Meet the Academic focusing on the accessibility of our streets

Arun Ulahannan of Coventry University is leading a project to improve the design of streets to accommodate future mobility, with support from Connected Places Catapult.

Much can change in our towns and cities within a decade: new buildings shoot up and the urban realm morphs to accommodate wider footways, altered traffic priorities and additional infrastructure for new public transport services, or to charge electric vehicles.

But one transport academic hopes that other significant changes come about in that timeframe too: namely that the design of streets can better accommodate disabled people, and there is an improved awareness of the need to keep accessibility for everyone front of mind.

“If in 10 years’ time we see that bus stops have been designed differently to help disabled people, that would be positive,” says Coventry University lecturer and user-centred researcher Dr Arun Ulahannan.

“But an even greater success would be that public attitudes towards disabled people have changed, those with accessibility needs feel more confident going out, and they feel they are being listened to; rather than having a sense that they are invisible, or of secondary priority.”

Achieving all of these objectives are the aims of two pieces of work being led by Arun on behalf of the National Centre for Accessible Transport (ncat), a consortium of partners which includes Connected Places Catapult.

‘Streetscapes and Future Mobility’ focuses on how street furniture such as bus stops, benches and litter bins are designed and specified; and ‘knowledge bank’ is a collection of research from academics and organisations working in the field of transport accessibility.

The Streetscapes study will also consider what impact additional street furniture (such as electric vehicle charging posts) could have on accessible travel in future; to ensure that a changed urban realm is designed with disabled people in mind, and does not preclude safe passage for all.

Questionnaires, interviews and workshops have been held with people with accessibility needs, and Arun has identified four overarching themes. The first two are a ‘feeling of being invisible’ – where people feel they are not listened to or are ignored; and ‘exhaustion’ – where participating in society is draining because of how streets and policy are designed.

Two further themes are ‘unpredictability’ – an inconsistency in what streets will be like; and ‘the burden of adjusting to society’ – where disabled people may feel they have to adjust to society, rather than the other way around.

For now, the priority is to “start conversations with policymakers and begin to raise awareness that the issue of improving accessibility needs addressing,” says Arun. “Design done badly can create barriers and break people down. But if done well, it can change people’s lives.”

He adds that all of the research will be delivered to the ncat cross-party Accessible Transport Policy Commission in Westminster, designed to ensure that research “goes beyond just reports, and actually makes a difference”.

From manufacturing to user research

From an early age, Arun Ulahannan was interested in the design of products and how people interacted with them – especially those around the home such as telephones and computer printers. When they didn’t work (especially printers) he would try to find out why, and ask what makes them a challenge to use.

At school, he excelled at maths and physics and went on to study general engineering at Warwick University; a four-year Integrated Masters course that specialised in manufacturing.

“The course gave me many insights into how things are made, and during my time there I enrolled on two internships at Warwick Manufacturing Group; working alongside its department of experimental engineering which conducted user-centred research, and implemented that in designs,” he explains.

Projects included rethinking hospital waiting rooms to see how the experience of the spaces could be improved for patients who can find such environments noisy, confusing or uncomfortable. Another focused on the development of smart heating systems in the home and trying to understand how best to communicate the environmental benefits to people of installing such systems.

“Both of these internships led me to explore the field of human factors and user research,” said Arun, who graduated in 2015 and went on to study an engineering doctorate at the same university. The course posed industrial challenges – in his case automated cars – and he was sponsored by Jaguar Land Rover to explore what drivers expect from an element of automation in such vehicles.

“I carried out many interviews to understand what people thought when they’re in an automated vehicle, how a driver would use the car, and what they don’t trust about them,” he explains. Members of the public would enter an immersive driving simulator and be assessed for how they responded to being in a self-driving vehicle.

“I wanted to find out what systems could be introduced for people to feel comfortable, but not too much that they stop paying attention.

“Automated cars and accessibility on the street are completely different fields, but the methodology is similar: engaging with people, understanding what they are saying and finding ways to make improvements.”

Arun joined Coventry University – the lead consortium partner in ncat – in 2020 and started working with the National Transport Design Centre on a project to explore the needs and concerns of taxi drivers in Nottingham, who were about to trial a new wireless charging system outside the railway station for electric vehicles.

Drivers were encouraged to swap their existing vehicles for electric taxis and would park over charging pads in the road to top up their batteries. This involved a new way of thinking: rather than plugging in each day for one big charge, they carried out shorter but more frequent charges throughout the day. Findings from the project are set to play a role in future wireless charging initiatives.

Three years ago, Arun also started co-hosting a podcast called ‘How to PhD’ giving students practical guidance on how to run research and manage projects.

Turning his attention to accessibility

Arun started working with ncat on the Streetscapes and Future Mobility project 18 months ago; his first foray into exploring accessibility, but something he had begun to consider in his previous work. “On both the automated vehicle and taxi projects, I was thinking how these technologies are relevant for disabled people. Charging cables are heavy and most charge points are not wheelchair accessible, so from an accessibility perspective we have to explore these ideas.”

Arun has recently identified several areas where street design improvements could help accessibility, such as addressing poor surface quality and exposed tree roots on footways. Dropped kerbs that don’t line up on either side of a carriageway is another issue, as wheelchair users may have to move down a busy road to find the next dropped kerb.

“For me, we are not engaging enough with disabled people when designing new projects, infrastructure and transport,” says Arun. “I’m trying to better understand what are the challenges that mean someone chooses not to go out onto the street, and capture those barriers to access.”

He adds that thinking of accessibility as just involving wheelchair access risks failing to understand many other forms of disability including visual impairment, hearing loss and neurodivergence. “It’s a common issue that accessibility is just thought of as wheelchair access.

“We need to rethink how disabled people are engaged and make that a core requirement of design,” he adds. “If we make a system accessible to a wheelchair user or someone who is visually impaired, we all benefit – including parents with pushchairs or people using shopping trollies. Accessibility is not a niche subject; it’s about social inclusion.”

Leaning on a wealth of expertise

Arun’s project to explore Streetscapes and Future Mobility alongside Connected Places Catapult comes to a close in August. A report will be published, and colleagues will look to identify new ways of transferring research into policy through the ncat cross-party Accessible Transport Policy Commission.

“I’ve been really impressed with the way the Catapult has gone about managing what is quite a challenging task of capturing data and developing the knowledge bank, and the range of expertise colleagues from the Catapult have offered in terms of accessibility and inclusion,” he says.

“The aim of ncat is we don’t want to just be a research centre. We want research to be actioned, to have an influence on policy, and make a difference. We have a responsibility to deliver.”

Read about the work of the National Centre for Accessible Transport, which is funded by the Motability Foundation. Other consortium partners of ncat are Policy Connect, which leads the cross-party Accessible Transport Policy Commission, Designability, the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers and WSP UK.