Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Accessibility on the roadways

Something that many people are concerned with on our roadway network is making sure that those who are not as able as most are still able to get around as independently as possible. I mean people with adapted bicycles, wheelchairs, mobility scooters, the elderly, blind people, those with very limited eyesight (I don't mean those who can see just as well with corrective lenses, I mean those with problems like macular degeneration), etc. Feel free to add any mental or physical disabilities.

Here are some basic things that are simple to do to increase accessibility. Wheelchair ramps, tactile paving, and bleepers at traffic lights (which tell the blind and visually impaired when they can proceed). Simple enough, but the devil is as always, in the details. Wheelchair ramps are frequently poorly aligned, Edmonton has not adopted tactile paving at all, just a small amount of ridges that don't provide much of a tactile feedback, with the exception of when pedestrians cross the LRT or at the edges of their stations, and the bleepers are not standard practice, or even found all that often in new signals.

Let's start with the wheelchair ramps. They can be well aligned, like this: well aligned ramp, or poorly aligned, like this: badly aligned ramp. The latter would be more OK if pedestrians are intended to cross diagonally. But that would only make sense if there was a pedestrian scramble. Because the vast majority of intersections, including the latter example, have no intention of pedestrians crossing diagonally, this design does not make sense. It could do way better, like in the former example from the Netherlands. It is pretty much a straight line, maybe a centimetre off, between the curb ramp alignment and the other side of the road. Having the ramp go in the direction that people actually are supposed to cross makes a huge difference.

I challenge any engineer who says "job well done" on a project to go and borrow a wheelchair and try to navigate their work in one. I suspect that you are not going to find it easy to take the routes which almost force you to cross at an angle right in front of the motor traffic, which because of the way the curve is designed, also are capable of turning at a high speed, which is not what you want when you are expecting cars to be able to yield to pedestrians. I also point out that many times there is a slight upstand to the ramp, making a bump. If you are on a wheelchair, or cycling legally on the sidewalk, going up and down is going to be very bumpy. Would anyone tolerate that on a new road, a bump that really could make a drink spill out of your hands?

Tactile paving is another place to start. Edmonton currently uses small ridges to indicate to the blind where the crossing is. However it is not distinctive, not easy to feel unless you are trying to find them on purpose and does not provide any contrast, which those with poor vision but still have something are looking hard for. Edmonton does use tactile paving at limited locations, but they are almost always at LRT crossings with sidewalks and at the edges of the stop platforms.

We could provide it at many locations to make Edmonton much more accessible to those who can't see or can't see nearly as well as the rest of us, even if they had corrective lenses. Those crossings with roads and cycle paths for instance (the latter type of crossing could be found for example at a bus stop bypass, look at this picture: accessible crossing at a bus stop bypass) could use these a lot, actually everywhere. Of course, LRT platforms have this too, but bus stops could as well. The same kind of edge could be used, the standard pattern with the dots in a grid pattern. Other locations where this could be useful would be where pedestrians are expected to cross midblock, like in a pedestrianized zone, or where the roadway or cycleway is level with the sidewalk. It would be a more long but skinny ridge pattern, like this: directional tactile paving. A similar style could be used to direct people from a crossing to a nearby crossing, like when you are in a waiting island between a cycle path and roadway waiting for the walking man signal.

Sidewalks are a big part of accessibility. They need to be wide, bare minimum 1.8 metres, 2 metres or wider whenever possible, smooth, as flat as possible, and without any barriers in the way, like a lamp post or electrical box. It keeps a clean, open and usable space for someone walking, a couple wheelchairs to pass by each other in opposite directions, and giving a blind person plenty of room to walk. The curbs should be designed so that a car could not simply walk into Mordor, oh wait, I have the wrong meme. So that a motorist does not simply park on the sidewalk. The sidewalk outside my home is 1.2 metres wide and cars more often than you think park on it. The cars get ~7 metres while pedestrians get 2.4 metres. The speeds and volumes would be low enough for cyclists to mix with motor vehicles, but cars do not need the room they have. A pair of 1.8 metre wide sidewalks would allow enough room to get around in a wheelchair, and the street is so low volume that you could walk on the street if you had to, you could even make it officially shared space if you wanted to because of the volumes and if traffic calming were present, the speeds. But the gutter itself is about 20 cm wide, so I see an easy place to add more space.

I suggest a new law that makes it so that if someone is blind, regardless of where they are crossing or what a signal says, they have the right of way, and if in doubt, they are blind. You can politely tell them that the official crossing is in another direction, but you can't yell at them (nor should anyone be allowed to yell unless not to do so would endanger someone (like if someone is about to plough into someone)). It won't help anyone crossing in front of someone who is not paying attention, but at least for those who are, it could be a big help. The tactile paving and dropped curbs help them to find their way, so that they use the official crossings.

There are a huge amount of detailed work about this, many specifications, but it's late now, and I need to make sure I am not pumping my brain full of energy before I will need to calm down for bed time. So I will end this article here. If anyone has any other ideas or comments that I didn't cover, please leave them in the comments below.

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