Although not very beautiful, street networks are crucial for movement. This is particularly true for those who are disabled. Wheelchair users may not be able to reach safe crossings due to hazardous crosswalks, improperly positioned (or dangerously inclined) curb ramps, pervasive utility vaults, and a myriad of other street and sidewalk barriers.
It’s not necessary to be a certified traffic engineer to criticize much of this infrastructure. You just need to go on a stroll and roll behind someone who relies on a wheelchair to notice how rapidly bad design makes it difficult, if not impossible, to connect to transport stops, employment, parks, stores, schools, and other crucial daily destinations.
We should strive for universal design, but even the best-intentioned full street may prevent wheelchair users from moving about because of subpar design, implementation, maintenance, and even regulation. Here are the top eight, along with some answers.
Ensuring accessibility in sidewalks
A fundamental component of universal design is wide walkways. Everyone benefits from them, including those pushing strollers, those who walk slowly, those who need crutches, kids riding bikes, and the army of delivery workers carrying products in the age of contactless commerce.
For places with heavy pedestrian traffic, the Federal Highway Administration recommends a minimum sidewalk width of eight feet but points out that even a narrow sidewalk of only four feet might push pedestrians into the road if a barrier is put in place. The National Association of City Transportation Officials, meanwhile, advises eight to 12 feet in downtown and commercial districts, claiming that a minimum width of five feet satisfies Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines.
In order for two wheelchair users to pass each other securely, a sidewalk must be at least six feet wide. But sidewalks are often just three to four feet wide, especially in densely populated metropolitan areas with mixed-use development. The base width may be around five feet, but parking meters, street furniture, power poles, trash cans, bike racks, cave-in street tree grates, and other impediments reduce the effective width to three.
Consider the city of New York. When Meli Harvey, a senior computational designer at Sidewalk Labs, mapped the city, she discovered that many of the boroughs outside of Manhattan’s outer boroughs have far too narrow side streets and corridors, which is especially problematic when a pandemic mandates that we keep six feet apart from one another. The resultant program displays large portions of New York highlighted in red and orange, serving as color-coded alerts for spaces that are too small for social distancing or for those using assisted mobility equipment to move comfortably and securely.
How then may this be fixed? A road diet combined with sidewalk fattening may be beneficial, as could the removal of obstacles, particularly if they are no longer necessary for present purposes. Some rules permit an increase in height or floor area ratio in exchange for the developer constructing more sidewalk width along the property’s frontage. For example, Chicago permits floor area incentives for sidewalk expansion, as decided by the zoning administrator. The ordinance offers developers financial incentives for adding arcades and indoor/outdoor through-block connections, among other pedestrian-friendly enhancements.
Since the advent of the motor, sidewalks have been becoming smaller as pedestrian dangers have grown. A 2020 Bloomberg Citylab report claims that “Decades of neglect have led to the present sidewalk problems. Many communities had far greater room for pedestrians before the advent of the automobile, “said University of Arizona professor of urban planning Arlie Adkins. Since the 1920s, there has been an increase in driving and rivalry for limited real estate.
There is only so much room between buildings, he said, adding that “we’ve made some clear decisions about how it should be dispersed.”
It’s a formula for catastrophe when a path that’s already too small gets blocked, particularly for those in wheelchairs. Signs indicating school crossings, no parking, and speed limits are regularly placed along sidewalks. Huge poles that support traffic lights and street lights also take a toll on accessibility, as do junction boxes, collections of utility vaults, and damaged or sagging tree grates. Furthermore, although street trees and planters are wonderful, they should not be allowed to transform an otherwise appropriately broad roadway into a slalom course with pinch points.
Planners may fight for the establishment of a clearinghouse for sidewalk data that records the dozens of organizations and entities having an interest in the right of way in addition to the apparent of not permitting such impediments in freshly constructed sidewalks (ROW). In this manner, the county pole, the street furniture from the business improvement district, and the navigation kiosk from the community redevelopment agency won’t obstruct the sidewalk from the state department of transportation.
Dealing with road bumps
The solution is seldom one size fits all. Cities should not only avoid placing a single, constrained curb ramp at an intersection; they should also avoid doing so at any costs. According to ADA regulations, curb ramps must be at least three feet wide and have a maximum gradient of 1 to 12 (8.3%). Local factors, such as a steep slope up to the curb or a bike lane, may even need more careful planning.
Street furniture and other obstructions on or at the top of the ramp, floods at the street edge owing to inadequate drainage, and street repairs when ramps are temporarily demolished by contractors are some other curb ramp difficulties. People who use wheelchairs, scooters, and other assistive mobility equipment are forced to partially roll into oncoming traffic because curb ramps are too small. That might be really risky. Consider a wheelchair user’s height: The typical seat is 21 inches tall, which puts the user’s torso at around an SUV height (SUVs are exempt from the maximum sedan bumper height of 20 inches). Then consider how high an SUV or truck’s driver typically sits.
A wheelchair user must be visible in order to be safe, yet some are entirely hidden from view depending on the car and junction. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the number of deaths involving pedestrians increased by 53% between 2009 and 2018. The same research found that 30% of pedestrians hit by SUVs at speeds between 20 and 39 mph perished.
The ideal solution is two curb ramps, one at each corner that properly lines up with the marked north-south and east-west crosswalks. The sidewalk continues into the crosswalk from the curbs. Another ideal practice is a very broad, continuous curb ramp that wraps around a corner.
If these issues can be addressed, it is possible to transform high streets into inclusive and accessible environments. Focus on them and make sure that you ensure that people with disabilities can navigate without encountering any challenges at all.