Considering an Accessible Urban Landscape

Image credit: Caleb Pritchard

Passed in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) marked the beginning of a new era for property owners and public works entities. The ADA outlines the minimum standards projects  must meet in order to be safe and accessible, though many cities have chosen to adopt stricter policies. Cities like New York, where a large portion of the population uses public transit, and Portland, where steep grades and weather present challenges, have spent years studying and developing pedestrian strategies.

Currently, Austin’s Public Works Department is responsible for more than 2400 miles of sidewalk. According to the department, as of 2016, 80% of those sidewalks were in poor condition. They also estimate an additional 2500 miles of sidewalks still need to be constructed, with much of North Central and East Austin having an ‘Absent Sidewalk Score’ of more than 59 points. The updated Sidewalk Master Plan for Austin calls for 390 miles of those needed sidewalks in the next 10 years, prioritizing the areas around bus stops, schools and parks. Austin’s climate presents another challenge, and many areas with or without sidewalks lack tree cover and the micro-climate that makes traveling by foot possible on hotter days

Sidewalk-related issues came to the fore this week when the Austin Monitor published a photo of a newly constructed sidewalk taking several 90 degree turns in quick succession. According to the article, it appears that the unorthodox  shape of the sidewalk was the result of the contractor attempting to keep the sidewalk’s grade, or rate of decent, at no more than 5%. City engineer Bill Hadley confirmed that the sidewalk appeared to adhere to the law as it is written. However, the National Center for Bicycling and Walking recommends a wider sidewalk on grades, allowing those in wheelchairs to travel in a zig-zag pattern. In addition, a wider sidewalk as opposed to a zig-zag shaped sidewalk, would ensure that visually impaired pedestrians would not be faced with navigating an unpredictable path.

It’s time for a frank conversation about pedestrian design as Austin is experiencing rapid expansion and is expected to spend $250 million on sidewalks over the next decade.

Sources: Austin Monitor and the National Center for Bicycling and Walking.