Co-Designing the TTC for Cognitive, Visual, Auditory Accessibility with IDRC and Sidewalk Toronto

The Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University in Toronto is working with Sidewalk Toronto — a collaboration between Alphabet’s (Google) Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto — “to help with creation of their accessibility and inclusion principles” in designing a new community using smart technology and new construction techniques on a portion of the eastern waterfront. As part of that effort, they sent out a public invitation to anyone interested in participating in an “inclusive collaborative design activity.” I signed up with about twenty others, and we were assigned to five groups of four or five members each, one group in the morning, a different one in the afternoon. It was a good day, as I wrote earlier.

In the afternoon, I co-designed with a group we named "MASS Design" — I came up with the name based on the first letters of our names. We couldn’t use the morning group’s name I was in, even though two of us had been together in the morning group. I was rather partial to the name I'd dreamed up, “Surfing the Design,” but IDRC and Sidewalk Toronto had to be able to distinguish between the morning and afternoon design activities and groups.

Wish Board with request to write in Extra Wishes.
I had an absolute blast co-designing with my fellow MASS Design members. We chose to redesign the TTC for cognitive, visual, and auditory accessibility. We had to choose one of the wishes from the morning’s Wish Board. I’d written in “TTC” and “garbage” under “Extra Wishes” and was chuffed the entire group was down with the TTC wish. I’m sure regular readers are astounded I’d gravitate to that kind of project! Heh. The bonus for me is that my mother came with me to assist me in getting around, but she ended up contributing to our co-design activity. Our group of four became a group of five. We as a society need to take a page from the indigenous community and value our elders and their thoughts.

Redesign TTC for Cognitive, Visual, Auditory Accessibility

MASS Design notes on colour for co-designing TTC for accessibility.We began with a top-down or principles-to-execution approach. Names drive accessibility. We unanimously agreed on the first principle: Get rid of numbers.

Then we came up with a design principle the TTC used to use for naming the routes: match line names to street names.

In effect: Integrate the routes to the cityscape.

This principle of integration is really important for accessibility and for making the system easy to navigate. I’ve used several city subways, and Toronto had always been the easiest to figure out. Yeah, there were only two lines, now 2.5 with a stump — but it was easy because the line names matched the street names. You knew that if you wanted to be on Yonge Street, you took the Yonge subway line.

This principle applies to streetcar and bus routes as well. The tweaking of this principle is that the name used is the dominant street name or the main street the bus or streetcar runs on most of the time.

Next, we drilled down to station names. As the TTC designer had told me years ago, people confuse Eglinton station with Eglinton West station. Adding the Eglinton Crosstown line to the name mix will only heighten the confusion. Other members of MASS Design confirmed this was a big problem. People end up way off course.

Following the principle of integrating to the cityscape, we came up with two station naming principles: use the cross intersection for the name or use a major attraction. Get rid of directional versions of station names.
Museum station
So, for example, St. Clair station would become Yonge-St. Clair and St. Clair West would become Bathurst-St. Clair. The exact order of street names in the hyphenated name would need to be thought out, taking into account cognitive processing issues. For now, this suffices to demonstrate the principle. If there’s a major attraction nearby, then name the station for it, like the current Museum station, so that people know that if they want to visit the Royal Ontario Museum, they would travel to and get off at Museum station.

Once we had established naming principles, we turned our attention to how to enhance inclusivity for people with cognitive, visual, and auditory accessibility needs, including serving the deaf-blind community and intellectually disabled community as well.
We focused on colour, audio, font, and textures.

The main principle driving these features was consistency.


Illuminated map of subway lines showing colour in London Underground
We know that there needs to be further research around what shades are visible to all, including those with various visual impairments and colour blindnesses. We also believe that current colours should be kept the same or similar so as not to confuse peeps used to the current shades while also being distinguishable by those with visual impairment and/or colour blindness. The London Underground is a good model for its use of colour.

Colour is currently, sort of, used for subway lines. The TTC is starting to use it not just as something to colour a line on a map. MASS Design wanted to expand the use of colour outward so that a person can use it to find their way to a particular subway line and navigate the subway system.

Central Line is red on the London Underground as can see in its train doors and poles.

So, for example, the Yonge-University subway line uses yellow as its colour. We could expand that to all streetcar routes that intersect with the Yonge-University line, indicating to people that if you get on a yellow-designated streetcar, that streetcar will take you to a station on the Yonge-University line.

Protoype for colour-coded subway and streetcar lines
Prototype showing subway lines and their feeder streetcar routes colour coded.

The colour yellow would appear on:
  • Maps for the Yonge-University line.
  • Signage inside and outside stations for the line’s name.
  • Integrated into station names.
  • Poles and doors on the trains that run on the Yonge-University line (like on the London Underground).
  • Stop poles for streetcars that intersect with the Yonge-University line as well as for buses that enter or stop outside stations on that line.
  • Doors on these same streetcars and perhaps their poles as well. Current technology could be used to change door colours, like the wraparound ads do, but we weren’t sure about the poles, to get around streetcars being used on different routes on different days. Again, these are principles that would need to be hacked to execute successfully.
  • On web pages for the subway line and the TTC website, including their digital maps.
  • As a highlight colour on shelters.
TTC colours of red and white would remain the dominant branding colour on vehicles and stop poles. Note: wraparound ads interfere with identification of a TTC vehicle for the visually and cognitively impaired.

This would be repeated for the Bloor-Danforth line, using green. We chose blue for the Eglinton Crosstown line and thought that perhaps where a streetcar line would intersect two subway lines, their colour would be like a barber-shop-pole design of intertwined colours, in this example blue and green where a streetcar could potentially cross both Bloor-Danforth and Eglinton.


Audio needs to persist like visual information persists. To that end, we noted that it should be inside and outside all TTC vehicles and repeated every few seconds if the vehicle sits at a stop or in a station. Auditory information needs to be as inclusive as visual is and include:
  • Direction;
  • What line or route you’re on;
  • Next destination;
  • End destination.
Note: visual signage should include both next destination and end destination.


Although colour tells a person what line or route they’re on, it doesn’t indicate direction. We decided font could visually provide that information.
  • One font for east-west direction;
  • A second, easily distinguishable font for north-south direction.
This could be accomplished by using a serif font for north-south and a sans serif for east-west. In addition, using fonts from different accessible-font families, we could further distinguish one font from the other.

As per the consistency principle, the fonts need to be used on all lines, routes, vehicles, stops, maps, and shelters. And equivalent on websites and digital platforms.


Textures line up with colours so that the same texture is used with the same colour and textures are as distinguishable from each other as the line colours are.

We brainstormed how to use texture. For example, texture could be incorporated into vehicle floors or strips on station floors that run end to end and don’t abruptly stop at walls or columns — as currently happens in TTC subway stations with their inadequate grey-tile paths -- but guide the person around them instead. This would need to be hacked to ensure the surface is also easy to walk on and visually distinguishable.

Textures would be featured on each stop pole in such a way that it's discernible through touch but not visually distracting. Braille could be incorporated, too. In line with the consistency principle, texture would be used on signage at the same spot at each entrance before you enter a station or reach a platform or step on to a vehicle. Texture would have to be at hand height. This could also potentially help people who can’t arch their necks to look up at overhead signs.

Blackboard showing co-design prototypes of afternoon groups. MASS Design at the top.


Each group’s design went through a Design Crit (critique) by the next group over; then we used the feedback to tweak our redesign. After our presentation to all the co-design attendees, we were thrilled to see so much interest and be able to answer so many good questions.

Large London Underground map on left and puny TTC map on right.
Large London Underground map on left and puny TTC map on right.

To get around the issue of over-stimulation and distractability, we suggested using minimalist, bold design in all names and signage. Also, increase the size of the signs and maps and the fonts on them from the current teeny-weeny sizes. Again, the London Underground is a good model. Also, use plain language and universal symbols.

The cost of bringing inclusivity to the TTC could come out of re-purposing the current egregious use of monies to decrease accessibility. In addition, this redesign would help the TTC meet the AODA (Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act), which they have to legally abide by.

“How about the red-suited info workers the TTC sometimes use in subway stations?” we were asked.

They could be expanded upon. People like to talk to people.

To identify them as TTC employees, they would wear TTC branded clothing. (I was thinking that TTC uniforms should more closely match TTC brand colours. More red or more white would be good; we have too much black, grey, dark blue in our environment already, and a blue TTC uniform looks generic.) However, their bibs would be in the colour of the subway line that they are on to reinforce consistency in the use of colour and instantly identify to people both which line they’re on and where to get help. These workers could be stationed at all automatic entrances — which would also ensure more fares being paid — and be on streetcars and at busy bus stops. How best to deploy them would be part of hacking this redesign.

Prototypes of all the afternoon co-design, with MASS Design's at the top.
MASS Design prototype for TTC at the top.

IDRC and Sidewalk Toronto wanted feedback mechanisms in the designs. Currently, the TTC is developing a mobile app. This app could include a feedback response button for wayfinding and accessibility issues. But MASS Design identified a fatal flaw with all TTC feedback: upper management doesn’t care.

Although I've found front-line staff helpful and concerned about using the system and I’ve met with staff genuinely committed to meeting AODA deadlines and requirements, upper management continues to reinforce ableism, which is against the Ontario Human Rights Commission code (PDF). They apparently don’t care that they’re violating the code. When David Lepofsky succeeded in forcing them to make auditory stop announcements, the court mandated annual TTC Access meetings. The TTC Commissioners care so little about accessibility, few show up to these meetings. Just as few Councillors show up. I don’t know if the Mayor ever has. After huge numbers of frustrated customers who just want to use the system desperately try to voice their feedback, the TTC takes months to answer online as if it’s just a pat-these-poor-people-on-the-head exercise, not a mandate to improve the system. No one seems to hold TTC upper management to account, including our current Mayor John Tory. On Twitter Jennifer Keesmaat has shown little interest in inclusivity, either for the city of Toronto or the TTC, as if walkability and independence is only for the fully healthy, fully able.

Graphic showing lack of stop request buttons on new TTC streetcars.

The media apparently care just as little about TTC executives misleading them and making life hell for more and more of us. They rarely question TTC PR. That’s why while the public hates the new streetcars — with a vociferousness that sometimes stuns me — and I revile the new cars — the media focus solely on their roll-out rate and mechanical failures . . . and maybe a story or two on Presto machines not working . . . but not their utter lack of usability.

Unless and until the Mayor tells the TTC that they cannot decrease cognitive accessibility, cannot rename lines and routes to numbers, must provide full accessibility and unless and until the media grills them regularly, upper management isn’t going to give a damn about what we think.

At this point, I believe only loud public pressure on the mayoralty candidates and the OHRC could perhaps effect change at the top, thereby making a feedback mechanism effective. Right now, feedback is like an unused station. We can see it; we wish they would use it; it’ll never be opened.

Final Thought

What does the TTC have to do with Sidewalk Toronto since the TTC is a separate entity from the city and doesn't give a fig about what the city or public wants? Why consider the TTC in the design of a new community on Toronto's waterfront and include it in a co-design?

Because the TTC will be the primary and most ecological way to get there and travel within this new community as it expands.

There's no point in creating an inclusive community if only the able, healthy, well-off, and neurotypical can get there! And, as well, including it in the co-design may lead to Sidewalk Toronto doing what no one else can do: make the TTC listen and change to be inclusive.


Unknown said…
I was also on the sessions with Shireen and she has covered all points excellently, I just hope the design and accessibility ideas are excepted by the TTC before we grow to old
Olive Jeejeewbhoy