Walkable Somerville

On June 7, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

Part 4: Unwalkable Somerville

shelton_webBy William C. Shelton

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)

Those who are the most enthusiastic about the City of Somerville’s commitment to “walkability” and the Somerville By Design program seem to be disproportionately those who have the most transportation choices. I am one of them.

But for many of our neighbors, Somerville is not very walkable. They are the elderly, disabled, wheelchair-bound, and young children. They don’t understand why city government is paying consultants to tell them what would be nice to do, while it isn’t helping them with what they need to do.

For many years, the city has failed in its commitment to these citizens, although there is now reason for hope that this will change. The commitment became a legal obligation with the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. When George H. W. Bush signed the ADA into law, he said, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

The Act defines a disability as “…a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.” One such activity is walking. At least 19.4% of Somerville residents have at least one disability.

To give some momentum to the tumbling, the Act required that all public entities prepare a Self Evaluation and Transition Plan, expanding the mandate of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Such a plan identifies conditions that pose barriers to people with disabilities, states how the city will provide “equivalent” access, sets forth steps needed to provide such access, provides a schedule for doing so, and estimates the costs. I can find no evidence that the City of Somerville prepared this plan.

Some cities, like ours, operated as if the ADA did not apply to sidewalks, curbs, crossings, signals, and other public ways. But in 1999, the Ninth Circuit Appeals Court ruled in Barden v. City of Sacramento that it did apply. The Supreme Court affirmed the ruling by declining to hear an appeal.

Whether or not a city is truly committed to the wellbeing of its disabled and elderly citizens, it would seem prudent to ensure that the routine street and sidewalk improvements that it makes are minimally compliant with ADA regulations. Somerville didn’t.

The people who suffer from this failure remain largely invisible to those who don’t, but they are not few. I have heard numerous anecdotes about challenges that make just getting around unnecessarily difficult and dangerous for them.

Here is one example. A mother in a wheelchair asked disabilities advocate Eileen Feldman to help her find a safe route to accompany her young child to school. After much effort, they concluded that no possible route was safe. Too often, too many ‘Villens must choose between remaining homebound and risking injury.

Nine years ago the Somerville Commission for Persons with Disabilities began a prolonged campaign to acquaint city government with the challenges faced by its constituents, and with the liability that the city incurred by flaunting ADA regulations.

The city spends a portion of the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds that it receives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on street improvements. In 2005, the Disabilities Commission submitted a CDBG proposal. Among its recommendations were to

  • Ensure that mandated ADA-access improvements were planned as part of all street improvement projects.
  • Ensure that project managers receive guidelines on ADA compliance.
  • Hire an ADA-access specialist to review all plans.

As far as the commissioners could tell, their recommendations were ignored. They submitted them again the following year, with the same result.

In 2005, Congress passed the Safe, Accountable and Efficient Transportation Equity Act. It included the Safe Routes to Schools Program, which provided funds to make walking or riding to school safe. Somerville managed to be one of the first Massachusetts municipalities in line for the cash, linking its proposal to its Shape Up Somerville program, and garnering publicity for both.

In 2006, the city initiated its Safe-START program. The memorandum announcing it stated that “Mayor Curtatone created Safe-START” to “increase safety for all travelers….” Safe-START called for immediate minor improvements in hundreds of intersections and investing between $4.4 and $4.7 million in 27 priority locations.

The Disabilities Commission encouraged the mayor and relevant officials to be sure that project plans and implementation were consistent with ADA regulations. They received no acknowledgement.

In 2007, the Disabilities Commission published a survey regarding barriers to full participation in civic life. Inaccessibility of streets, curb cuts, crosswalks, etc. received the most complaints and the most comments. 43% of respondents rated them as poor, citing unlevel and uneven sidewalks, unmarked crosswalks, nonexistent or improperly designed ramps and curb cuts, and poor or nonexistent snow and ice removal.

They received no response from the mayor or aldermen. Instead, they were treated like an irritant. In May 2008, four of the six Disabilities Commissioners resigned. Their resignation letter stated, in part,

We continually witness your designated ADA Coordinator withholding our mail, not forwarding our phone messages, insisting on keeping our membership list and procedures illegitimate, censoring our web page, misrepresenting us to other staff members, and either stonewalling us or answering our questions and concerns with unreliable assertions…. This letter represents an opportunity for you to respond directly to us, and demonstrate that the buck stops with you.

Instead, they received a polite letter from the mayor acknowledging their resignations. So they formed Community Access Project of Somerville  (CAPS), an independent advocacy group.

Eileen Feldman, who had been the Disabilities Commission Chair, became CAPS’s driving force. She bought equipment, taught CAPS members how to use it to perform street access surveys, and gave thousands of hours of her own time. She tells me that, CAPS’ aim was to create a pedestrian environment that would “enable all members of the community to mingle, participate and partake of the web of community life.” Real walkability.

In the summer of 2009, CAPS surveyed 80 streets listed as “Somerville Street Reconstruction Projects, 2004-2008.” Over 80% of this new construction did not adhere to safety and access regulations and codes. Over 700 recently reconstructed intersection and sidewalk locations contained multiple violations, including the Safe-START locations. They examined the Safe Routes to School maps and found 35 freshly built or repaired intersections with violations. The city had wasted millions on out-of-compliance reconstruction projects.

In December 2010. CAPS submitted to the state Architectural Access Board photographic and digital evidence of hazardous conditions at 114 locations within 200 feet of municipal programs and along bus routes.

In October 2011, city officials appeared before the Access Board. They were told that they must provide a plan for compliance, application for variance or proof of compliance by May 15, 2011. The city subsequently proposed fixing the violations at a rate of 15 intersections and $100,000 per year.

At a hearing to discuss this variance application, the Disability Policy Consortium, a Massachusetts advocacy group, pointed out that, at that rate, it would take 30-to-40 years to fix the mistakes made since 2004. It also became apparent in this hearing that the city was not conducting its intersection surveys accurately.

In March 2012, CAPS filed a complaint with the Federal Highway Administration. Its Office of Civil Right, which oversees municipalities that violate disability laws, opened an investigation the following month.

Two months later, the city issued an $80,000 request for proposals for professional engineering consultants to prepare a fully ADA-compliant Self Evaluation and Transition Plan. The firm that the city retained is high respected in the disabilities community. And in April the city hired a new Disability Coordinator. Betsey Allen is an attorney with an impressive background in human rights and disability compliance.

The extent to which the new Plan is fully implemented will depend on all of us. I hope that walkability enthusiasts will advocate as forcefully for safe sidewalks and crosswalks as they do for street trees and a sense of enclosure.


18 Responses to “Walkable Somerville”

  1. Anna says:

    Those of us who have been familiar with the ‘disability community’ have known this for years. But where do we go to do more than just complain? Where is our BOA and School Committee who should be overseeing these regulations?

  2. ThinkAboutMe? says:

    life in Somerville with a disability is a frustrating, isolating experience. We listen endlessly to ‘inclusion’. How wonderful it is to have such diversity and never-ending efforts to be sure people from different experiences are welcome. It just NEVER includes us. Try getting a wheelchair past outdoor patios in Davis & Union. Four or Five Horses, IMPOSSIBLE. Burren-IMPOSSIBLE. so you cross the street, then cross back. or, sadly, you just stay home. you can only take so much. It seems there’s nobody out there who cares. try passing the breakfast/brunch lines? entire sidewalks are blocked. too many of us stay home, get things delivered, have friends do errands for us. It’s pathetic in a city that everyone thinks is so hip and inclusive. Ever see any of us at your festivals? NO. the planners don’t care to be sure I can navigate or participate. I’ve talked to many of them. Your Arts Council is the most unfeeling group I’ve ever experienced. So, party on, we’ll be home on a beautiful day getting things dropped off.

  3. A. Moore says:

    Never made sense to me expecially when building something new to alter it for everyone to use. Like the brick crossways, my father called when they first started putting them in, I am able bodied and I trip on them. Regardless of the laws wy would we not make them usable by all? Maybe their vote does not count or the taxes they pay? This city has so much useless spending why not out some of it to good use? I guess the city os so focused on young professionals it has not time for the long time residents here and possibly some of the new.

  4. Somerbreeze says:

    The outdoor sidewalk patios that block wheelchair users is just one of the many demeaning and disrespectful hurdles that persons with disabilities must cope with in this city…

    And to Mayor Joe, gazing gleefully through his Yuppy-colored glasses
    at his bread-and-circus world of incessant festivals and pandering to cyclists, etc., there’s just nothing SEXY about people with disabilities
    and the problems they face here….

  5. ThinkAboutMe? says:

    A.Moore gets it. if something inconvenienced our precious bike riders, it’d be fixed pronto. look at the loss of parking spots for bike racks, we bend over backwards to see bikers have all they need. Me? Screw

  6. j. connelly says:

    “ThinkAboutMe”-“Somerbreeze”-“Anna”- “A. Moore”! You have all brought up true & interesting points. This city & its officials are a farce, they take care of the few and the majority of the citizens they just screw.
    Besides the bikes they deliver more to Tax-Exempt Tufts. On a daily basis the cruisers sit @ Packard Ave & Powderhouse Blvd tagging vehicles that fail to obey the Stop signs at a crossing that is used 98% by Tufts student/personnel. Yet fail to tag trucks disobeying the “No Trucks” signage that the cruisers are parked right beside at that location.

  7. KrisKringle says:

    You knocked this column out of the park, Bill- powerful information for Villens to digest. Instead of Best Practices, joe needs to at least get good with Minimum Industry Standards. and we public need to raise our standards also-we need to demand that of the fellow Somerbreeze describes perfectly.

  8. confused says:

    HUH? ThinkAboutMe, why could you not go to a Somerstreets festival? The whole point is closing down the street to make room for all users – I would think it would be great for someone in a wheelchair to have a chance to use the entire width of the street. Why couldn’t you go to the Fluff Festival? The entire union square is closed. What does city planning policy have to do with people waiting in line to go to breakfast?

    Sidewalk dining is a huge benefit for all citizens (including those with disabilities that can choose to sit there.

  9. ThinkAboutMe says:

    Sidewalk dining doesn’t leave enough room for a wheelchair or a walker to pass. At the Burren, it puts my chair into an indent that I can’t get out of on my own.
    City planning has to do with educating business about what people need. Maybe post signs asking brunchers to not block sidewalk? Another of my favorite spots remodeled & changed to all bar-stool-type seating. I can’t go there anymore, unless I want to eat dinner with my nose hitting the table, and my friends looking down at me. City planners are supposed to educate on these issues.
    Fluff Festival–impossible to participate in games, activities with a wheelchair/walker. I can go, but can’t do anything. never bothered with Somerstreets because my experiences caused me to give up long ago. Illuminations? have to make arrangements and go on a separate vehicle all by myself. FUN! went to a mini-golf thing Arts Council did years ago, couldn’t get around the way the games were set up. I tried to talk to them after, but no response. On any city flyer, did you ever see a HP logo? or notes on sign language? details on access info? NEVER
    Saying sidewalk dining should be great for disabled folks tells me you have no idea on this issue. We are all but invisible in this city, and it’s sad. Believe me, I’d rather be out there.

  10. ThinkAboutMe says:

    P.S. I would challenge you to maneuver a wheelchair into the fenced-in sidewalk seating. I predict it would be all but impossible. When a business requests sidewalk dining, someone should discuss setting it up in a way that accommodates everyone.

  11. A.Moore says:

    The sidewalk needs to be passable for padestrians including the disabled. Blocking it should not be allowed. This is not the personal donging room of the restaurant. Closing down streets for festivals makes it difficult for caregivers to gain access to the elderly and disabled that need constant help. Not everyone would care to dine on the sidewalk either. Plus the fact many of us cannot afford to dine outside the house. For myself we probably do once or twice a year at most. And even at that it is to take my disabled parents out if they feel up to it. Leaving us with 2 places in Somerville where they can easily make their way in. One would be the Mount Vernon or the 99. Anywhere else here in Somerville would be too hard for them to make their way in if they chose to try. Being around this first hand one can see who big a problem it really is here.

  12. Anna says:

    These are all really great points. Historically, Somerville has never cared about the disabled. They have usually had a mostly ineffective Disability Commission. It is difficult even for someone who is walking to maneuver around some outdoor seating places. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had an Inspectional Services Dept. that could check that restaurants have allowed enough room for passersby?
    Confused – Please explain to me how outdoor seating at a restaurant is a huge benefit for all citizens.

  13. confused says:

    ThinkAboutMe, if sidewalk dining really doesn’t allow sufficient clearance for a wheelchair to pass by on the sidewalk that is a problem. But the opportunity to sit outside at a restaurant is a real pleasure – Somerville would be a poorer, more boring place without it.

    Try coming out to another Somerstreets – many go and don’t participate in any “activities” but instead simply enjoy traveling up and down the middle of the street without cars. Maybe this isn’t your idea of fun, but after reading your post not really sure what you’re looking for.

    Maybe instead of sitting home and complaining you can come up with an idea for some activities that could include those in wheelchairs, contact the Arts Council, and take the lead on setting it up and including them in festivals and events. All these organizations are just run by people who care enough to spend some time trying and make the city a nicer, fun place to live in. Your participation would be welcome, and you’d provide a great perspective.

  14. Amy says:

    Anna, confused? You don’t think the citizen enjoy using outdoor seating during nice weather? It’s one of the best things about living near Davis Square.

    Regarding the bikes – 15 bikes take up one parking spot in front of Diesel. If they didn’t ride bikes they may be driving, taking up another 15 parking spaces. One of my favorite things to do is put the kids on the bikes and ride the square.

    As for disabled access, I’m sure the city can do more, and should. But I will say that I requested a tree on my street and it was denied by the city due to ADA requirements. The city told me my street has no trees and it never will because the sidewalks are too narrow, so in this instance they were thinking about the disabled.

  15. ThinkAboutMe says:

    had to calm down a bit before responding to confused. so, if outdoor dining doesn’t allow enough clearance for us, ‘it’s a problem’, but outdoor dining is great. ?? you’re saying that preventing people from freely traveling through the square is sad, but outdoor dining wins?
    then you say go to these events and just not participate. Instead of people like yourself supporting us and asking planners to include us? wow. I already covered your next point in my original thoughts. I have gone to the Arts Council and got nothing. Been to other organizers, nothing. So I go elsewhere (other cities and towns make amazing efforts to include people with disabilities) or stay home.
    You don’t know what I’m looking for? Here it is: looking for city planners/departments to plan events so that people with a dis. can participate fully. Is that simple enough? I’m also looking for regular people like yourself to get educated about what people need.
    Take your comments and apply them to any other group: don’t speak English? well, come to our meeting and enjoy the coffee. No, we provide translators, and we make our events friendly to all cultures. Borrow a wheelchair and spend a day exploring Davis Square–then tell us what you;ve learned.

  16. Boston Kate says:

    “You don’t think the citizen enjoy using outdoor seating during nice weather?”

    Anna’s comment was about ‘Confused’s’ statement that “outdoor seating is a huge benefit to all citizens”. That really is a stretch, ilt’s even ridiculous. Yes, it’s nice to sit and eat, outside, but it’s not necessary; and in certain area’s it’s actually a nuisance, if our disabled townspeople can’t navigate their way past the seating area. Get your food ‘to go’ and sit on a bench or in a park. I think it’s extremely insensitve to brush off the concerns by our disabled neighbors, about being able to try to have as normal a life as possible, in favor of keeping outdoor seating where it just doesn’t fit.

  17. AbleBodied says:

    For what it’s worth, I’m an able bodies biker and walker living in the Powderhouse/Porter Square/Davis Square area. In Davis Square, I find the outdoor seating GREATLY impinges on pedestrian traffic on those nice weather days and weekends. Frankly, the outdoor seating around Davis Square is a pain in the *ss (and I even use it some) for pedestrians. I have no idea what code dictates, but as a walker, I would think a minimum 5′ clearance between curb edge and any business owned impediments in Business Districts should be required.

    As for disabled access on sidewalks – curb cuts and the like – it is clear that the city didn’t care or seriously screwed up. Placing cuts off of corners, giving poor sight lines for drivers and sidewalk users is just plain stupid. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve seen have trouble crossing Willow Ave. at Broadway in Ball Square.

    The honorable first step for the City of Somerville, the Mayor, and the Aldermen is to publicly acknowledge the gross neglect. Second, they need to work hard with all communities and constituents to fix these problems in a timely and satisfactory manner.

  18. BAM says:

    The city of Somervilles wonderful mayor, don’t want disabled, low income, or minorities in his city. But if you can pedal a bike he has no problem parking a huge amount of them on public sidewalks

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