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July 18, 2008

HRM’s outdated sidewalk standards

A PDF version of this article is available here.

Americans have been on a roll lately, offending nearly everyone with an uninterrupted series of blunders. One bright spot south of the border has been the emancipation of disabled people through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).This visionary piece of legislation reaches into virtually every corner of American life and beyond.It is why the cruise ships that dock in Halifax have accessible facilities and why your service dog flies with you on the plane.

Meanwhile, back in Halifax it’s still difficult for disabled folks to get around.  HRM has assembled all its design standards in a document called Municipal Service System Guidelines – more familiarly The Red Book. You can get one for $100, or you can find it at the library. You’d think it would be published in PDF format so it could be kept up-to-date and consistent, but getting $100 from each HRM contractor must balance some budget somewhere. And the high price makes sure no civilians are looking over the shoulders of civil servants.

Here is what Public Works says about the standards assembled in The Red Book

It is the intention of the HRM to conform with the advances and improvements in the practice of municipal engineering, and we look forward to a successful utilization of the document.

Over the years I have wanted to have a look at the standards, and my requests to HRM have gone unanswered.After my latest request and usual lack of response, I trundled myself down to the library and had a look.The Red Bookis an impressive and weighty tome.There isn’t a lot on pedestrian amenities, but their diagram of pedestrian ramps is the drawing on the next page.I can’t parse notes 2 & 3.
The Plan View on the HRM Standard Detail page looks a lot like this next diagram and accompanying text from Accessible Rights-of-Way: A Design Guide, a ten year old publication of the US Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board.It is downloadable at 
No advocate of decent urban design should be without it.The 134 page document is crammed with good ideas and thoughtful analysis.But this illustrates how not to configure ramps.Are you scratching your head?

Here's the accompanying text: 
For stability, it is important to approach the base or toe of the ramp straight on when ascending. Most manual chair users will take a run at an up-ramp to take advantage of forward momentum. To provide a straight shot to the top from the base at the street, the curb ramp needs to be perpendicular to the curb it cuts, so that both sides of the ramp are the same length. If the curb ramp is skewed, with one side shorter than the other, it will be necessary to turn while ascending—a more difficult and taxing maneuver—or enter the ramp at an angle to the change in slope, which affects balance and compromises control. When all four wheels of a wheelchair or scooter are not in contact with the rolling surface, some of the maneuverability necessary to deal with surface irregularities and upslope—and the control necessary to manage a downslope— are lost. Because the downhill slope of a ramp usually ends in the street, a loss of control may have serious safety effects.

If you use a wheelchair, you understand instinctively the importance of this explanation.This is not voodoo, it’s science, and I’m completely baffled as to why this has not penetrated within Public Works. By the way, this illustration is part of a longer document written by a committee of 23. The committee includes at least 13 groups that seem to be municipal public works experts, and a representative from Canada(Canadian Standards Association, Technical Committee on Barrier-Free Design).The complete list is appended.In a city with varied topography, it seems to me that a planner would want to have lots of choices.My first priority for crossing a street is to get the heck out of the line of fire, and I’ve often wondered why there is an uphill slope to challenge me at exactly the wrong moment.It turns out that there are alternatives.
Here is one that seems really sensible – it gets me out of harm’s way by incorporating the ramp (the hard part) into the sidewalk.

Here is an intersection illustrating four types of pedestrian ramps. It looks amazingly like the configuration at Chebucto and Mumford:

Accompanying text:
A line drawing illustrating an intersection with 4 corners and the 3 different types of curb ramps based upon right-of-way widths: two perpendicular (to the curb face) curb ramps, one for each crossing, are shown where the right-of-way is wide enough for a landing at the top; a parallel curb ramp is shown where the right-of-way is too narrow to allow a landing at the top; and a combination ramp is shown where the sidewalk is ramped down to a somewhat lower landing from which a short perpendicular ramp connects to the street at the apex of the curve. A free right turn lane with a pedestrian island and a bulb-out (extension of the sidewalk across the parking lane) are also shown.

Here is another configuration that works for a retrofit in a confined space:

Accompanying text:
A pair of line drawings in plan that demonstrate how to retrofit a 7-foot-wide sidewalk with a complying curb ramp. The ‘BEFORE’ plan shows a perpendicular curb ramp across the full width of the sidewalk, without any level landing at the top. The ‘AFTER’ plan shows the use of a combination curb ramp with landing replacing it.

The point is that there are lots of choices. Choices are tricky, but if the Public Works Department had an expert on accessible infrastructure who signed off on project design – an accessibility officer – all of the various options might get considered, and Halifax might become pedestrian friendly. Leaving it to Public Works gets the status quo. So the statement about the Red Book It is the intention of the HRM to conform with the advances and improvements in the practice of municipal engineering seems like a commitment that needs revisiting.Our Regional Council needs to see that promises made by departments are fulfilled, and we deserve better than outdated standards. Gus Reed
Appended stuff:
A. Relevant paragraphs from The Red Book Pedestrian ramps shall be placed at all cross walk locations. 

8.1.6 Walkways shall be located and designed whenever possible so that the grade of the walkway shall not exceed 8%. Steeper grades may be permitted only where the topography makes it impractical for grades to be less than 8%, or to avoid the installation of stairs. 

8.1.7 A pedestrian ramp shall be constructed at the ends of walkways where curb and gutter is present, where wheel chair access is required and where pedestrian movement is controlled – e.g. cross-walks. 

8.2.3 In locations with curbs, pedestrian ramps shall be installed on both sides of each road at all roadway intersections and at Canada Post Community Mail Box locations. A pedestrian ramp is not to be installed at the end of a walkway unless the walkway ends at a roadway intersection. 

B. Public Right-of-Way Access Advisory Committee Members 
1. AARP 
2. America Walks 
3. American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials 
4. American Council of the Blind 
5. American Institute of Architects 
6. American Public Transit Association 
7. American Public Works Association 
8. Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired 
9. Bicycle Federation of America 
10. Californians for Disability Rights 
11. Canadian Standards Association, Technical Committee on Barrier-Free Design 
12. City of Birmingham, Department of Planning, Engineering and Permits 
13. Council of Citizens with Low Vision International 
14. Disability and Business Technical Assistance Centers 
15. Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund 
16. Hawaii Commission on Persons With Disabilities 
17. Hawaii Department of Transportation 
18. Los Angeles Department of Public Works, Bureau of Street Services 
19. Massachusetts Architectural Access Board 
20. Municipality of Anchorage 
21. National Center for Bicycling and Walking 
22. National Council on Independent Living 
23. National Federation of the Blind 
24. New York State Department of Transportation 
25. Paralyzed Veterans of America
 26. Portland Office of Transportation 
27. San Francisco Mayor's Office on Disability 
28. State of Alaska 
29. TASH 
30. Texas Department of Transportation 
31. The Seeing Eye 
32. U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration


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