Feb. 25, 2022
Street networks may not be glamorous, but they are essential to mobility. That's especially true for people with disabilities. Dangerous crosswalks, misplaced (or steeply tilted) curb ramps, ubiquitous utility vaults, and countless other street and sidewalk obstructions can deny safe accessibility to wheelchair users.
You don't have to be a licensed traffic engineer to find fault with much of this infrastructure. Simply take a walk and roll with a person who uses a wheelchair for mobility, and you will see how quickly poor design makes it difficult, if not impossible, to connect to transit stops, jobs, parks, shops, schools, and other essential daily destinations.
Universal design is what we should be aiming for, but there are 100 ways that even the most well-intended complete street can deny mobility to wheelchair users due to poor design, implementation, maintenance, and even policy. Here are the top eight — and some solutions.
1. THE SCRAWNY SIDEWALK
Wide sidewalks are a basic part of universal design. They benefit everyone: people pushing strollers, slow walkers, those who use crutches, children on bicycles, and the army of delivery people wheeling goods in our contactless commerce era.
The Federal Highway Administration suggests a minimum sidewalk width of eight feet for high pedestrian traffic areas, while noting that the bare minimum of four feet can still force people into the roadway if a barrier is introduced. The National Association of City Transportation Officials, meanwhile, states that a minimum width of five feet meets Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards but recommends eight to 12 feet in downtown and commercial areas.
In practical terms, a sidewalk must be at least six feet wide to allow two wheelchair users to safely pass each other. But in many cases, even dense urban places with mixed-use development, sidewalks are barely three to four feet wide. The base width might be around five feet, but the effective width is pinched to three by parking meters, street furniture, power polls, waste baskets, bike racks, cave in street tree grates, and other obstructions.
Take New York City for example. Meli Harvey, a senior computational designer at Sidewalk Labs, mapped the city and found that many side streets and corridors in boroughs outside Manhattan are far too narrow — especially when a pandemic requires us to stay six feet away from each other. The resulting tool shows vast areas of New York highlighted in red and orange — color coded warnings for areas that are too narrow for social distancing, or for those in assistive mobility devices to navigate comfortably and safely.
So how do we fix this? A road diet paired with sidewalk fattening could help, as could removing obstructions, especially if they're obsolete for current uses. Some codes allow a boost in floor area ration or height in return for the developer creating extra sidewalk width along the frontage of the property. Chicago, for example, allows floor area bonuses, as determined by the zoning administrator, for sidewalk widening. The code also gives an economic incentive to developers for other pedestrian-friendly improvements like arcades and indoor/outdoor through block connections.
2. THE BAFFLING BLOCKADE
Sidewalks have been shrinking since the automobile came on the scene, while perils for pedestrians have been increasing. According to a 2020 Bloomberg Citylab article, "current sidewalk deficiencies have accumulated over decades of neglect. In the pre-automotive era, many cities had far more space for pedestrians," said Arlie Adkins, a professor of urban planning at the University of Arizona. "Since the 1920s we've seen this explosion of driving, and there's been a competition for fairly scarce real estate."
"There's only so much space between buildings, and we've made some clear choices about how that should be distributed," he told Citylab.
When an already too-narrow sidewalk is obstructed, it's a recipe for disaster, especially for wheelchair users. Sidewalks are frequently dotted with speed limit, no parking, and school crossing signs. Huge poles supporting traffic lights and street lights take their chunk out, too, while junction boxes, clusters of utility vaults, and broken or sagging tree grates impede accessibility. And street trees and planters are great, but not when they turn an otherwise sufficiently wide thoroughfare into a pinch-point-impacted slalom course.
Beyond the obvious of not allowing such obstructions in the newly built sidewalks, planners can push for the creation of a clearinghouse for sidewalk data that tracks the dozens of agencies and entities with a stake in the right of way (ROW). That way, the county pole, the business improvement district's street furniture, and the community redevelopment agency's wayfinding kiosk don't block the state department of transportation's sidewalk.
3. THE CRAPPY CURB RAMP
One-size-fits-all is never the answer. When cities put a single, narrow curb ramp at an intersection, it's more than uncomfortable — it's downright life-threatening. Curb ramps must be at least three feet wide, with no more than a 1 to 12 (8.3 percent) grade, according to ADA guidelines. Local conditions, like a high step up to the curb or a bike lane, might even call for more thoughtful design.
Other curb ramp issues include street furniture and other barriers on or at the top of the ramp, flooding at the street edge due to poor drainage, and street repairs where contractors demolish ramps, even temporarily. Too-narrow curb ramps force those who use wheelchairs, scooters, and other assistive mobility devices to roll partway into oncoming traffic. That can be incredibly dangerous. Think about the height of a wheelchair user: The standard seat is 21 inches tall, placing the user's midsection about the same height as an SUV (SUVs are exempt from the maximum sedan bumper height of 20 inches). Then think about how high the driver of an SUV or truck sits.
A wheelchair user needs to be seen to be safe, but depending on the vehicle and intersection, some are completely obstructed from view. An Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found pedestrian traffic fatalities rose by 53 percent from 2009 to 2018. The same study found that at speeds between 20 and 39 mph, 30 percent of pedestrians struck by SUVs died.
The best solution is a pair of curb ramps at each corner: one aligned perfectly with the painted north-south crosswalk, and the other matched to the east-west one. The curbs act as continuations of the sidewalk into the crosswalk. A very wide, continuous curb ramp that spans the entirety of a corner is also a best practice.
4. THE MINI MEDIAN
Traffic calming has been in the pedestrian safety toolbox for a few decades, and many cities have shrunk their five-lane urban corridors into two lanes in each direction, with a median replacing the turn lane, creating a safe haven.
Many people — wheelchair users, folks with children, slow walkers — cannot cross multiple lanes of traffic in 30 seconds. They might need to stop midway, but if the median is too small or obstructed by lighting or landscaping, cars making turns and heavy vehicle mirrors can put them in danger.
The smallest adult wheelchair is around four feet long and 30 inches wide. That means the safe haven, protected part of a median must be at least five feet wide to allow for a turning radius and room to wait until it's safe to complete the journey across the road.
5. THE DANGEROUS CROSS SLOPE
Because street design often makes the car king at the peril of pedestrians, the ROW is made up of not just many lanes of traffic, but also curb cuts for driveways. That often means blocks and blocks of sidewalks broken up by dangerous cross slopes. And the accompanying tilt helps cars leave a driveway at an angle that meets the street without bottoming out, but for wheelchair users, it can be uncomfortable at best — and hazardous at worst. It gets more precarious when there is little-to-no ROW for the sidewalk, and things like trash and recycling bins block the path, forcing wheelchair users to go out into traffic to complete their journey.
The answer it to take back some of the traffic lanes for human beings. Rather than a cross slope in the sidewalk, it should be on the street side of the pedestrian way. The driveway can meet the five-foot-wide level sidewalk, then tilt down to the street.
6. THE SENSELESS SIDEWALK CLOSURE
In South Florida (where I live) and many other growing regions, construction projects can close a full city block of sidewalk. For example, in Miami's Little Havana on the historic main street Calle Ocho, the entire south sidewalk was closed for a city block for two years during construction. Immediately after it was opened back up, it was blockaded again for an adjacent development site.
That means for four years total, people living on the south side of that street heading to a destination east of the closed sidewalk had to first cross the street north, travel along the north side of the sidewalk, and cross south, then reverse that sequence for the return trip. That added four dangerous exposures to three-lane, one-way traffic on a thoroughfare where drivers are known to speed. State records report that 49 pedestrians and 18 cyclists were struck by cars, six fatally, on a 20-block stretch of Little Havana's main street.
Scaffolding on and over sidewalk can problematic, too, so make sure adequate temporary curb ramps are built and the scaffolding structure doesn't obstruct or otherwise narrow the travel path to less than four feet, the ADA's general sidewalk requirement.
7. A WALK BUTTON OUT OF ARM'S REACH
Pedestrians love the little button to activate the red light for oncoming traffic while triggering the walk sign for safe crossing. Many, I'm sure, would vote to double the crossing time from 30 to 60 seconds. Wheelchair users would, too — but first they would simply like to be able to reach the button in the first place.
Dozens of state, city, and county roads have huge concrete bases around the large metal poles where the button is located. Big bases mean wheelchairs cannot get close enough to put the button within arm's reach. The Public Right-of-Way Accessibility Guidelines, established by the U.S. Access Board, states that the push button mounting height should be 3.5 feet above the sidewalk. The Access Board, which writes built environment rules for ADA regulations, among other duties, states that an unobstructed approach space around the push button mounting post should be a minimum of 2.5 feet by four feet.
Cities should also make sure the button is not mounted higher than the head of a seated wheelchair user, or that trash and recycling cans or other obstructions block access.
8. ABLE-BODIED DECISION MAKERS ONLY
A typical department of transportation project has a dozen expert subcontractors, from surveyors to landscape architects to lighting specialists to geotech experts. With budgets for corridor studies and construction projects in the millions of dollars, there is room for one more expert: an accessibility expert with personal experience.
If cities want to be inclusive, budgets must support site visits and reports crafted by people who use wheelchairs for mobility — the only end users who truly understand the hazards to mobility, as well as the simple, long-lasting solutions that help clear the way.