First Barrier

They used to say it would be fixed within four hours. And it would be.

That changed.

At times they ignored me (like to the tweet below) or told me to call 311 ostensibly because they need my personal information.

If I had the energy to sit on the phone for the long amount of time to get through the 311 intro plus hold time, I would call. I don’t know why my personal information is needed for a public utility issue or potholes.

How do you feel?

  • Annoyed.
  • Angry on behalf of blind and deal-blind who can’t complain or don’t want to rock the boat and so won’t be helped.
We feel dismissed as if this is not a legitimate problem; it's as if as persons with a disability we're not working, so spending time on the phone is only taking us away from TV watching anyway.

Who is responsible?

  • 311 management for setting up barrier rules and/or not training properly.
  • Toronto Councillor for not ensuring signals in their ward work.
  • Traffic engineers who design separate and unequal accessibility systems instead of changing intersection design altogether to make it inclusive of everyone.
  • Toronto Council and the Mayor who fear making the radical changes necessary for Vision Zero to become a reality for even the most vulnerable road user. Modern roundabouts are safer for everyone. Time to get rad in Toronto!

Notes, Insights

I don’t have the energy to fight them. Literally, fatigue rules all my actions. When I have on the rare occasion had the energy to call, 311 does get the broken Accessible Pedestrian Signal fixed. City of Toronto staff tell me 311 staff should not ignore my tweets. It’s inclusive to allow complaints by tweet — or by Twitter DM if truly require personal information as other companies/entities do.

Third Action

Unable to find an Accessible Pedestrian Signal as so often happens. The most egregious lack occur on wide roads and intersections like Spadina and University Avenue, for example. Spadina and Dundas has one; Spadina and Sullivan is getting one. Spadina and Queen, Richmond, Adelaide, King, have none. Incredible. I even requested one for King and Spadina well over a year ago.


First Barrier

Don’t bother complaining if it’s a small intersection. If it’s a large one or high traffic, call and request. You have to know who to call on city staff as 311 doesn’t always know nor transfer you when they say they will.

Second Barrier

311 transfers you to the wrong person on city staff.

Third Barrier

If enough people call to complain, only then is a new Accessible Pedestrian Signal put in.

Fourth Barrier

Through experience, I’ve learnt that, although they say that it takes one year to retrofit an old intersection, it can actually take two years and counting. Barriers to that include a complex underground maze of hydro wires and Bell telephone wires, from what I understand.

Fifth Barrier

Toronto City Council has capped new Accessible Pedestrian Signals to 40 per year for retrofits. Given the number of signalized intersections in Toronto, this is so underfunded, it’s pretty much an arrogant dismissal of the visually impaired, deaf-blind, and those with cognitive challenges, as if our ability to be independent and travel about the city safely is optional.

New streetlights and poles install lacks required Accessible Pedestrian Signals.
This complete renovation of the intersection at York and Harbour failed to put Accessible Pedestrian Signals in as required. The drivers here regularly play chicken with pedestrians. Killed one recently.

New build and rebuilt intersections are supposed to have them installed as part of the new traffic light installation, but often don’t.

Both these issues happen because successive mayors have not and will not increase the property tax commensurate with our deep structural infrastructure needs for upgrading and expanding. By ignoring us, they can stick to their fiction that Toronto taxpayers are over-taxed and over-serviced.

How do you feel?


Notes, Insights

It took two years for a new Accessible Pedestrian Signal to be installed in one instance we know of. It’s supposed to be done in one year.

Large intersections should be done automatically, without requests required first.

This whole thing, which was supposed to make our intersections inclusive — and should be part of Vision Zero for zero pedestrian and cyclist deaths — seems completely unresolvable. When I spoke to the CNIB about how hard it is to physically activate the signals, they said that the committee that discusses such things were thinking about it but hadn’t met for awhile. Perhaps they would now, I was told. Perhaps they would discuss redesigning the activation mechanism. Oh brother. If the organization who speaks for the blind and visually impaired doesn’t think this is a serious barrier needing urgent action, why would any Toronto Councillor or the mayor?

Wishboard for Morning Sessions, Surfing the Design Post-Its at top in pink and green

When we in Surfing the Design group combined our efforts at the end in order to fill out our wishes for the presentation and the whiteboard (what they called the “Wish Board”) I was surprised to see the other two’s chart was barely filled. I’m afraid I didn’t record their wishes, and I can’t read their light green Post-Its in my photos or on the IDRC website. The check marks above the Post-Its on the Wish Board are from Logan of Sidewalk Toronto checking off what was mentioned in our presentations; the ones written directly on the board are added from our presentations. The arrow drawn above Surfing the Design's first wish was one they considered important?? I’m not sure.

Our wishes were:
  • Accessible Pedestrian Signal chirps and button vibrates long enough and when light turns green.
  • Jaywalking — from memory I think the other two of Surfing the Design wanted higher fines.
  • Infrastructure needs . . . ?? I recall benches to sit on while the light is red was important.
  • Accessible Pedestrian Signal at every intersection.
  • Accessible Pedestrian Signal triggered by infrared beam. (Something passive that requires no memory for how to use or physical strength or dexterity.)
  • Pedestrian speed — the light cycle is too quick for slower pedestrians
  • Better lighting — it's difficult to distinguish painted lines, curb blends, potholes, etc.
  • No potholes!
  • Better roads — better designed and built roads serve everyone and are safer.
Curb and potholes create problems for pedistrians at Bremner and York
The curb blend doesn't line up with the pedestrian crossing. Visually impaired or oblivious can fall when fail to see curb drop off. Deep pothole close to the curb and across much of the crossing is a hazard. No zebra crossing to distinguish pedestrian crossing from rest of the road.

Additional notes: my CNIB orientation and mobility trainer has told me about an initiative to use a smartphone to activate these signals. This beacon system is being used in Montreal and they’re trying to get it into Toronto. I see a couple of problems with this. It eats battery life. iPhones already drain too quickly (blame Apple for bad battery design). It requires extra energy to get out the phone, find the app, activate the signal — at every single intersection. What a pain! The Key2Access fob may be a better solution. But the best solution is to use a modern roundabout system that doesn’t require anyone to activate a special accessible signal in order to cross because the design itself is accessible to all.

Group Dynamics

I wasn’t going to write about this next part, but I was thinking that since the collaboration model is gaining traction, it is important to talk about what happens when one member wants to control the group.

We’d all five barely sat down at our table in the morning when one member began to run the show. Their first order was to tell the rest of us that they would write everything down. Their next order was to fill in the sign-in sheet for all of us. My mother smiled to herself: “You’re out of luck if you think you’re going to control this group.” Then she sat back to see what I would do. She knew I’d do something. I reached for the sign-in sheet to write my own last name in. I wasn’t about to try and spell it across the table. The controlling member looked nonplussed and slid it over. I really don’t know why nonplussed because even kids write in their own names on sign-in sheets.

One of the downfalls of the hierarchical system is that it doesn’t allow quieter members to shine, and it allows a bully to dominate an entire system. I’ve seen in the workplace how in even large corporations, a good vice-president can quickly change the group dynamics several departments below them. One member trying to control a collaborative group is in effect changing collaboration to hierarchy, with its worst tendencies, and making the entire group follow that one member’s will.

I didn’t rest up, caffeinate up, buzz my brain up, face three days of slaying fatigue, just to battle a controlling person so that me and the other two members could contribute equally, if at all. I wanted to contribute freely and enjoy myself. Battling a controller was not my idea of joy. It took my strong will and firm tone just to get the sign-in sheet slid over to me. The mental energy required to navigate around their control would definitely not allow my ideas to flow and make it that much harder for me to listen and understand the others. When people are focused on defending themselves against another’s control or on keeping quiet for fear of being run over by the strong will of a controller, we miss out on their good ideas. I couldn’t do anything to help the older woman next to the controller, but I could divide the group up so that me and the guy next to me could be productive. I made that happen. Things got a lot better for me (and I assume him), as a result. We chatted freely and filled up our chart. I wrote in the boxes and on the Post-It notes only because he couldn’t see well enough to write. In the afternoon group, MASS Design, another person offered to write -- key word being offered -- and it was great.

The other issue about people who want to control is they usually have fixed ideas and don’t listen well or at all. When it came time to present, we all kept quiet so that the controller could hold her position of power and speak for us. She didn’t answer Logan’s question. Sigh. Another gearing up of my loins, another expenditure of my precious energy so that I could take the mic on the second go-round and answer the damn question. The point of doing all the work we did was to share it with the others, not talk about something else.

Another group had a controller, too. That person was on a mission about one idea they held, unlike our controller, which became obvious when the afternoon group they were in continued that controller's idea from the morning, even though the groups had changed and we were supposed to change things up. The controller also ignored the feedback from the Design Crit that expanded on their idea. Controllers cannot see past what they ideate themselves.

Controllers aren’t leaders.

Leaders keep the discussion focused and to deadline; they don’t control it. Leaders listen and encourage participation by everyone, including shy people. They get excited about other people’s ideas and feedback. They put other people forward. They create energy, not hose it up.

I don’t know how one resolves the issue of a controller hijacking collaboration other than identifying them quickly and removing them.

I was so relieved that person wasn’t in my afternoon group. I experienced in the afternoon the true gift of collaboration: everyone’s strengths and ideas naturally emerged. Even the quiet persons felt safe, included, and empowered enough to contribute. Our collective energy increased, and ideas grew as we fed off of each other. My mother and I left, buzzing on a high. That didn’t happen in the morning group. Instead, so much of what we could have achieved was dampened by the controller. At least my partner and I did good work on the Accessible Pedestrian Signals, and I learnt a lot from him. I just wish that had happened for the entire Context of Crossing the Street.


Unknown said…
Excellent recap of the days work. Hope it leads to improvements in the city
AAB College said…