Urban Transformation

Want a future-ready city? Make it accessible

Franck Maille, 52, from campaign group APF France handicap, who has been in a wheelchair for most of his life due to a neuromuscular disease, takes the elevator to access the Madeleine metro station in Paris, France, in a blog about making cities accessbile REUTERS/Stephanie Lecocq

Designing and constructing accessible cities will create the urban transformation that is required for all their citizens. Image: REUTERS/Stephanie Lecocq

Susan Pinkwater
Founder, ThrivAbility Ecosystem
William Chernicoff
Director, Global Research & Innovation, Toyota Mobility Foundation
Karen Tamley
President and CEO, Access Living
Eileen Iannone
Director, Urban Strategy and Innovation, Bedrock
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This article is part of: Centre for Urban Transformation
  • Urban systems exist to serve the entire population and this includes the growing number of people with mobility challenges.
  • Cities must invest holistically to meet today’s needs while enabling future systems to meet sustainability and accessibility standards.
  • Designing and constructing accessible cities will create the urban transformation that is required for all their citizens.

Urban systems exist to serve the entire population and this includes the growing number of people with mobility challenges.

Infrastructure decisions and investments today set the current path, as well as the constraints, for decades. At this critical juncture, cities must invest holistically to meet today’s needs while enabling future systems to meet increasingly demanding sustainability and accessibility standards.

Around the globe, record-high capital spending is planned to renew urban infrastructure, slated to reach more than $130 trillion in investment by 2027. The focus primarily revolves around decarbonization but often overlooks the crucial aspect of accessibility and the incoming populations that will require it.

Making cities accessible to all citizens

We need to change the way we think and plan our cities or pay the higher cost of retrofitting for accessibility later. To avoid mistakes of the past, cities must make investments that address both sustainability and accessibility standards.

In doing so, cities will meet the needs of citizens today and intentionally design for the populations of tomorrow.

As the largest global minority, people with disabilities constitute a significant demographic, comprising 16% of the global population, or 1.3 billion people.

Further, the ageing population is set to grow substantially in the coming decades, from a 1 billion projection by 2030 to a 1.6 billion projection by 2050, which will make up 17% of the estimated global population.

The disability and ageing populations face higher rates of mobility challenges, such as walking, balance, vision, cognitive understanding and reduced physical strength. The design of metropolitan areas, especially older cities and their transportation systems, have frequently neglected the needs of these groups.

Investing in innovative accessible solutions

While only one-third of the London Tube stations have wheelchair accessibility due to the expense of retrofitting older infrastructure, cities can begin to address these limitations, in part, by investing in technology and better design approaches that remove barriers to mobility and improve individuals’ abilities to get around.

In fact, the newer Elizabeth Line has made a significant commitment to providing assistance for all passengers. As Transport for London state in their travel policy paper, “We understand the importance of accessibility when travelling on public transport and appreciate the independence and mobility it can offer elderly and disabled customers."

And in the Swiss city of Lausanne, the metro stations have been built with tactile markings on the floors, braille on the handrails, video and audio signals as well as full accessibility for wheelchair and walker users. The whole city has used an impressive universal design approach, but as a relatively wealthy city, it can serve as an ideal model but not yet a requirement.

Have you read?

Meaningful progress in removing mobility barriers is often achieved through innovation, from autonomous vehicle pilot projects to open data collection to innovative financial tools.

With record funding flowing to infrastructure and a growing global emphasis on assistive technology, now is the time for cities to integrate technologies focused on enhanced navigation directly into the built environment.

The Forbes report Disability is A Game Changer for 2023 and Beyond emphasizes the untapped potential of this market.

The consumer market for accessible products is misunderstood as “niche”. With a disposable income of more than $8 trillion, the disability community represents a market the size of the United States, Brazil, Pakistan, and Indonesia combined, making it a larger market than China.

According to Custom Markets Insights, the global disability and elderly assistive technology market is worth $66.84 billion, with a 7.26% year-over-year growth rate.

This market only stands to grow as global demographics continue to shift. Cities can spur momentum by strategically investing in technologies that will serve future populations and exclusively procuring from companies with accessibility as a standard.

Municipalities and private actors can accelerate the rate of innovation by ensuring that accessibility is central to their investment criteria.

Barrier-free infrastructure demands high operating standards

Accessible infrastructure quickly becomes inaccessible if not maintained or well-integrated. Cities, like the people they serve, are in constant flux. City infrastructure operations and maintenance are often performed by a mix of government agencies separate from those who fund, design or build it.

In the US, a key component of Americans with Disabilities Act compliance is maintaining those features so they remain usable. Businesses spend money to remove barriers. And, businesses need to protect that investment.

Barrier-free and useable infrastructure not only requires careful design but also high operating standards. The focus on maintenance and operation is crucial, as disruptions can have severe impacts on disabled and ageing residents.

Suppose an accessible entry point into the subway is under construction. In this case, a wheelchair user may need to travel significant distances, often through untested routes, to find the next opportunity to board.

High operating standards, including streamlined wayfinding, multiple access points, communication channels, safety networks and swift repairs, are essential to maintaining the integrity of accessible infrastructure.


How is the World Economic Forum promoting sustainable and inclusive mobility systems?

Organizations like Canada’s Rick Hansen Foundation are helping developers build with more accessible guidelines. For example, they focus on understanding space beyond what code dictates, to design with empathy and user-centered design and to think of the financial losses of “doing nothing”.

The foundation worked on the redesign of LaGuardia airport’s terminal B in New Yorks City to achieve their gold standard rating by creating the following accessibility features:

  • Hearing loops at all guest experience desks
  • Intuitive departure board displays in two different formats and colour coding to assist with intuitive navigation. Distance to gates is also displayed
  • Accessible assistance curbside drop-off/check-in service and call button
  • Intuitive and consistent colour-coded wayfinding throughout the terminal, including the use of landmarks for intuitive navigation
  • A calming New York City-style park seating area that is noticeably different from the rest of the terminal’s spaces thanks to sensory stimulation provided through plants and foliage

Policies and codes need to be updated

The concept of “smart cities”, often touted as the epitome of urban innovation, frequently overlooks those with disabilities and older adults, leaving them out of design, planning, procurement and implementation processes.

Policies and codes dictate infrastructure design. These design processes need to evolve to prioritize accessibility standards and resilience. And yet accessibility consultants too often work at the end of the process, making modifications inefficient and costly.

Complicating matters even more, consultants use distinct or bespoke guidelines, making it challenging to create a national or international standard for what constitutes accessible design. Establishing standardized guidelines for accessibility and introducing educational pathways can streamline the integration of universal design principles.


In the interim, while we design and build accessible cities, there are several initiatives and apps such as OpenSidewalks that crowdsource and map current cities and offer people with diverse physical challenges access to more detailed information about accessible streets, subway stops, hotels, etc.

Holding cities to a higher level of accountability when designing infrastructure systems could be done through a review and certification process for accessibility engineers that would provide an official stamp when plans meet standardized codes.

To build resilient and accessible cities, we also need to:

  • Invest in multi-modal integrated transportation with the full spectrum of end-users in mind
  • Incorporate inclusive design principles in development plans from the outset
  • Include people with disabilities and older residents in the planning process as part of an integrative design team
  • Integrate accessibility into smart cities technology and design guidelines, procurement standards and infrastructure modifications

Designing and constructing accessible cities is not only a good thing to do as all people will benefit, without them, based on the known incoming demographics, we will have a global crisis.

Planning now, involving diverse and knowledgeable teams, will save trillions of dollars in retro-fitting and will create the accessible urban transformation that is required for our cities and their citizens to connect and thrive.

ThrivAbility Ecosystem is a social venture with a mission to create a world where accessibility is universal and every person, regardless of age or ability, can participate, connect, and thrive. Designated as an AARP Agetech Collaborative testbed, our three pillars are education, innovation (assistive tech, agetech and active mobility) and corporate engagement.

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