Part 4: Unwalkable Somerville
By 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.