Getting Around: Mobility For Everyone On Safe Streets

Bicycling Equity/Equality image courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

CHERYL LYON – “Roll a kilometre in my chair” or “walk a mile with my cane” replaced the old familiar “walk a mile in my shoes” recently. It happened at the recent Peterborough Bicycle Advisory Committee’s “summit” on cycling in the city entitled “Safe Streets for Everyone.”

On day one of the summit, PBAC’s keynote speaker, Ian Lockwood, had described the new and expanded way of understanding “mobility” as “strategies to move people to access and provide what they need to live and thrive in the city.”

Mobility is highly affected by such factors as road width, vehicle speed, green and flush (no curbs) interface between sidewalks and streets. On day two of the event, participants chose small groups to take field trips out into the city to experience firsthand one or other aspect mentioned above. I chose the group on access and mobility for elderly and disabled citizens.

Lockwood had prepared the groups well for the experience with vivid illustrations of what to watch for in how street design can be equitable and accessible, as well as more nature-friendly. This included successful street innovations that created green vegetation separations between streets and sidewalks, curbless (“flush”) interface between sidewalks and roads (good for visual handicaps and for wheelchair users) and carless sections of business districts where social mingling and lingering boosted local businesses’ profits.

Jayne Culbert of Age-Friendly Peterborough Advisory Committee led our small group north and west from the McDonnell Street Community Centre. She pointed out both mobility hazards and opportunities where eco- and disability-accommodating design could be combined to make a more liveable and accessible city for all citizens.

Seniors among us were walking with vigilance to more obvious things like uneven sidewalk surfaces that create tripping hazards, and the safety (or not) of street intersections. One younger woman in our group, moving along with us in her motorized wheelchair, suddenly stopped and rose from her chair at one point and invited others to try it! This field trip took on a whole new dimension.

She quickly explained that for a long time, due to a rare, undiagnosed condition, she had used a wheelchair. However, with a recent correct diagnosis, she needed it only occasionally now. She invited us to try her chair. Members of our little band of urban explorers competed for the experience. (Personally speaking, I found I’d need a LOT of practice and a loud horn.)

Over several blocks, we walkers and wheelers encountered an eye-opening range of barriers in street crossings, sign materials, road and street interfaces (aka curbs) and inadequate “handicap” features, many of which would likely escape the notice of able-bodied people. (Image 3 shows a wheelchair-intended adaptation made too steep.) After encountering such alterations in a wheelchair, users remarked on how a simple walk down a street or navigating different kinds of walkways through and around buildings became gauntlets of unexpected hazards invisible to the able-bodied and young.

By putting vulnerable people at the centre of planning cities, we’ll get it right for everyone, “not just for the middle class or able-bodied citizens.”

Ian Lockwood, keynote speaker at “Safer Streets For Everyone.”

For instance, individuals with low or no vision rely on the now common, brown, roughly dotted, square strip marking where sidewalks meet a road or a change of surface. On our excursion, we came to one of these demarcation points but it bordered a four inch drop onto the street! (See image 1). A walker or wheelchair user would tip and fall onto the street after trusting that warning strip.

A correct interface between sidewalk and roadway is shown in image 2. Yet it was still a bit too steep for some.

Embedded too close to sidewalks, we encountered metal sign posts that were not visibly distinguished or constructed with padding to prevent injury upon encounter by persons with low vision or just inattentive walkers, like small children.

The heavily-used intersection of McDonnel Street and Monaghan Road, in spite of some adaptive features helpful to the seniors and residents of community housing on the east side, nevertheless fell short of the assistance many of those residents would expect from their municipal authorities.

Our little field trip walked and wheeled back to our starting place discussing another tool for safer streets that also benefits the climate; namely, the need for by-laws that keep up with new transportation options like scooters and the many kinds of e-bikes making their appearance.

Every urban designer, planner and municipal councillor should have such a participatory excursion into their city for first-hand insights into decisions for smarter, safer, inclusive street design and upkeep.

True equity benefits us all.

Getting Around: Mobility For Everyone On Safe Streets © 2024 by Cheryl Lyon in The Greenzine is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

SEE also The Greenzine Editorial “Transportation Design Is Vital Climate Action: The Community Summit On Urban Cycling”.

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