Visually impaired struggle to move around in Estonia's cities

The blind and visually impaired are struggling to move around in cities with scooters, grey curbs and concrete barriers, as well as rubbish bins and temporary traffic signs built at face height. Blind associations are hoping city leaders will make things safer.

While electric scooters abandoned in the middle of the street are an ugly and horrible sight for pedestrians who walk by, they pose a serious danger to blind and partially sighted people. In the past, people have fallen over and been injured.

CEO of the North Estonian Blind Association (Põhja-Eesti pimedate ühing) of the Blind Helen Künnap says there was a similar case recently so the organization tried to contact scooter rental companies Bolt and Tuul to make sure scooters are removed from city streets.

So far, only Tuul has responded to the association's call. The company said anyone can move the scooter to the side of the street even if the alarm sounds. "In this situation, we recommend taking a picture of the incorrectly parked scooter and its ID so that we can communicate with the last rider. However, we hope that we will be able to change the habits of our customers so that you do not have to deal with it."

Künnap says that she is grateful for Tuule's supportive attitude and thinks that the main emphasis should be on training users.

Bolt has not yet responded to the Blind Society's call.

Sandra Särav, the company's head of sustainable development, commented to ERR that they will respond to the Association of the Blind after holding a meeting on the subject.

Särav said during both scooter seasons, they have tried to educate their customers to use and park scooters correctly.

"We try to tell people more broadly that parking is part of the ride, please park the scooter by the side of the road. But the reality is people still leave the scooter in the middle of the road where they want," she said, adding that the mobile app also has a basic tutorial that guides users about where to leave the scooters.  

Bolt has blocked users who have repeatedly parked the bike incorrectly. Pedestrians can also help by taking pictures of incorrectly parked wheels and signaling to Bolt.

The app shows red zones were the scooters cannot be left, but this is not possible to do on roads due as the GPS is not accurate.

Särav said the amendment to the Traffic Act, which will treat scooters as light vehicles, would help. So far, they are labeled as a pedestrian aid, i.e. the same as a pair of crutches. This means that even the MUPO or PPA do not have the right to do anything with an incorrectly parked scooter.

"We can train people but we can't do real supervision. At the moment, we can't do random checks," Särav admitted.

However, for the next season, there are some thoughts on the work that is planned to be implemented together with other scooter operators.

Visually impaired face many obstacles

But it's not just about scooters. There are other objects that make moving around the city difficult or dangerous for blind and partially sighted people.

To help the visually impaired to cope on the street, they need contrasting colors. This means grey concrete barriers used to stop cars or raised curbs are difficult to see.

"If they were yellow, for example, the visually impaired might notice them better," Künnap suggests.

The blind are at risk from temporary traffic signs, which are often placed at eye level, as well as from rubbish bins attached to poles, which are also exactly at face level.

Künnap said as many blind people walk with a stick which is used to identify objects on the ground, objects such as bins on a pole cannot be identified and people can walk into them, sometimes causing serious damage.

"There have been situations where people have broken their arms on a trash can or injured their face against a low traffic sign," she said.

Trams talk, buses are silent

On the positive side, Künnap highlights trams which communicate audibly which helps people identify where trams are going. On the other hand, buses do not do this and it is difficult to find out if and which bus arrived at the stop.

The Association of the Blind (Pimedate ühing) hopes to attract the attention of city leaders to make streets and traffic safer and more usable for the blind and visually impaired.

Tartu City Government leaders on White Cane Safety Day 2020. Source: Natali M. Ernits.

On Thursday, the South Estonian Blind Association (Lõuna-Eesti Pimedate Ühing) visited Tartu where city leaders were blindfolded and had to move around the city with white canes or with the help of a guide dog to mark White Cane Safety Day.

Tartu Deputy Mayors Mihkel Lees and Raimond Tamm and Tartu City Transport Manager Roman Meeksa took part to understand the difficulties visually impaired people face in urban traffic.


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Editor: Helen Wright

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