Caltrans evades legal responsibility for sidewalk ramps

Ah, California. Sometimes you come through with your sidewalk accessibility, your ramps and ADA compliance, and sometimes you just don’t. I opened up my issue of New Mobility magazine this morning over coffee to find a brief and horrifying news snippet. Caltrans is fighting the ADA. “CDR and other disability groups filed suit in 2006 demanding Caltrans meet obligations to provide accessible walkways and curb cuts.” Read more about it here: CDR vs. Caltrans. Here’s part of the horrifying bit, a quote from CDR president Laura Williams: “We are very concerned that they are going to use this as a challenge to the ADA itself, which then affects everyone nationwide, if they should prevail.”

Your tax dollars at work, as Caltrans wastes your money you paid to create great public transit, on legal battles to screw us disabled people who are ALSO TAXPAYERS.

In my own small town here on the SF Peninsula, it took me months just to get an answer about who was responsible for a stretch of sidewalk. And in part, that delay was because people tried to tell me that the county, city, or Caltrans might be responsible for my sidewalk corner. No one knew and there was no way to find out.

Here is at least one thing that cries out for a quick technological fix. Someone make a Google maps mashup that demarcates who is responsible for which bit of sidewalk and crosswalk. How hard could it be? Does Caltrans have the information available digitally? If so, they should make it available online. Here is the Caltrans site map. Can you find coherent information about ADA compliance, sidewalks, curb cuts, and crosswalks? Can you figure out how to find which sidewalks Caltrans “owns”? Can you figure out how to complain? I couldn’t.

Caltrans controls around 2,500 miles of sidewalk. They can’t fix them all at once, there isn’t the money or time. They haven’t surveyed their walks for ADA compliance, and they’ve had many years to do that work. But, worst of all, considering the practical realities, they don’t even provide a way for their users to report ADA problems, and they won’t take responsibility for their sidewalks.

It burns me up.

I am a happy and proud member of the super-awesome Flickr group !Rock That Disability! This morning’s realization that my own state, California, center of much disability rights activist history, is with my tax money funding a fight against the Americans with Disabilities Act. The very ADA that Barack Obama would like to support and extend; a politician who cares about the human rights of people with disabilities. I will be writing some emails to politicians this morning, notably my representative and Governor Schwarzenegger. But, I also created the Flickr group Inaccessible!. Here is its description:

A blog for photos of inaccessible places and spaces. Ever been frustrated at lack of wheelchair access, insane potholes in the sidewalk, stairs, badly configured bathrooms too small for wheelchairs, badly placed handrails, elevator buttons too high for you to reach? Snap a photo, label the place as clearly as possible, and explain why it is a barrier.

My hope is that this group will be useful to building owners and people who want to make their environment more accessible. It also helps those of us with disabilities to express our frustration and to record daily encounters with barriers to access. Documenting the problems may also help us to follow through and try to get those problems fixed by the people responsible for them.

I populated the group with a few photos I happened to have tagged already in my photo archive. Because sometimes when I’m facing a giant flight of stairs, a huge hill, a bathroom I can’t get into, or a museum where I can’t go with my kid to the exhibits, I snap a photo. Maybe 1 time out of 100 I bother to do this. But what if we all did it, every time, and built up evidence? If I document and label all the worst intersections, broken sidewalks, and so on?

I would love to see something good come of this outrage, something like Fixmystreet.com. I consider my own time and energy and expertise. I have done a gazillion BarCamps. What about an AccessCamp, for some web 2.0 love for disability rights activism?

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Talking with the city about ramps

After I sent a bit of an email blast to everyone in the city government I could think of who might be able to help, I got a super nice response. A city technician, Charlie, called me and left voicemail; I called him back and we met half an hour later outside my house. There could not be a nicer, more competent-seeming person. It was very reassuring.

We walked around and looked at the main obstacles to places I go often: the grocery store, the school, and my path to the train station. With 6-7 curb cuts, it would be workable. There was a large locust tree in the way of one ramp location. Charlie, who is also something of an arborist, said that the tree was around 5 years from dying anyway; it is split in a way that means a main branch should come off, and its core is dead. So it might should be cut down anyway. Still, losing a tree makes me sad.

I learned many other interesting things from Charlie as we walked (and rolled) the route and discussed tangential things like the city’s history, street names, clues to former land use and the evolution of streetscapes.

The curb cuts cost the city about $5000 each.

As of last year, the standard curb ramp is a wide diagonal, heading both directions. It has texture to warn visually impaired people that a slope is about to happen. It has those yellow bumps at the edge to warn that you’re about to be in the street. The texture also directs where the diagonal is, so you know not to go out into the exact middle of both intersections, but to choose one or the other. Behind the ramp, across the sidewalk, there will also be a sort of raised back curb, which signals the sidewalk’s edge.

I found some excellent guidelines here on the Department of Transportation federal government site. It’s especially good at explaining the different needs of different people; how power vs. manual wheelchairs have conflicting requirements that also conflict with cane/walker/crutch users and visually impaired people. It has a very cool table of best practices for access. Also, the illustrations of dismayed wheelchair users in section 7.3.7, Change of grade, are quite funny.

The streets Charlie and I looked at are fairly old. It is not a “Centennial” neighborhood quite, but I think more like the teens… My own house I believe was started in 1910. The many resurfacings since then mean that the street is raised in the middle from the curb and gutter, so the ramp construction will take the crown and gutter slope into account.

Charlie mentioned my other request for a stop sign, and said that Traffic and Engineering might take a while with that, so he would have his crew construct a base for it in the ramp, and put a cone over the base. If the stop sign doesn’t happen, they grind down the base and fill it in. If they don’t do that prep work, then someone will “drill a hole in my ramp” and possibly weaken it structurally.

Not to mention Charlie’s other mission of training rednecks not to do u-turns on the curb ramps and not to use them as driveways. The weight and the sheering force does major structural damage! Now you know. It would never occur to me to do a U-turn onto a sidewalk. I did not ask about skateboarders…

The city contracts its sidewalk construction and repair out to a company called J & J. They have to have a certain amount of work to be done before the contractors will come and do it all in a batch. This had a particular name, but I have forgotten it. The contractors are in the neighborhood now, working, so might be able to do this; but might need to schedule it in October instead and to do that Charlie will likely have to find another batch of work to go with it. I am sure there’s no shortage of things to be done.

The money for this comes from a pool of money for ADA improvements that the federal government gives to the city each year. I don’t know how much there is total. Charlie described a project he was on that provided sidewalk access from Edgewood Road all the way to the Senior Center on Roosevelt. Not bad!

The alleys on my block also limit access to the main road behind our block, Jefferson. It is actually quite funny because there are very nice ramps and crosswalks all on Jefferson, but they lead you up onto a section of sidewalk that ends in a giant curb at the alleyway. I am not going to worry too much about the alleys. If I want to use the mailbox at that corner, I will drive to it or go across the street and down the block and across the street again.

Charlie and I also discussed the driveway slope. That is something I could pay half of and the city would pay half, to fix. For now I am thinking to just put a big heavy board there as a temporary fix so that my car will stop bottoming out and so that I can get down the driveway in my wheelchair.

Then we went into discussion of trees and City Trees. The city used to recommend crepe myrtles, and then banned them, and now doesn’t mind them again, but since they push up the sidewalks the same as a big shade tree, they recommend you just go with the big shade tree. It helps houses be more energy efficient and it makes the city nicer for everyone. Big trees need 6 feet of planting space between the curb and sidewalk, and medium ones need 5. Our planting strip is narrow; about 2.5 feet. So, on streets like ours, the city does the 50/50 cost split, creates a sort of bump or bend in the sidewalk, moving the sidewalk closer up towards the house. The right of way is actually much greater than most people think, so, about 5 feet into our front yard is actually public land or right-of-way.

That was about 1 hour of my morning, and I took another hour to write it up. Time well spent.

I am very relieved that I don’t have to fight harder for this. Also, I was grateful not to have to explain myself, the ADA, my medical status, or anything else, to Charlie, who took my right to use the public sidewalks as a given. What a great public employee and great person to work with.

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Hacking City Hall

My experiences with activism, and also my peripheral awareness of politically savvy friends, taught me some things that aren’t automatic knowledge. In this case, I would like a 4-way stop sign at an intersection near my house. I would also like curb cuts — sloping ramps from the sidewalks to the street — at the busy intersections along my street, between the grocery store and the many apartment buildings and the two schools. And incidentally… to my house.

If you saw me in the street with my 7 year old at 8:15 am this morning you would understand a little bit better. It is hard for me to find a place to cross the street. The curbs and driveways are steep. Some driveways I can go up and down, and some I can’t, especially if I’m tired and hurting. Meanwhile, my kid wants to walk next to me, but I won’t let him, so I’m trying to herd him by shouting, and keep us both caught up, and teach him traffic awareness and how to cross the street, but while I’m in the street and we are separated by parked cars. Giant Hummers and SUVs driven by people talking on cell phones fail to stop when they see me, even when they’re at stop signs, and they blow past me at 40 miles an hour while I’m out in the middle of the road going past parked cars with people getting in and out, parallel parking with vans full of kids. It’s a nightmare because the drivers are careless and distracted and ill-tempered and inconsiderate. Because we don’t have school buses in this district, everyone has to walk or has to drop off their kids on the way to work. The police circle the block, giving tickets to the worst offenders.

So, what to do? I need to be able to cross the street in my wheelchair! At an intersection! With my kid!

I looked up some addresses on the city web site and wrote a couple of emails months ago. When I realized that didn’t have any result, I figured I’d go in person to City Hall and ask questions. Procrastination ensued. I continued wheeling my wheelchair in the street whenever I needed to get groceries.

After three days of walking my son to and from school during periods of very heavy traffic, I lost patience with the situation. A few years ago, I watched my friend Elaine work the machinery of the city, and her position as president of the Moms’ Club, to get a stop sign at a busy intersection that was between her house and the local playground. It benefited everyone in the neighborhood. I saw her do very similar things to get shade structures and bathrooms in some of the local playgrounds! But if it were not for seeing her go through that political process, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to do what I’m doing now.

city hall

So! I went to City Hall. I asked at an information desk who I should talk to about sidewalks, ramps, and stop signs.

Step one. I explained briefly what I was looking for at the information desk. The information desk person told me to go to Planning.

Step two: The guy at the Planning desk told me to go to the Public Works building. I asked him more pressing questions, and he responded that maybe I could talk to someone in Engineering, but that would not help and the people responsible were in Public Works (across town.) Since those were the people I wrote to in the first place who didn’t respond and I didn’t trust his information and I didn’t want to pack up my wheelchair and drive across town and unpack myself into the wheelchair again, I told him I was going to go upstairs to the big sign I could see that said “City Manager” and “City Attorney” since I suspected there was some more direct path to action. He seemed mildly perturbed. I smiled with sharky politeness.

Step 3: On the way to the elevator, I told the information desk person #1 (nicely) that the person she had sent me to didn’t know what I should do next.

Step 4: Upstairs, an information desk or reception person for the City Manager seemed to know what I was talking about and what to do. She looked up some information online, and wrote down a name and phone number and email of Rich, the Traffic Engineer, and his assistant Peter, who were just downstairs next to the Planning desk I had gone to in Step 2.

Step 5: Someone came to talk with me at the Maps and something-or-other desk after I waited a few minutes. I gave my two-sentence summary of what I would like. She asked if I had an appointment to speak with Saber. I said I did not, but I would like to wait and speak with anyone who could explain the next steps in the process to me. She said things that indicated everyone was very busy and went away. I waited.

Step 6: An engineer, Brendan, came out to talk with me. We went over to a low desk that was pleasantly wheelchair accessible, with a large, lightweight computer monitor that swivelled around. I explained to Brendan, and showed him my map of the 3 blocks between the grocery store, my house, and the school. On it I circled the places I wished for curb cuts, and the intersection that I think needs a 4-way stop instead of a 2-way stop. I asked Brendan what I should do next to request these things from the city, through official channels.

(Here is where I would not have known there *was* a way to do this sort of thing, if not for the local Redwood City Moms’ Club and its email list, and my friend Elaine.)

(I would like to point out the many steps before this actually productive step; Expect delays, and uncertainty, and people who don’t know what to do next or who to refer you to; Don’t get mad at them, but keep patiently asking different people until you hit the good one who will say, “I don’t know, but let’s go find out.”)

Step 6, continued: Brendan listened intently to my explanation. He said that I should do separate requests for the stop sign — for which there was a known procedure — and for the curb cuts, which no one understands, which take longer, and which will cost a lot more.

Then, Brendan he explained what I should do and what would happen next. I should write a letter to the Senior Engineer, Saber. I gave a feral grin and whipped out my computer. There was wireless. I wrote the letter and showed it to Brendan across the desk. He said it looked okay. I cc-ed the letter to one of the school principals and to my housemates, the only people on my block whose email addresses I know offhand.

Then I took notes on paper for what he said next. Here is what will happen and what I should do:

– Write a letter proposing the stop sign (done!)
– Write a letter proposing the curb cuts.
– The city will respond within a couple of weeks (someone is on vacation)
– Engineering will order a traffic analysis, just from the fact of my request letter for the stop sign. They will put those tube things across the street and do traffic counts, and I think they’ll do a pedestrian count as well.
– Meanwhile, I must get signatures from the people living at the four corners of the intersection. Brendan called up an application that uses Google Maps, and we talked about how some of the buildings at the corners were single family and some were apartments and some were duplexes. The more signatures from those addresses I can get, the better.
– Also meanwhile, I must get signatures from people within a 1-block radius of the intersections.
– Brendan was aware that the neighborhood has many Spanish-speaking and Guatemalan/Salvadorean/Southern Mexico-native-language-speaking immigrants, so he advised me to make my petition bilingual and also warned me that people might be wary of signing things for various reasons.
– Meanwhile, a letter will go out from the City to everyone on the blocks near the intersection to explain the traffic analysis studies.
– Then, the engineer makes a recommendation to the City Council in a staff report.
– A public hearing will then be scheduled for the City Council to discuss the stop sign.
– It is important for people who want the stop sign (or curb cuts) to come to the meeting, because if only people who are opposed come, it might sway the council.

Brendan explained other issues in excellent detail. He called up fles on his computer, and swivelled the monitor around to show me the screen. The main thing we looked at was the list of criteria that the city considers in its recommendation: how many cars must flow through the intersection in an 8 hour period, but the ways around that as well; pedestrian count in smaller time units is considered along with average speed of cars going through the intersection. That was interesting! And useful! Brendan said he would find out if he could email me that document, and gave me his card.

We discussed strategy for the curb cuts a little bit. He mentioned again that they were quite expensive and he had never seen anyone request them, and so there might be a bit of confusion as well as reluctance from the city. But that there was probably money for it somewhere. “Well, I think there has to be, because of the ADA,” I said in a friendly way. I hoped that would indicate my total willingness to work through their process, but would show that I am aware there are legal rights involved here, and laws that specify things like sidewalk accessibility. While I don’t think we have to go there, it seems good to at least mention the law.

I have some good ideas. IN addition to pounding the pavement for signatures, I could go speak to a middle school class at both schools, and perhaps enlist help from a social studies or civics class. I could explain the process I went through, and get some older kids to knock on doors and get signatures. Then I will not have to do some much physical labor, and a bunch of kids will learn something about local political processes and how to effect small changes.

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