Modern design makes streetcar one of country's most universally accessible

CINCINNATI -- More than a month before the streetcar launched, and more than a month before transit officials invited the media for a preview ride along its route, one group had the chance to take a look at the region's newest public transit system before anyone else.

In late July, dozens of people with a wide range of disabilities -- along with other curious members of the public passing by -- gathered to get onboard and take a look at the streetcar's accessibility features.

"We understood people with disabilities sometimes need a little extra time to explore and can have more specific questions than might occur to the general public," said Sue Guagenti, with the Cincinnati Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired. "It gave them the opportunity to take their time."

Guagenti's organization partnered with the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority -- which oversees streetcar operations -- to host the streetcar's Disabilities Awareness Day, giving future riders with disabilities the chance to familiarize themselves with the streetcar and learn how they can best use it.

It turns out, Cincinnati's streetcar is one of the most universally accessible in the U.S.

That's according to SORTA spokeswoman, Brandy Jones, who said only Cincinnati and Kansas City -- which just opened its own new streetcar system in May -- offer such a level of accessibility.

The concept of accessibility entered the general public's consciousness in 1990, when Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, laying out an extensive set of criteria mandating design specifications for creating an environment in which people of all physical and mental abilities can access and maneuver safely.

Jones said Cincinnati's streetcar is fully ADA-compliant, and in some pretty unique ways. Here's how:

On the car

1. "100-percent low floor"

It's sort of a vague term, but it's a pretty simple concept. It's also what sets Cincinnati and Kansas City apart from every other streetcar system in the country, Jones said.

One of the many things differentiating the streetcar from the region's other transit options is how the streetcar sits in relation to the platform floor: They're completely aligned. No ramps, no steps. Just an approximately half-inch gap between the platform edge and the vehicle floor. This allows riders using wheelchairs or other wheeled means of self-transport to simply roll onto the streetcar.

The streetcar's "100-percent low floor" design allows riders using wheelchairs or motorized scooters -- not to mention bicycles, strollers and grocery carts -- to board the vehicle easily and independently. (Pat LaFleur/WCPO)

"It's really easy, just wheeling right on," Guagenti said, recalling Disabilities Awareness Day. "Getting on and off is a breeze."

Beyond granting riders in wheelchairs or motorized scooters the ability to board themselves, it also speeds up the arrival-departure process, helping the system maintain its schedule.

Compare this to Cincinnati Metro buses, which all include at least one step up to board. While ADA-compliant, a large portion of Metro buses require the driver to unfold a ramp or lower an elevator to lift the chair onboard.

While an important accessibility feature of Metro buses, it's less efficient than the low floor approach.

Beyond those who use a wheelchair or motorized scooter, the 100-percent low floor design also allows bicyclists to wheel their bikes onboard, parents their strollers, grocery shoppers their carts.

Basically, if it has wheels, it'll roll right on.

2. Open floor design/foldable seats

The streetcar is designed around the notion that most riders will stand while riding. Out of the roughly 150-passenger capacity, the streetcar only has around 50 seats. This creates an open space in which riders in chairs can maneuver more easily.

Each streetcar vehicle's center car -- which is where most of the accessibility features are found, and where those in wheelchairs are urged to board -- is equipped with multiple sets of foldable seats, that any passenger can raise or lower, depending on their needs.

The foldable seats are also light-weight, making it easier for most passengers to maneuver them on their own -- another sharp contrast from the bus system, in which drivers are required to fold the seats and strap the riders chairs in themselves.

It's in these spaces that bicyclists and those with strollers or carts are urged to stand while riding.

3. Handholds and stanchions

Riders hold on to the many handholds and stanchions located throughout the streetcar. (Emily Maxwell/WCPO)

As those who have already ridden the streetcar may have noticed by now, holding on is kind of a must when standing while a streetcar is in motion, given its stops and starts in auto traffic.

But the streetcar is designed so that, no matter where one is sitting or standing, they are within reach of a handhold or a stanchion -- or both, SORTA Director of Rail Services Paul Grether previously told WCPO.

This is particularly crucial for those using wheelchairs with no or less-than-reliable brake systems, in that the streetcar does not include straps in the same way the Metro buses do. As a result, in this case, the stanchions and handholds become valuable tools for making sure one's chair does not shift in transit.

4. Overhead announcements

For visually impaired riders, Guagenti said the streetcar's audio features are critical.

Audible announcements are nothing new to transit -- dating back to Cincinnati's original streetcar conductors shouting out the stops as they approach, warning riders that their stops are approaching.

But Guagenti said there's more to it than just riders -- whether because they're visually impaired or simply not paying attention -- getting due warning. She said it also helps them situating themselves and maneuvering within the space of the vehicle after a period of sitting or standing still.

"(The audible announcements) are just fantastic," she said. "They provide much needed orientation."

At the station

5. Sound the horn

One of the most iconic elements of the streetcar -- and what most people noticed first as they began testing Downtown and in Over-the-Rhine -- were the sounds it makes while traversing the city streets.

With the exception of the friendly operator saying "Hello" to a child waving from the sidewalk here and there, there is a rhyme and reason to when an operator will sound the horn or ring the bell: The horn will sound as the streetcar is approaching a station, and will ring its bell as it is preparing to start moving from a stop (whether at a station or traffic intersection).

As far as accessibility at the station goes, this is when the horn is most critical, as it alerts riders with visual impairment that they're car is approaching. The doors opening also delivers a lot of sound, accompanied by the overhead audible announcements and door chimes from inside the car, indicate the car has stopped and it's time to board.

Train stations are notoriously noisy places -- for more reasons than one, and the streetcar is no exception.

6. Ticket vending machines

So far, the ticket vending machines have been a bit of a thorn in the streetcar's side, primarily due to buggy software and Cincinnati's streetcar being the first to employ credit card chip readers.

Another criticism about the ticketing process has been that it's too complicated, and a simple glance at the machine and its dozens of buttons reflect that.

The streetcar's ticket vending machines can provide audio instruction for riders with visual impairment, to be listened to either through a speaker or headphones. (Pat LaFleur/WCPO)

But part of the machine's somewhat busy look is a result of providing ADA-required features like Braille and an audio module that enunciates instructions on purchasing fare, either through a speaker or through headphones.

7. There's an app for that

The transit authority's recurring theme when addressing issues with the ticket vending machines has been to urge riders to download their mobile ticketing app, called Cincy EZRide, which can be used to purchase tickets and -- eventually -- track streetcars' locations along the route.

Jones said the app is fully integrated with Android's and iOS's respective accessibility features, such as captioning and audio descriptions, display customization and voiceover, allowing Cincy EZRide users with visual impairment to purchase fare.

Guagenti noted, however, that the app does not include the Fare Deal/Access rates -- that is, reduced bus and streetcar fare rates for people with disabilities.

SORTA CEO and General Manager Dwight Ferrell told WCPO to expect that to be added in "the next couple weeks."

8. Avoiding the edge

A tactile warning strip alerts riders with visual impairment that they are nearing the edge of the platform. (Pat LaFleur/WCPO)

An ADA-mandated feature that is often overlooked -- but, if you look, can be found all over, not just at the streetcar stations -- is the tactile warning strip embedded along the edge of each streetcar station.

Because the stations are raised significantly from the ground (in order to accommodate the low-floor vehicle design), a red, bumped strip about a foot wide stretches the length of every stop along the streetcar route. These provide a warning to the visually impaired that they are approaching an edge and should tread cautiously.

These strips also appear on more recently renovated sidewalks where pedestrian aprons decline down to street-level, as well as other spots where someone who cannot see the path in front of them might lose their footing.

Connect with WCPO transportation and development reporter Pat LaFleur on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).

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