My intention is not to downplay the importance of a planner’s role in accommodating and maximizing the utility of the urban environment for people of ALL disabilities, but this blog post is specifically going to cover my observations through the lens of people with physical disabilities. From my experiences in Beijing so far I have noticed spectacular design features on buildings and infrastructure. But when it comes to planning and designing for people with disabilities, China has a mixed record. With a population of 1.37 billion, you would imagine there is a significant portion of the population that has a physical disability, simply as a measure of proportions.
However you infrequently encounter people with obvious physical disabilities on the streets of Beijing (also of note, of the people who had physical disabilities that I encountered, all of them were elderly). And one of the reasons there may be a lack of disabled people on the street is due to issues of mobility. Now a point of clarification on the nature of physical disability I am talking about. Persons who need to use a wheelchair or assisted mobility device are significantly disadvantaged in public right-of-ways like sidewalks. Besides the streets of Beijing being completely unfriendly to pedestrians, you have a serious lack of infrastructure to accommodate the mobility of persons who cannot walk of their own volition. This is also true of the bus transit system. One of my local buses has a space reserved for wheelchairs (see picture below), but there is no lift assist or curbside access for them to get on the bus in the first place. And once in the space they are expected to be lashed down with a cord of rope. Certainly this is not very convenient or safe for someone traveling in a wheelchair on the bus system.
The subway system is certainly more accessible with elevator access points and the ability to board the train car at station stops (although there is a significant gap that a person has to be mindful of when boarding). While these infrastructure features for the subway are great they are not consistent among all station stops. Add to the mix the frenzy of people pushing and shoving their way onto the train and packing in like sardines and you are left with a miserable transit experience for someone who is disabled.
In addition to navigating difficult routes, accessing buildings and commercial spaces is sometimes impossible. While this is not uncommon in the U.S., it is frequent in Beijing. Even newer buildings, which have accessibility ramps, often the ramp grades are at a pitch that is not practical for someone in a hand powered wheelchair (see picture below).
But where infrastructure comes up short for people with mobility issues, infrastructure for the blind is ubiquitous. The sidewalks (when present) have tracks for the blind to follow with a system of textures to alert them when to stop, change direction, or sidestep around a barrier. These tracks are also found in the floors of the subway stations and along the edges of the boarding platforms. These track systems are often foiled by the parking crisis Beijing is suffering in the city limits, with cars parked on top of sidewalks. Other nice touches for blind persons are the braille in the hand railings of the subway stations providing locational and directional information to passengers.
China’s record on disability accommodation for buildings and transit has a long ways to go. It would be prudent of the central government and urban planners to factor access for people with disabilities. Since China has a large and aging cohort it would be prudent to make infrastructure fully functional for this large population. While these retrofits can be expensive, now with such rapid urban development going on in China it is easiest to plan for these features in the beginning stages of planning and design.