4 ways Metrolinx is making transit easier for people with vision loss

Metrolinx’s wayfinding team, in charge of signage and other information systems, has put a major focus on ensuring that transit is accessible for everyone. Learn more about the systems they’ve implemented, as told by Metrolinx wayfinding manager Toban Allison.

It’s not always easy to navigate transit – especially for people with disabilities.

That’s why the wayfinding team at Metrolinx is taking major steps to make travel accessible for all passengers.

With signage being a visual medium and the frequency of staircases and escalators in stations, maximizing accessibility isn’t a simple task.

So, Metrolinx News spoke to Toban Allison, Metrolinx wayfinding manager, to discover some of the ways the team is making transit easier for everyone.

Side view of a person in a wheelchair on an elevated platform, while the GO Train passes.
A wheelchair user waiting for the train on an elevated platform. (Metrolinx photo)

1. Philosophy of Universal Design

When creating navigation and information systems, Metrolinx applies the principles of Universal Design.

What is Universal Design? Well, it’s all about treating all customers as equals – instead of singling out people based on their needs. It’s a fundamental condition of good design that reflects the diversity of people who use it and does not impose barriers of any kind.

“We don’t treat the path that a customer in a wheelchair uses as separate from the path that anyone else would take – and equally, we don’t sign it that way,” said Allison.

When it comes to signage, Metrolinx’s rule is to reference the amenity, not the person. “We always talk about what the amenity is – such as an elevator – making it a little less about a person’s disability and more about the amenity that’s there.”

In alignment with this belief, the wayfinding team is currently working on complementing the International Symbol of Access with references to the amenity – such as elevators and ramps – in their signage.

In doing so, the systems are also more inclusive of other people who may need an elevator or ramp – like someone with a stroller or someone using a cane.

“We try to broaden the lens that we use around how we design and sign our facilities, to accommodate a larger group of people – and in doing so, I think we treat everybody in a much more egalitarian fashion.”

A new glass elevator in Rutherford Station.
An elevator located at Rutherford Station. (Metrolinx photo)

2. Bus stop poles with distinct sounds

Metrolinx is working with municipalities throughout the region to implement special bus stop poles that make a distinct sound when tapped, in efforts to accommodate people with vision loss.

Allison explained that the idea came from feedback given by a member of the Metrolinx Accessibility Advisory Committee (AAC), who has vision loss and uses a white cane. “The challenge they articulated to us is that they struggled to identify which of the many poles their cane touched was the bus stop pole that they should be waiting at.”

“What we’ve developed as a response is a distinct base, intended to go up on bus stop poles, that is meant to be easily recognizable – if you tap it, it will make a distinct noise. So, a person using a cane will be able to recognize what it is that they’ve just tapped.”

The team proposed this solution to the AAC through a dedicated site visit, to review this feature as well as new signage in person.

“This allowed us to account for factors that we couldn’t necessarily account for in a meeting room setting. For example, it was cold and damp, which impacted how long an individual was willing to keep their hands out of their pockets to read a sign.”

In the future, Metrolinx aims to use more digital technologies to make stations more accessible by, for example, implementing audio features on cell phones.

A man with vision loss and his guide dog boarding the GO Train.
A passenger and his guide dog boarding the GO Train. (Metrolinx photo)

3. Signage in multiple languages

To make stations more accessible in places where text is needed, Metrolinx will be installing new signage with messages in multiple formats.

“We do raised text in English and French, and braille in English and French – so we provide information in four formats.”

The team not only aims to give context about where the customer is, but also what’s on each floor. “We’re continuing to iterate around this, but it’s going to be super useful – it’s more information than we’ve ever provided for elevators.”

However, the team tends to be judicious when implementing features for people with vision loss.

“The reason for that is not because we don’t want to inform those individuals how to navigate a station – but because providing the information in that way is not representative of how they actually experience travel,” said Allison.

“In other words, they’re often not feeling the wall trying to find the braille – they have a number of different means of travelling, and we design toward those because those are much more dignified.”

A washroom sign displaying the word "Washroom" in English, French, braille English and braille French.
In this washroom sign, text is provided in four formats: raised text in English and French, and braille in English and French. (Metrolinx photo)

4. Tactile floor tiles

Instead of focusing only on elements such as braille signs, Metrolinx is working to implement features that may be more practical for people with vision loss.

“We are looking at providing tactile directional wayfinding tiles – which is less about braille and raised text,” said Allison.

An initiative by the Metrolinx Universal Design team, tactile directional wayfinding tiles are made up of a different tiling pattern than the yellow tactile warning tiles used along the edges of higher transit platforms. The wayfinding tiles are installed into the ground surface to facilitate wayfinding in open areas and indicate a direct route that may be taken by cane users.

“We’re trying to make the ideal solution for independent access of people with vision loss – it’s something we’re continuing to work on.”

A close view of the textured platforms beside the train tracks.
These tactile warning tiles indicate the area passengers should not cross when waiting for their train. (Metrolinx photo)

In general, the wayfinding team at Metrolinx is all about advocating for people with disabilities – and never assuming they know the answer.

“If I could emphasize one thing about accessibility and wayfinding at Metrolinx, it’s that we really want to have people with disabilities shape whatever we do,” Allison said.

“We want to design in a way that is responsive to their needs, and in the best-case scenario, anticipating their needs. We want to obtain feedback from people with disabilities and involve them in user testing before implementing across all stations. We’ll continue to get better at that, but they’re the drivers of what we do – and we’ll just try to keep improving.”

Story by Abby Zinman, Metrolinx editorial co-op student