Urbanism
April 30, 2018

Ms. Sinenomine~Why "Walkability" Needs to be Redefined


There has been a very valuable discussion on Twitter from Ms. Sinenomine about the use of the term “Walkability”.
She is well worth a follow, and presents a stalwart and stark view of how the language we use focuses away from the root of accessibility and universal acceptance. She states the obvious: we need to do better at ensuring that the most vulnerable have the same access and social equity to sidewalk pavements and public spaces, and we must start doing that now.

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Universal accessibility means that everyone, no matter what your ambulatory capability, can safely use city streets and public spaces.  It is egalitarian, and morally the right thing to do. Earlier this week Price Tags wrote about the unfortunate response of the City of San Francisco to a group of seniors that wanted more crossing time at a troublesome intersection. The city will lengthen the signal time, but still not at the national standard for seniors  to safely cross the street.
Another horrifying example  of a municipality doing the work right instead of doing the right work has just happened in Denver Colorado. Kyle Wolf, who is disabled was using  his  wheelchair  to cross a street and “was just five feet from the curb at 19th and Lawrence Streets in downtown Denver when his wheelchair was struck from behind by an SUV. He had legally ventured out into the intersection during a walk signal but was carrying several items that kept slipping off his lap, thus slowing him down as he crossed. The pedestrian signal changed after just 20 seconds, and before he knew it, he’d been hit — injured — and his wheelchair totaled.”
The driver of the SUV was not charged, but Mr. Wolfe received a ticket from the police for his “failure to cross the street with the walk light signal”.Mr. Wolfe was hospitalized with injuries and was later released. Once again just like in San Francisco, the City of Denver trotted out that the nationally accepted Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices standard identifies that only fifteen per cent of the population walk at speed less than 3.5 feet a second, and therefore their  twenty-second walk time for this cross walk was within the standard. However if an intersection crosswalk is being used by seniors or people with ambulatory impairments, the accepted crossing speed is established at 3 feet per second. And once again in Denver to minimize any impediment to motordom, the wheelchair user was charged with failure to cross the street in a timely manner while the SUV driver drove away with no charges.
What is wrong with us as a society that we are not encouraging our streets to be safe and to encourage the most vulnerable user, who often has the wheelchair as the sole way of transport? Even in the City of Vancouver all accidents are “pedestrian” so there is no notification on the report of whether the crash occurred with a wheelchair user or a walker. This makes  the actual incidence of wheelchair crashes impossible to statistically collect, but it is suspected that wheelchair user crashes are underreported. A 2014 study by BMJ Open found that wheelchair users were three times more likely to die in crashes, and most of these users were killed crossing at intersections.
We are judged by how we treat the most vulnerable of our population. On a city street, bicyclists and pedestrians must have safe comfortable and convenient ways to travel. How do we move towards an inclusive standard that is universal for walkers, including seniors and those in wheelchairs?


 

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An august group of planners in Sydney Australia, London England, Paris and Vancouver are looking at “intersection signal intervals” -how long it takes for the walk signal to activate after a pedestrian pushes the cross walk button. This group feels that the livability of a city and the quality of the walking environment can be measured on the length of time that pedestrians are given to walk across the street. It’s been fascinating to see how varied those interval times are in cities around the world.
As always, the Dutch are early adapters to  the changes in technology necessary to make walkability safer for all ages.  The Dutch city of Tilburg has been testing a smartphone application that allows seniors and those with restricted mobility more crossing time at intersections. The app has four time settings which are adjusted dependent on the user’s mobility to minimise traffic delay. While a sensor in the traffic lights scan the sidewalk adjacent to the intersection, it looks for a signal from the app to adjust crossing time.
As reported in The Guardian “Dynniq, the Dutch company that develops intelligent traffic systems and is helping the city council with the trial, explains the app works in combination with GPS and the software that operates the traffic lights, so there is no need to install extra devices. The company is also developing a spin-off for cyclists, the CrossCycle, which will sense when bikes are approaching a junction and change the lights sooner. Another version detects visually impaired pedestrians and activates the ticking sounds that tell them whether the light is red or green.”
While the app  can respond to individual users, the app can also adjust for a group of school children, so that the app will keep the crossing green for the children until a teacher confirms that they are safely across. While this initial pilot has only ten users, it is part of a pilot to enhance safety and comfort for pedestrians and cyclists. “We want to do more with smart mobility and use technology rather than just putting down more asphalt,” says Mark Clijsen, urban planning specialist at the city council.”

 

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There was a recent twitter flurry about able-bodied planners and engineers  using wheelchairs for a few hours on their city streets to comprehend what it is like to use  a wheelchair daily. Some disability advocates balked at this, pointing out that being able bodied in a wheelchair for a few hours on a well-lit and intersectioned street does not replicate the actual experience of those who are truly disabled, and should not be used as a substitute to involving, talking with, and understanding the issues of disabled users themselves. The disability advocates’ point is very valid-in order for universally accessible environments, we need to actively involve and listen to all users, no matter their ability. It just makes sense, and people in wheelchairs should also have the same access to public spaces and a range of housing types.
The American Disabilities Act (ADA) estimates that 70 per cent of Americans will have a temporary or permanent disability in their lifetime. They also estimate that 21 per cent of people over 15 and half of people over 65 years of age have some type of mobility disability. We just are not yet designing our urban spaces to accommodate and understand these specialized needs.
The Vancouver Courier and  Jessica Kerr report on a simple but elegantly universal concept-while the Vancouver Park Board has beach wheelchairs for wheelers, these need to be reserved in advance and are not motorized. Recognizing that disabled folks may not be able to transfer to these chairs or may actually prefer their own,  a large beach mat will be installed with platforms on English Bay by August. This mat would  enable people with strollers, canes and walkers to go down to the high tide line using their own mobility aids. One disability advocate Gabrielle Peters notes:“It means we can go out there with our friends,” she said. “It means we can participate. It means we have access to that very special part of Vancouver… This is a wonderful thing. It’s literally opening up a space that hasn’t been accessible in any shape or form. Being at the beach is so much a part of being in Vancouver.”
And this article from Australia’s Gold Coast contains  a short video of the installation on weekends of a similar mat that allows disabled users to go to the shallows of the ocean. Costing $20,000, the plan is for more of these mats to be installed on Australian beaches to allow more wheelers and those with mobility devices beach access, a universal right for any citizen living in a city  on the water’s edge.
 

 

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