These are the most wheelchair-accessible cities around the world
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With an estimated 1 billion of the world’s population living with a disability and an aging population, particularly in the developed world, it’s becoming increasingly important for municipal authorities around the world to cater to a growing need for accessibility in both the built and digital environments.
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While no city can claim to be fully accessible – access needs are far too wide-ranging and diverse – there are several that deserve praise for the efforts that they are making when it comes to wheelchair-accessibility. Here we highlight half a dozen world leaders.
In Singapore, the question is not, “What is accessible?” but rather, “What isn’t?” — from its street food hawker centers to its marvelous zoo.
Singapore is the most accessible city in Asia and among the most accessible cities in the world. Interestingly, the impetus for accessibility seems to have been an aging demographic rather than people with disabilities, as evidenced by the unique feature of pedestrian crossings in the city center that eligible citizens can tap with a card for additional crossing time. Its universal code on barrier-free accessibility, in place for 30 years, is continually being revised, with the most recent update in 2020 mandating improvements to the accessibility of older buildings undergoing renovation, the safety and accessibility of escalators and elevators, and the provision of accessible toilets at the entrance level of all buildings, as well as larger Changing Places-style toilets on other floors.
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All MRT (subway) stations have priority elevators, tactile wayfinding, easy-to-follow signage, visual and audible indicators in elevators and on platforms, and wheelchair-accessible toilets. The entire fleet of public buses was slated to be wheelchair-accessible by 2020, with all bus stops already barrier-free. Regular taxis can usually accommodate manual wheelchair users; motorized wheelchair users can contact Caring Fleet to book wheelchair-accessible maxicabs for airport transfers or transport around the island. Local ride-hailing app Grab also provides a service called GrabAssist, which offers additional assistance to seniors and wheelchair users.
The vast majority of tourist attractions are fully accessible to people with disabilities and those with access needs, including the new Gardens by the Bay complex, which also provides a free shuttle service for wheelchair users and wheelchair rental. Visit Singapore gives detailed information about and links to accessibility on different modes of transport and the built environment. The Disabled People’s Association of Singapore is also an excellent resource and includes links to many local disability-specific organizations, as well as a page dedicated to accessible Singapore for tourists.
Spain has long been at the forefront of catering for its citizens with disability and access needs, partly due to the influence of the venerable ONCE Foundation, established originally in 1938 to assist people who were blind or visually impaired, but since 1988 extending its remit to further the social inclusion of all people living with a disability.
With its reliance on tourism, it’s no surprise that the national Spanish tourism authority and Catalonia, in particular, have prioritized accessible travel, leading to Barcelona becoming a veritable wheelchair mecca in recent years. With more than 80% of the metro stations already wheelchair-accessible (and a promise of 100% accessibility by 2024) and 100% of buses already wheelchair-accessible – as well as a relatively flat and cobblestone-free old city – getting around is cheap and easy. What’s more, people with disabilities not only jump to the front of the line for attractions such as the breathtaking Sagrada Família and medieval Catedral, they and their companions usually get in for free! If you’re in a wheelchair, you can roll the length of La Rambla, get around the famous Mercat de la Boqueria and visit the most famous Gaudí buildings. Even the beach has wheelchair access, with lifeguards on hand to assist if necessary.
There are plenty of online resources to help you plan your trip and assist you on the ground. Turisme de Barcelona has a multilingual website dedicated to accessible travel, which has a host of useful information you may need to plan your trip. Tur4all is a relatively new accessible tourism platform launched by Predif, backed by the Vodafone Foundation, that covers the Iberian Peninsula, which has a fantastic search function for all manner of venues with filters for different accessibility criteria.
The Access City Award, organized by the European Commission together with the European Disability Forum, forms part of the EU Disability Strategy 2010-2020. The award was launched in 2010 to raise awareness of the challenges faced by people with disabilities, and to promote accessibility initiatives in European cities with more than 50,000 inhabitants. In a first for Central and Eastern Europe, Poland’s capital, Warsaw, was the winner in 2020, having made remarkable progress in a short period of time. This achievement reflects the commitment of the Polish government, which in 2018 launched the ambitious and wide-ranging national Programme Accessibility Plus, aimed at improving the quality of life for the elderly and people living with disabilities. The city has also been cracking down on compliance with accessibility rules and, importantly, is further developing accessibility requirements for its websites.
In its 11 years, the country’s Culture Without Barriers festival has seen 160 films provided with audio description and subtitles, 120 theatrical performances made accessible for people with visual and hearing disabilities and – recognizing that accessibility is affected as much by attitude as by physical barriers – 6,000 people receiving disability-awareness training.
On arrival, international visitors can expect a fully barrier-free airport – there are even tactile maps that show the whole airport. The city’s trains and metro stations are all accessible, as are the vast majority of buses and bus stops. The removal of cobblestones means flat, smooth surfaces that benefit both wheelchair users and the visually impaired. There’s a comprehensive network of tactile paving and pedestrian crossings equipped with both Braille and audible indicators for the visually impaired.
But the real game-changer for the blind and visually impaired community is the implementation of beacon technology, which is increasingly being employed by smart cities worldwide. The city has deployed a network of hundreds of thousands of beacons equipped with next-generation Bluetooth to help visually impaired residents move independently about the city with assistance from their smartphones. “Virtual Warsaw” already benefits the city’s estimated 40,000 residents living with vision impairment, but there are also plans to use the app for tourists. The full-scale rollout is scheduled for 2021.
Thanks largely to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the USA is one of the most accessible countries in the world for people with disabilities. But this makes it hard to choose one city over another: Washington; Las Vegas; Berkeley, California; Scottsdale, Arizona; and St. Louis are just a few cities that get the gong from various different polls and organizations. We’ve chosen Denver because of its all-around livability, better-than-average compliance with the ADA and the wealth of cultural and sporting activities available for people with disabilities.
If arriving by plane, you will find the country’s fifth-busiest airport fully prepared to cater to your needs, and even those of your service animal, which is provided with its own private restroom on each of the airport concourses!
The city’s public transportation is highly accessible, with the RTD light rail and fully accessible bus services able to take passengers with disabilities anywhere in the city – with a 50% discount for seniors and people with a disability. For those who are eligible and can’t use RTD’s bus and light rail services, there’s also the Access-a-Ride program, providing a door-to-door paratransit service seven days a week, 23 hours a day. Sidewalks, particularly in the city center, are in good repair with plenty of curb cuts which, together with relatively flat terrain, makes it easy for wheelchair users and slow walkers to get around. Just watch out for the snow in winter!
Almost all tourist attractions and the city’s many public gardens – including the 70-year-old Denver Botanic Gardens – are accessible. So too are the city’s cultural assets – the Denver Art Museum, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, to name just the main ones. This sports-loving city is home to five professional sports teams, and each stadium is blessed with both accessible and universal seating. But it’s the opportunities for people with disabilities to participate in sports that’s the icing on the cake, with Denver being the home of the National Sports Center for the Disabled – which has been a pioneer in providing adaptive outdoor experiences for more than 50 years – as well as Adaptive Adventures, a nonprofit dedicated to providing adaptive outdoor sporting activities.
Oslo was one of the first cities in the world to officially embrace the principles of “universal design,” which goes beyond mere accessibility to aim for buildings, products and environments to be accessible to as many people as possible without the need for modification. With a goal for all municipal agencies and companies to implement universal design requirements by the end of 2025, the city has already completed numerous measures: Most government-operated buildings are accessible, parks and beaches have been universally designed, the subway and bus systems have been updated and, importantly, official websites have been made more accessible (technically speaking, compliant to WCAG 2.1 level AA). This has not been a cheap undertaking: The city council has allocated an impressive $1.85 million per year to the “Handicap Project,” which seeks to coordinate the city’s renovation and accessibility projects.
Public transportation is relatively accessible: All but one metro station, all overground trains, all city buses and most public ferries are wheelchair-accessible, but only the newer, low-floor trams can accommodate wheelchair users. This is very handy because wheelchair-accessible taxis are not numerous and certainly not cheap! The sidewalks are generally in good repair, especially downtown, and there are plenty of curb cuts – although some wheelchair users have noted they are often not flush with the ground. For the visually impaired, the city makes good use of tactile paving, there are audible announcements at stations and on trains, and pedestrian crossings have audible signals.
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The vast majority of attractions in the city are accessible, with discounts for people with disabilities and free entry for companions to some of the city’s many interesting and varied museums – it’s even possible for wheelchair users to roll up onto the roof of the Oslo Opera House! The Royal Palace is reputedly one of the most accessible royal residences in the world.
Victoria’s progressive government is another that is beginning to embrace the principles of universal design, particularly for public works and social housing. With its highly accessible public transport system (with the notable exception of the tram network, where accessibility for wheelchair users is patchy) and compact and relatively flat city center, Melbourne is one of the most accessible cities in the world. This being my home city, and having visited many other cities as a wheelchair user, I can say this with confidence!
Almost the entire fleet of buses is wheelchair-accessible, as are all trains and almost all train stations. Trains and newer trams have both audio and visual announcements. The Public Transport Victoria smartphone app has a wheelchair filter, making journey planning a breeze. Pavements, even in the suburbs, are generally in good repair with plenty of curb cuts for wheelchair users and tactile paving to assist the visually impaired, and all pedestrian crossings are equipped with audible indicators. In 2019 the city began to install beacons in the city center to interface with the smartphone app BlindSquare to assist navigation for people with low vision. The city’s main two railway stations – Flinders Street and Southern Cross – have already installed beacon technology, with a commitment from PTV to roll this out across the entire network. Although there is no accessible ride-share option, there is a large wheelchair-accessible taxi fleet.
Accessible bathrooms are relatively plentiful, with an increasing number of Changing Places toilets being built, and are easily located using the web-based national public toilet map, also available as a smartphone app.
Recognized as the cultural and sporting capital of Australia – sorry Sydneysiders! – it’s the home of the Australian Open, Australian Grand Prix and the Melbourne Cricket Ground, all of which reserve premium seats for those with access needs. All major tourist attractions are accessible, including the Eureka Skydeck and the Melbourne Star Observation Wheel, while the Melbourne Museum has not only made accessibility a priority, it has also made sure it is autism- and sensory-friendly. Melbourne is also blessed with numerous accessible attractions within easy reach of the city, from Arthur’s Seat Eagle chairlift to Wilsons Promontory National Park, one of several locations around Melbourne where you can find both beach wheelchairs and all-terrain TrailRiders.
Featured photo by xavierarnau/Getty Images.
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