Urban and rural environments designed for all

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Carretera accesible en un pueblo de Austria. Foto: © Pawel Kazmierczak / Shutterstock Carretera accesible en un pueblo de Austria. Foto: © Pawel Kazmierczak / Shutterstock

If accessibility is within everyone's reach, why should we stop halfway?  The ability of a person is determined by her or his environment. According to the World Health Organization (2011), 15% of the population has some type of disability. Accessible design environments enable, whereas poorly designed environments disable. The ability to move independently, comfortably and without interruptions is a basic right, and we must consider all architectural design and adaptability measures which may grant full accessibility.

A barrier-free environment is essential for 10% of the population, necessary for 40% and comfortable for 100%. Our human diversity and the necessary adaptation to the new mobility pattern, tourism or disruptive situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic require an inclusive adaptation of the different environments. Several European countries such as Austria, England or Germany are well-known for their inclusion policies in terms of mobility and urban design, aiming to develop full capabilities and to offer greater opportunities in their urban environments

"The ability to move independently, comfortably and without interruptions is a basic right, and we must consider all architectural design and adaptability measures which may grant full accessibility."

Austria has achieved an inclusive urban environment by following the basic principles of universal design (equitable, flexible, simple and intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort and adequate size and space for approach and use) both in the design of its infrastructure, and in the interoperability of the network and the digitization of services through applications. Austria is a perfect example of a country which is historically committed to improving universal accessibility in its urban and rural environments, considering the needs of all possible groups , such as people with disabilities, women or non-motorized transport users.

Trains adapted to transport bicycles in Austria.
Trains adapted to transport bicycles in Austria. Photo: © Sofía Guerrero/World Bank

The universal accessibility measures included in the Austrian model can be easily adopted in other contexts and countries, regardless of their capacity or level of development, without involving a cost that the country cannot assume. Among these initiatives, we may highlight:

  • Accessible signage in urban contexts and in the transport network. Countries like Peru, Ecuador or Brazil have implemented accessible signage over the last years. Lima, for example, has a modern and inclusive signage system, recently implemented for line 1 of the Lima metro network and the Metropolitano (bus rapid transit, BRT). Another example is the São Paulo metro signage, redesigned since 1981. Currently, it follows the inclusion principles and is a guide for other transport systems in the country. There are many examples which show how governments in developing countries work to improve the inclusion of people through signage. However, based on the Austrian model, we can see how this design should be considered in the entire urban context, including streets, crosswalks, traffic lights, etc.
  • Information and assistance for people with disabilities. Cities such as Vienna, London, Hamburg, São Paulo or Cape Town offer an assistance system for passengers with disabilities, offering exclusive transport and a training plan for operators to provide the necessary support. Although the main examples are from developed countries or cities with greater capacity, there are some adapted initiatives proposed by the World Bank (2009), such as creating low-cost communication campaigns that alert passengers to help others in need (informational posters, audio messages at stations or stops, etc.).
  • Mobility applications. The development of mobile applications for urban transport is useful for all, including people with disabilities, the elderly or pregnant women.  Applications such as Apertum in Madrid or WienMobil in Vienna facilitate the use of public transport by suggesting alternatives which are adapted for people with disabilities, as well as the option of requesting a personalized service. Recommending the use of other free applications which provide support to passengers with disabilities can be an interesting solution until each city can develop its own application.

"If I want to travel, I can, and I know how." The World Bank supports governments to implement measures that improve inclusiveness of public spaces and transport services.  Inclusive design, digitization and better assistance services are solutions that can be adapted to different local contexts and implemented together with inclusion public policies. With social awareness and the involvement of public and private entities, change is possible in all parts of the world. We only have to propose it. 

This blog was updated on August 31, 2021 to reflect a correction in the information mentioned in the first paragraph. The main data in this blog is taken from an old WHO report from 2011, which is the latest official report. For this reason, universal accessibility specialists work with estimated data. In addition, the figure about the 40% of additional people mentioned in the earlier version is also an estimation, taken from the proceedings report of the II International Congress of Accessibility and Museology. These data estimations, and an error which should have referred to pregnant women instead of women, have caused some confusion. The blog authors have opted to remove those lines from the piece.


Lorena Sierra Valdivieso

Transport Consultant for the Infrastructure and Transport Unit, World Bank

Gálata Llano

Accessibility Specialist

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