Journey planning apps need to think more about walkers – before governments force them

Oh, terrific. Image: author provided.

Here’s a story. Last summer I went on holiday to Stockholm. Being a digital native, I eschewed guide books and paper maps in favour of my phone.

And I almost immediately regretted it. On asking Google Maps to tell me how to get from the metro station to my hotel, it gave me a walking route which included about eight flights of stairs to get me down an urban cliff edge. One problem: I had a large suitcase.

I’m a healthy adult, so I managed to heave the case down, with a lot of sweating and some profanity that would have taught even the most Anglophone Swede a thing or two. And as I lifted, dragged and kicked the case down the stairs, it occurred to me that I’d have been royally screwed if I had mobility problems – or had a pushchair instead of a suitcase.

Google Maps knows this walking route includes stairs. If you go into the detailed step-by-step instructions, rather than immediately following the dotted route, it says “take the stairs”. But there’s nowhere to toggle an option to say ‘avoid stairs’ and no upfront warning flag when it comes to accessible walking directions.

Oh, great. Click to expand. Image: Google.

Citymapper is also available in Stockholm. The journey planning app suggests the same walking route but isn’t so sure about the stairs: the route graphic zigzags, but not in exact line with the stairway. Andrew MacDougall from Citymapper says the main problem is a lack of a data standard or format for things like walking.

“Transit timetables and schedules are relatively discrete information sets covered by GTFS [General Transit Feed Specification],” says MacDougall. “The same isn't true for data on walking through city streets, which is largely crowdsourced.”

What about Google Maps? Having chatted with a spokesperson, there’s nothing in development – at least, that they’re willing to publicly acknowledge – which would allow users to select step-free walking options.

In the capital, Transport for London says that accessibility is a huge priority right now, but it’s limited to what it can do outside its own realm. Step-free information within stations is available, and staff are working on details like tracking how long it takes to walk between platforms at stations such as the mammoth Green Park.

Once a user is on the pavement, however, it’s a different story. TfL can map its stations and walking distances between, but the actual streets in London are managed by a combination of TfL, the Highways Agency and boroughs. Getting all that detail together is a daunting task.

This a growing issue. As we rely more on our phones to get us places, pedestrians are increasingly going to face the same difficulties as drivers following their satnavs, only to be directed down streets too narrow or under bridges too low for their vehicles. If you don’t fit the mould of the average user, you’re going to encounter problems.

In addition to my Stockholm incident, I’ve recently been blithely directed by Google Maps up outdoor stairs to get to a Leeds pub and over various footbridges as the only way to cross dual carriageways. To get to CityMetric’s office from New Bridge Street to the west, the fastest route is up several flights of stairs.

There are alternative routes, but these are the first ones suggested, because they’re the fastest. And the apps give no indication of accessibility issues unless you interrogate each route individually. And, really, who has the time?

It’s important our walking apps get better – and not just for people with mobility difficulties, buggies and luggage. Walking is an excellent way of staying healthy. More people out and about on the street also boosts local businesses. It’s a general win-win.

Walking charity Living Streets agrees, but has concerns that making walking easier isn’t a priority for tech companies. “Apps have the potential to improve health outcomes,” says spokesman Steve Chambers, “but only if walking is prioritised in the user interface. We’re already seeing journey planning apps evolve from merely providing travel information to linking through to transport service provision. If we’re not careful, active travel options, which cannot currently earn revenue for the app providers, could be deprioritised in the app user interface.”

In the course of researching this article I did some journey planning in Google Maps and was surprised to see the first set of directions default to cab-hailing options. The app has now learned I prefer to see walking first, but it’s worth remembering that Google Ventures holds shares in Uber (and is reported to be considering investing in Lyft).

Citymapper responds that the very first transport modes its app suggests are walking and cycling, which is true – though they are immediately followed by Uber and Gett.

That’s not great news, particularly when you consider that the company probably best placed to provide accessible walking information is Google. Getting the information is the hardest part, and we know it already has detail about stairs. One question is whether Google is confident it has enough of that detail to launch a service where users can ask for step-free walking options.

Another question is whether there’s enough motivation within the company to develop in that direction. I’d say, if they can find the development time to turn the yellow Street View icon into the Queen near Buckingham Palace, they can manage this.

Living Streets suggests that, if travel apps don’t get on this, they could find themselves obligated. “To improve public health outcomes local and national governments will need to influence third party app design,” Chambers says. “This could include highlighting information about step free or low incline routes.”

If transport apps want to be truly useful, then they need to cover the whole route. An option that would tell users they should approach CityMetric’s office from a different direction could affect which train station they get off at, or which bus they take. It’s something that needs building into the entire planning process. Which app will get there first?

The editor would like to make clear that he does not encourage readers to visit the CityMetric offices.


Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 

What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.