improving the experience of crossing streets at Abbot Kinney for the disabled community
The sidewalk infrastructure at Abbot Kinney in Venice, California is inherently ableist - particularly the crosswalks. To make the trek across the street in time, disabled pedestrians are forced to wait in the street, hurt themselves by walking too fast, and even push their own wheelchairs.
My team set out to design a discreet solution that gives disabled pedestrians enough time to cross the street only when disabled pedestrians are present.
We strived for a system that can benefit all pedestrians, but doesn't constantly slow the area's traffic patterns or single out disabled pedestrians.
IXD Studio 1, Fall 2019
primary research (observations, interviews)
prototyping & testing
primary interviewer, sensor & screen visual designer
Andrew Ma, Omzee Pitchford-Martinez
WHY ABBOT KINNEY?
Abbot Kinney is a mile-long street in Venice, California, home to many of Los Angeles's best-loved foods and fashions. The street hosts ~20 food trucks to celebrate the first Friday of every month, 24 highly instagrammable brunch spots, and 96 trendy shops, from Brandy Melville to small collective startups. Abbot Kinney is a high-brow, beachy city center that welcomes 20,000 visitors annually.
We chose to center our project at Abbot Kinney for a few reasons. Firstly, we wanted to study the interactions between its several forms of transportation (cars, bikes, escooters, walking, etc), which all operate in the same space. Secondly, the space has a dearth of ADA-friendly infrastructure; the lipless curbs, cracked sidewalks, and untimed crosswalks provided room for improvement. Thirdly, well, Abbot Kinney is a pretty pleasant spot to conduct a research project. We celebrated every project update with a cone of Salt & Straw ice cream... and there were a LOT of project updates. As we explored the space, our observations evolved into a guiding question:
How might we improve the experience of crossing streets at Abbot Kinney for people with disabilities, creating a more accessible, inclusive environment?
skinny, cracked sidewalks
infrequent curb lips
only some crosswalks are timed
disabled people struggle to maneuver around photo-taking crowds
woman in wheelchair got out up and hobble-jogged across street!
her friend lifted wheelchair off the sidewalk's high curb
We came back a week later with some crutches of our own. I put myself in the shoes of our disabled pedestrian interviewees by attempting to hobble up and down the street in crutches. This experiment helped more than I had ever imagined. First off, crutches hurt. I constantly found myself wanting to sit down, but lacking a bench to do so. Secondly (and what became most importantly), the crosswalk buttons were really inconveniently located. They were always placed next to the steep curb, not the lip (and that’s in the handful of times the curb had a lip). It was surprisingly frustrating to have to hobble out of my way to the button, then reposition myself in front of the sloped curb. Every time I tried to walk off the steep curb in my crutches, I felt stressed and injury-prone. The third insight has more to do with the crosswalk timing - 35 seconds simply wasn’t enough time to cross Venice Blvd along Abbot Kinney, even when I crutched at top speed. Those with real disabilities would find it impossible to make it across without angering impatient drivers.
In addition to the disabled pedestrians we met at Abbot Kinney, we also spoke with two disabled friends. Sophia was born with Ataxia, a neurological disease that affects the nerves. She uses a walker to move around. Ojin uses a custom built, motorized wheelchair to help resolve her birth defects - weakened legs, an unstable spine, and inflexible hands. Their insights were very interesting - neither of them walk on sidewalks very often, since it’s so difficult. Since neither Sophia nor Ojin can drive, they use public transportation and Access, a wheelchair-friendly Uber-esque service, to get around. Ojin mentioned that the painted stripes on crosswalks are so thick that she usually struggles to push her wheelchair over the bumps. Both she and Sophia separately admitted that they for crosswalks in the street, rather than on the sidewalk, because they’re so accustomed to running out of time.
We developed our first prototype shortly after our first round of observations. We decided to make a wearable which could control crosswalk timing. It would track the wearer’s location and buzz at each intersection, prompting a single-button dialogue with the user:
one tap = send signal forwards
two taps = send signal sideways
no tap = the wearer intends to turn and stay on the sidewalk
We tested this concept on 10 students, who liked the idea but pointed out that it’s often difficult for people with disabilities to exercise control over both of their arms.
In our second prototype, we toyed with the idea of using a phone app to make cylindrical barriers rise when disabled pedestrians cross streets, barring cars from inching forward into the crosswalk. While Sophia loved this idea, “It would give me so much more security!”, our student testers again raised important questions. What if cars were on top of the cylinders? What if the cylinders hit and damaged cars? What if ambulances needed to quickly pass through? How much would this cost? Isn’t this more of a city infrastructure issue than an interface design? We tested this idea on students with crutches, using cones to represent road block cylinders. You can view one of our student tests below, along with an example image that portrays what the road blocks could look like.
In our third design, we moved the prototype closer to our original concept. Disabled users would download an app, which connects to sensors placed at every intersection corner and automatically sends signals to nearby crosswalk timers, giving pedestrians ample time to cross the street. Sophia and Ojin both loved the hands-free nature of this concept; the less interaction, the more democratically accessible it is to all kinds of disabled users. Ojin encouraged us to shorten the onboarding process to minimize the amount of typing necessary. Sophia advised that we ditch the wheelchair icon in our sensor design, since it makes her feel ostracized and “other”. With their input, our final prototype uses the app logo (Crosswalker wordmark) to mark the ground sensors and pre-populates all medical record information as soon as users enter a simple 6-digit access code (proof of doctor’s recommendation).
Initial sensor designs (changed due to alienating disabled iconography):
Testing with Sophia:
Initial timer feedback designs (needed to avoid disabled iconography, corner blue light wasn’t clear):
Final timer feedback design (rim lights up, which keeps continuity with the ground sensor rim light):
RESULTS & REFLECTION
Our final prototype solved disabled pedestrians’ two biggest concerns: crossing the street in time and accessing the curb ramp efficiently (no wheeling out of the way to hit the button). However, we have lots of improvement in terms of accessability. We focused on physically disables users, but blind and deaf people would use this app, too. In the next iterations of design, we could implement options to help those users: audible chirps to signify walking time, resizable text within the app, voice-recognized typing, an out-loud countdown so near-sighted users can know how much time is left to make it across the street. Much of this concept relies on cooperation from city planners, but our research and testing shows that the installation of ground sensors, more timed crosswalks, and editable crosswalk timers would vastly improve the experience of crossing streets for people with disabilities.