How mapping software screws wheelchair users…

Public transport in London is not good enough for people with mobility problems, and it’s pretty hard to even explain to people that mobility problems isn’t the same as people in sport wheelchairs.  The London Underground is a particular offender (mostly for historical reasons of construction it must be said), and the nasty truth is that for a lot of people with mobility problems the LU is a no-go area. Personally I find the idea of ‘just use the bus’ pretty horrible in any case and I’d like to see *actual* accessible transport, but while waiting for accessible transport, I’d like the second-order services like mapping software and so on to take account of the fact that not everyone is one of the gouging and biting mobs fighting to get on the central line at quarter to six in the evening…. Sigh.

I recently found myself on a train with a person from Microsoft and a person from Google, and I took the opportunity to talk to them about an issue that’s important to me – that when I use Google/Apple/Bing maps there is no option to say ‘I’m a wheelchair user/a bit unsteady/have a small child in a pram, please don’t put me on the jubilee line’. And one of the joys of technical people is that at no point do they respond with comments about how it’s the fault of the left/right. Nor do they attack the premise, set up strawman positions, or check first that nobody is going to blame them. Instead you have a sensible discussion about the technical challenges.

There are technical challenges; people tend to think a step-free routing algorithm is very hard, or very easy – and it is very easy if you do it badly, but to do it well takes a certain amount of though, and quite a lot of careful scoping (for the computer scientists consider that some stations have *some* accessible platforms, and that which platform a train arrives at is not statically visible – there are a range of problems that are less pithily expressed).

Anyway I’d like to be positive about such things and point at two things – one for the technicaly-minded – this is the Open Street Map page on Wheelchair routing, which is a really interesting start. And for the more pragmatic amongst you. I would point you in the direction of citymapper

City mapper isn’t disability focused at all, and it’s (in the UK) only useful in London, but it has the useful feature that you can ask it for routes that only use buses…


…and if you are trying to get around London while avoiding steps, busses are a reasonable start…. I’d be really interested to hear from people about other apps that have made cities more accessible, and particular ones for UK cites.


3 thoughts on “How mapping software screws wheelchair users…

  1. Joe

    Back in October I ran round one of a test run on a country wide travel app (on iPhone, Android & Windows Phone 8) that allowed the user to choose end to end travel plans via tube, train, bus, ferry and aircraft.

    It also had the option to choose step free access, wheel chair access etc and on the whole it wasn’t bad although some of it’s wheel chair access routes were incorrect so it went back to the developers for that to be worked on.

    We are hoping for round two of testing to commence in January 2014 and a release soon afterwards.

    Once it’s available on the app stores I’ll let you know so you can see what you think


      • Joe

        I may take you up on that 🙂

        Currently working on setting up a new consultancy that will specialise in accessibility testing of Web, Apps and VOD.

        Going through the whole legal stuff for a not for profits company at the moment so probably looking at late Feb/March before it’s up and running properly but I will be looking for on site and cloud based testers when I get there.


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