Active transportation includes non-motorized ways of going places like walking, cycling and other types of wheeling. Making it accessible for everyone is a key message at the B.C. Cycling Coalition’s active transportation summit in New Westminster this week, where these five experts will be speaking during the two days of the conference (Monday and Tuesday):
Amina Yasin, New Westminster
Active transportation has to be inclusive and equitable, says Yasin, co-chair of the Canadian Institute of Planners Social Equity Committee. “Equity is the foundation for all solution-making,” she says. But making active transportation equitable requires “building fairness into the process” and, unfortunately, government policies have historically failed to acknowledge people’s physical and systemic barriers to it.
Fixing those problems starts with recognizing where active transportation falls short of being fair. For example, when cities time the cycle lengths for their crosswalk lights, do they prioritize drivers, or the pedestrians who might move a bit slower, such as people with neurocognitive disabilities and seniors? When designing transition spaces, can someone with an invisible illness like Crohn’s disease or dementia easily access the public washroom, too?
“If we don’t solve for equity then we’re not really considering everyone in this equation,” Yasin says. “We’re going to continuing to build biases that affect people in our policies and our built environment.”
Barb Chamberlain, Seattle
“Changes that make the transportation system more accessible to people who need to have barriers removed make it better for everybody,” says Chamberlain, director of the active transportation division of the Washington State Department of Transportation.
She points to an article called The Curb-Cut Effect, published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, which explains that while wedge cuts were made into sidewalks to make public streets accessible to wheelchair users, they also benefit parents pushing strollers, travellers wheeling luggage and even skateboarders.
Chamberlain says another thing to consider is that everyone will eventually be in a situation where they do not have the same range of capabilities they may have today, whether through aging or by acquiring a disability.
“We’re all moving through the world in different ways in our lives, over time, so we are building the future transportation system that is for ourselves,” she says.
Even motorists become pedestrians using active transportation once they exit their vehicles. “These needs for universal design are, in fact, universal needs,” Chamberlain says.
Allen Mankewich, Winnipeg
Who should be responsible for clearing the way for active transportation? It’s a question that is top of mind for accessibility advocate Mankewich.
Coming from a “winter city,” Mankewich, who uses a wheelchair, sees a good case for municipalities taking responsibility for clearing snow from sidewalks. In many places, property owners are required to clear their sidewalks outside their homes, which means “leaving it up to the goodwill of the people to ensure that a public resource is properly cleared,” he says.
“It’s not uncommon in Winnipeg to see somebody using their scooter or wheelchair on the street in the winter because, frankly, we do a better job of clearing our streets than we do clearing our sidewalks.”
Mankewich says municipalities should adopt a “sidewalks-first approach.” After all, their snow-clearing equipment and strategies are far more efficient than a person with a shovel, he says.
Otherwise, disabled people can face serious social isolation when just a bit of snow sticks. “The impact of that is quite serious,” he says. “People are not able to go to work, potentially. They’re not able to go out and get groceries. They’re essentially homebound until the city is able to get out and clear their sidewalk.”
Maddy Ruvolo, San Francisco
Planners can learn from the ways disabled people have adapted and built access for people with all types of bodies, says Ruvolo, a chronically-ill disability activist and transportation planning master’s student at UCLA.
“Disabled people are used to living in a world where your ways of moving and thinking and sensing are treated as deficient,” she says. “Because of that, disabled people have learned to move and navigate through hostile spaces, and have learned to creatively problem-solve when inaccessibility arises — but we shouldn’t have to because it’s exhausting.”
Fixing this means going beyond basic disability awareness and “token inclusion,” Ruvolo says.
Disabled people need to be hired for decision-making positions that will have an impact on active transportation and infrastructure. For example, Ruvolo found that some bike lanes in the Bay Area were designed without thought to how disabled people would navigate the altered spaces.
“If you have disabled people at the table in decision-making positions from the get-go, you can think about how to create a bike lane that works for cyclists, including disabled cyclists, but also works for wheelchair users, blind people and other people navigating around and through bike lanes that aren’t using them,” she says.
Sarah Jama, Hamilton, Ont.
Stop using consumerist language when talking about accessibility, says Jama, co-founder of the Disability Justice Network of Ontario. “A lot of our conversations around accessibility tend to focus on adding ramps to stores so that we can expand our economic purchasing power,” Jama says.
Legislation called the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act contains a framework for accessibility in Jama’s province (B.C. has no equivalent) but relies heavily on consumerist language, she says. “It uses a lot of language around, ‘This is what we need in order to build a society that fits people with disabilities in public spaces, in terms of being able to be helpful or useful to the economy.”
The federal act focuses too much on employment, too, she says. “What about the people who can’t work?” she says. “What about the people who can’t really participate in what we would deem as conventional in this capitalist society and framework?” Jama says building public space that fit everybody — including for active transportation — means making them universally accessible regardless of whether people are using them to spend money or simply for their own enjoyment.
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