Strong towns must also be inclusive towns, communities that welcome everyone. Places where people of all abilities can live, work and get around. Rights of way that are safe and accessible to folks with a range of mobility needs.
What's it like to navigate streets as a wheelchair user? What works? What doesn't?
I have been using a wheelchair as my principal means of mobility for four decades, so I'm always seeking smooth, wide and level surfaces. I want the safest and most comfortable path of travel possible. As someone who has worked as an ADA compliance and public works professional, I'm always analyzing sidewalks, streetscapes, curb and gutter, curb ramps and crosswalks. My eyes are drawn to concrete work, to the types of pavers used, to detectable warnings and the placement of bus shelters.
Sometimes, the smallest details make all the difference.
For me, the ideal accessible pedestrian path of travel is as wide as the sidewalks lining the great avenues of New York City. Plenty of room for walkers, wheelers, babies in strollers and then some. Lots of space for me to safely pass around slow walkers when I'm in a hurry. It's disquieting when someone half a block ahead sees me approaching and yanks their child out of my oncoming path. Sometimes the sight of the poor kid flying through the air jolts me so much, I whip around to see if I’ve unknowingly left a row of maimed bodies behind in my wake.
Even pricey, well-made wheelchairs have limits to their suspension. If I could, I'd pave the paths of the Earth with the rubber safety surfaces used on playgrounds. Smooth, seamless and shock-absorbing makes me smile. But given real-world requirements, smooth concrete with narrow stress joints works for me. I also love wide, flat flagstones like the ones used throughout Barcelona.
I dislike even the smoothest of pavers and despise brickwork. What looks like tiny seams to walkers means major up-and-down bumping for wheelers. Even a two-block trip with a Starbuck's latte in hand results in coffee spills on my lap and a subsequent trip to the dry cleaners. Longer trips over bumpy terrain mean repeated, sustained jarring that can trigger serious pain for folks with arthritis and other disabilities. Don't even get me started on tree well pavers or grates. Properly maintained Addapave tree pits are a much better choice.
Let's talk about curb ramps. Their mundane appearance is deceiving. My number one biggest complaint is the use of the cookie-cutter clip-art curb ramp design where it doesn't belong. You know the one I mean. It's the copy-and-paste design architects use in drawings where building perimeters meet sidewalks and parking lots.
There are many different designs of curb ramps that can be found in state DOT roadway design standards. Why? Because differences in terrain and limitations of space require different ramp designs in order to be compliant and safe. Level landings at top and bottom are essential. The top landings in particular must be unobstructed. I can't count how many times I've reached the top of a curb ramp only to nearly run into a pedestrian signal pole or other irritating impediment. And please no meter boxes on the slope or storm sewer grates at the bottom. Be sure there's a level, two-foot transition to the gutter, or wheelers who forget to fasten their seat belts are likely to be ejected.
Don't design curb ramps at the maximum 1:12 slope, but rather 1:14. In fact, the feds say they're to be designed with the minimum possible slope. And please: TWO curb ramps per corner instead of a single diagonal ramp. Drivers can't tell where a wheeler is headed when he or she comes off the diagonal into the street. And unless the corner, ramp, intersection and crosswalk are all expertly designed in harmony, wheelers often must go out into the active vehicular way in order to cross. Many times I've had to cross using a diagonal ramp and felt air displacement from cars passing along next to me.
And finally, nothing makes steam come out of my ears like rolling along and being foiled by an easily preventable impediment or detour. Pedestrian paths of travel are in flux and must always be monitored. Coordination between local public works, transit, utilities, and state DOT is essential to preventing obstructions caused by landscaping, light poles, street signs, signal boxes, bus shelters, bus benches, newspaper boxes, bike racks, etc.
Just as bad are sidewalks suddenly blocked off with little or no warning. In this case, I’m not talking about the simple sidewalk or lane work, or an emergency fix of a broken water main. I mean many months of torn up or obstructed rights of way due to long-term construction projects which provide no alternative, accessible, safe pathway. What is a minor problem for a walker who can easily re-route can prove to be an extremely inconvenient -- even dangerous -- situation for someone in a wheelchair.
I’ve encountered this situation numerous times. Most recently, I was attempting to get to a doctor’s office for a first-time appointment. Due to limited parking options, I had to search for an on-street space. I found spaces one block away, but the swale had obstructions that blocked my van’s ramp from deploying. I had to settle for an on-street space four blocks away.
After parking, I rolled along a couple blocks with bumpy sidewalks and corners with dangerously steep curb ramps. But the worst was saved for last. The final block to the doctor’s office was impassable due to major construction that had closed off the sidewalk. My only real option was to cross to the other side of the street, roll down the block, then cross back over. Problem was, the street I had to cross was four lanes plus a turn lane. Drivers fly down it like a highway. The closest signalized crossing was three blocks the other way. A kind lady who saw my dilemma crossed with me at an unsignalized but clearly marked pedestrian crosswalk. I am forever grateful, knowing how wheelchair users have a lower profile than walkers. This makes us like the amphibious targets in a real-life version of the classic video game, Frogger.
Navigating a few blocks should not be so complicated and so dangerous. Elected officials need initiatives such as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero push to eliminate traffic deaths. Planners, traffic engineers, capital projects managers and public works departments that issue rights of way permits need more common sense designs and policies.
All of these things should be formulated with input from the disability community. Each county, city, town and village should have an advisory committee comprised of local folks with disabilities. Those involved in streetscape design should consult orientation and mobility trainers who work with the visually impaired. People who are blind learn to navigate through the world in specific ways. Design compatible with those methods often equals good, sensible design.
The federal Proposed Guidelines for Pedestrian Facilities in the Public Right-of-Way address access for blind pedestrians at street crossings, wheelchair access to on-street parking, and various constraints posed by space limitations, roadway design practices, slope, and terrain. These guidelines -- which are expected to become mandatory and enforceable within a year or two -- will cover pedestrian access to sidewalks and streets, including crosswalks, curb ramps, street furnishings, pedestrian signals, parking, and other components of public rights-of-way.
Now’s the time to focus on inclusive design.