Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Building for Accessibility

This long weekend I went to Port Townsend, Washington to have a look at what is billed as one of the most walkable places this side of the Rockies and what the Province calls a “town oozing with European flair.” It certainly is a turn-of-the century North America town and is walkable in the sense that any small town is, but just like every other town, there are auto-oriented strip malls and sidewalks that go nowhere.

I happened to be visiting the town with a friend that uses a wheelchair to get around. In the US, they have a law called the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that’s supposed to make public space inclusive for all. It’s been around since the early 1990’s and things are certainly better in the US than in Canada. But even with the ADA, it seems that government is still building places that aren’t accessible to everyone. You can’t really call your place walkable if everyone can’t get around.

Inaccessible sidewalk in Port Townsend, WA
Besides inaccessible crosswalks, the sidewalks in Port Townsend were in pretty rough shape.

Sidewalk in poor state of repair in Port Townsend, WA
Every crack, bump, or decorative brick is felt by someone that uses a mobility-assistant device. We went to another place that called Langley, Washington that did a better job at building an inclusive public space.

Accessible sidewalk in Langley, WA
Why should budget-constrained governments be building accessible public space anyway? Besides the matter of equitability, when you factor in our aging population, around 50% of us benefit directly from accessibly designed space. Even in the ADA world of the US, we ran into other problems like broken lifts and poor signage.

In Canada, we don’t have the same strict accessibility laws as the US. This is very clear in the South of Fraser where sidewalks dead end, don’t even exists, or where they are continuous, contain obstacles like utility poles, street lamps, and street furniture that block the way. Transit isn’t much better; many of the “accessible” bus stops in the South of Fraser have no way for someone to access them. What’s really sad about this situation is that while it will cost millions of dollars to build accessible infrastructure in our region, it still only a fraction of the cost of expanding roads. I priorities are upside down. When you build accessible public space, you build a space that benefits everyone. What looks better to you, Port Townsend or Langley, WA? At the end of the day, shouldn’t we be building our cities to accommodate all modes of transportation and all people?

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