Guest Blogger – Dr. Yochai Eisenberg is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Department of Disability and Human Development and Great Lakes ADA Center researching barrier-removal planning and mobility among people with disabilities.
Across the U.S, communities big and small are supporting walking and wheeling by constructing more accessible walking infrastructure. These improvements to the infrastructure are a key part of building Age-Friendly and Disability-Friendly communities that offer easier living to residents who are older or have disabilities.
The curb-cut, an icon of universal design, has improved through several iterations. The current form is the best yet. See the 2010 the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Standards for Accessibility Design & Public Rights-Of-Way Accessibility Guidelines (PROWAG). The curb cut is key to safe wheeling for wheelchair users. Blind and low-vision pedestrians use the brightly colored raised bumps to notice the street intersection. This curb cut standard is coming to intersections near you! Communities are installing these. Will more people reach destinations by walking or wheeling? Will more people with disabilities walk or wheel to bus and train stops to reach work, school, and social activities? As the curb cut shown in the image below4 is a common occurrence, where there are no connecting sidewalks, much work needs to be done first.
The existing pedestrian network in most cities is a patchwork of accessibility. Pedestrians will find a few shiny new patches (i.e., accessible curb cuts) right next to many that are worn and frayed. Many of the newly stitched patches are in areas of high demand (commercial areas) or areas that have been recently revitalized. The pedestrian network in much of the rest of the community has a mix of missing sidewalks and curb ramps no longer compliant with standards.
Too many pedestrian signals have no voice or signa to assist people who are blind and low-vision to cross safely (see recent lawsuit against the City of Chicago). Lack of awareness is part of the problem. Communities are unaware of how much of their infrastructure is inaccessible. Our recent study of communities that evaluated their pedestrian infrastructure found major impediments. 65% of curb ramps and 48% of sidewalks were not accessible.1 With so much inaccessible infrastructure, how can people with disabilities walk or wheel safely to reach destinations? How can using public transportation be considered a viable option until pathways to and from those stops are accessible?
Being unaware of the problem is not an excuse. Frustration from the lack of attention to requirements under Title II of the ADA led to several large class-action lawsuits. These lawsuits resulted in multimillion-dollar settlement agreements to remove accessibility barriers.2 The surrounding communities took note and often fund improvements to mitigate the risk of a lawsuit.
Instead of trying to stay under the radar, some communities are taking another, more proactive approach. They are developing ADA Transition Plans. ADA transition plans prioritize and schedule removal of barriers in the pedestrian infrastructure. This serves as a map towards accessibility and guides the direction and pace of progress. Involving people with disabilities in the process assists in prioritizing improvements. The process becomes transparent and accountable. ADA coordinators think that the ADA transition planning process improves awareness and develops a shared sense of purpose on accessibility3. An ADA coordinator reported,
“It’s not just a block on a checklist, right? That’s not what the intent of the ADA is in my opinion. It’s a complete philosophy change in the way that we look at and treat other people. It’s a sense of awareness that someone who might have a disability still has the same rights and accessibility to everything that we provide as a city.”
Yet, the number of early adopters is low. Our national research suggests that only 13% of communities have developed ADA Transition plans.1 This finding was reinforced in a similar study in the Chicago region: only 11% of Chicago area communities had ADA Transition plans.5
Transportation planners and advocates need to be involved in the ADA transition planning process in three ways:
- Identifying how ADA transition plans can align with existing transportation plan and initiatives. Can sidewalk or crosswalk improvements be incorporated into nearby street projects to create more connections for pedestrians?
- Advocating for prioritizing routes to transit.
- Leveraging funding and other resources towards project development and implementation.
Accessible pedestrian infrastructure should be an equally prioritized component of the transportation network. As communities fill the gaps in the pedestrian network, there will be greater opportunities and more realistic choices for people with disabilities and older adults to walk or wheel in their communities.
- Eisenberg, Y., Heider, A., Gould, R. and Jones, R., 2020. Are communities in the United States planning for pedestrians with disabilities? Findings from a systematic evaluation of local government barrier removal plans. Cities, 102, 102720
- Barden et al. v. City of Sacramento (2002). 292 F. 3d 1073. 9th Cir..
- Eisenberg, Yochai; Heider, Amy; Stokes, Michele; Deitrick, Stephanie. 2020. Planning for pedestrians with disabilities: Sharing successes and gaps from ADA Transition plans around the U.S. ADA-Audio recording retrieved from https://www.accessibilityonline.org/ADA-Audio/archives/110844.
- KBAK-TV (2014). Neighbors question curb ramps not connected to sidewalk. [photograph]. Retrieved December 15,2018, from https://bakersfieldnow.com/news/local/ gallery/neighbors-question-curbramps-not-connected-to-sidewalks#photo-1.
- Eisenberg, Y., Glover, J., & Wennink, A. 2021. Where the sidewalk ends: The state of municipal ADA transition planning for the public right-of-way in the Chicago region. The Metropolitan Planning Council and the Great Lakes ADA Center. Retrieved from https://www.metroplanning.org/multimedia/publication/2012