This week, planners, policymakers and urban practitioners from across the world are gathering in Kuala Lumpur for World Urban Forum 9. This story is part of Next City’s coverage of the Forum. For more stories, visit our World Urban Forum 9 page here.
When Abner Manlapaz’s modified three-wheeler motorbike broke down three years ago, he found himself “really struggling.” The Manila resident and president of the Life Haven Center for Independent Living, an association for people with disabilities in the Philippines, was unable to use public transport in the sprawling city, as it does not cater to wheelchair users. “It’s really very difficult during rush hour or when it’s raining,” he says. “This reduced my participation in many meetings; it affected my work and many other activities. So I had to do something about it.”
In towns and cities across the Philippines, public transport is provided in something of an ad hoc fashion: brightly colored converted trucks known as jeepneys, and tricycles — which are motorbikes fitted with a large sidecar — are the primary forms of shared transport. But while these vehicles have become an iconic sight in the Southeast Asian nation, they present a major accessibility challenge to people with disabilities.
At the time, Manlapaz was part of a technical working group that included architects, engineers, the transportation department and more. “We were thinking, what is the design of an accessible jeepney? An accessible tricycle? We know how to design an accessible bus, because we have seen it in many countries, but we don’t have jeepneys in other countries; we don’t have tricycles.”
When the working group declared the task impossible, Manlapaz took matters into his own hands, conducting research and coming up with a design that he showed to a friend who runs a backyard auto repair shop. For $2,500 — just a few hundred dollars more than a standard tricycle — he created a modified tricycle with a floor that turns into a ramp, and enough space for a wheelchair user along with several other passengers.
If the prototype becomes a mass-market reality — there are still the matters of improving safety and finding a financial backer to deal with — it could help solve a host of problems faced by people with disabilities living in Manila and beyond, according to Manlapaz, who presented his design at a roundtable on people with disabilities at World Urban Forum 9. One area that excites him is the potential for boosting educational outcomes for young people with disabilities by allowing them to reach high schools that typically lie outside their villages. He also hopes the design could help protect women with disabilities from the unwanted sexual touching that sometimes occurs when men lift them into vehicles.
And it’s not just those with visible disabilities whose lives are hampered by unwelcoming urban spaces and services. Victor Pineda, professor of Urban Planning at the University of California—Berkeley and an advocate for people with disabilities, noted during Next City’s World Stage networking event on Wednesday that when you include mobility issues, visual impairments and hearing difficulties, one in seven people worldwide live with a disability.
His vision, he explained, is for cities to become truly inclusive of all residents, with no physical or social barriers and no economic or legal challenges preventing them from living the lives they wish to pursue. “What we have to do is reimagine, what is the city that we want? What is the city that we need? And what are the steps that we’re going to take to build that city?” Pineda and others working to advance the rights of people with disabilities in cities say that they want to see strategies such as the New Urban Agenda and Sustainable Development Goal 11 come to fruition.
But as Friday’s roundtable session heard, achieving that vision remains far off. Though more and more cities are recognizing the need to improve accessibility in areas ranging from transport to tech, progress can be grindingly slow.
And a number of speakers pointed to a lack of knowledge about accessible urban design among those creating the spaces. “In my opinion the biggest challenge is the architects and engineers,” Mukhtar Al Shibani, an architect and founding member of the Global Alliance on Accessible Technologies and Environments, told the audience. “They’re not learning or being taught about accessibility in their education… So [they need] to change their minds from left to right, to think of all users on an equality basis.”
Holly Robertson is a freelance journalist based in Cambodia who focuses on human rights, gender and the environment. Her work has been published by The Washington Post, Guardian, BBC, Columbia Journalism Review, VICE and Mashable, among others.