Improving Accessibility in Cities

Cities are often the most accessible places to live. Public transit, sidewalks, density, and other public amenities mean that it is easier for all people to live, work, and play. However, many cities are not as physically accessible as they should be. While the Americans with Disabilities Act makes United States cities more accessible than some cities abroad, there is still a lot of work to be done.

The word “accessibility” covers a lot of ground. In this context, the first thing that might come to mind is ensuring wheelchair accessibility by installing ramps and curb cuts. Up to 1 in 4 Americans have some type of disability, with 12.1% of the U.S. population having a mobility related disability. Some disabilities are permanent, and some are temporary. No one is immune to disability, so all our spaces, especially our public spaces, need to be accessible. Accessibility infrastructure doesn’t just benefit people who are disabled right now. Increased accessibility makes navigation easier for people with strollers and young children, as well as people wo may develop a disability in the future. It means access for all will in turn benefit all people in cities.

Sidewalks are the primary form of pedestrian infrastructure in cities. They keep people separated from vehicle traffic and create an environment that invites socialization, culture, and more. That being said, many sidewalks across the nation are inaccessible- either in a state of disrepair or do not have appropriate curb cuts. This becomes an accessibility issue when people in wheelchairs or those who have difficulty walking need to use the sidewalks, as well as a liability issue. As of 2022, 75% of San Francisco government-evaluated sidewalks have moderate to severe pavement defects. Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Atlanta have been sued in the past over sidewalk accessibility, and many are still working to achieve ADA compliance.

In many places, sidewalk maintenance is the responsibility of the property owner, which means there is no government body making sure sidewalks are free of snow, ice, and plant growth. Sidewalks, like any other infrastructure element, are susceptible to wear and decay. This is sometimes accelerated when multi-ton vehicles drive onto sidewalks created for people. But more innocuous disturbances can create accessibility issues too. Tree growth can uproot sidewalk tiles, creating uneven surfaces and leaves, fruit, and pollen can interfere with walking surfaces as well.

When cities step up with consistent staffing, plans, and funding to properly maintain sidewalks (regardless of neighborhood), they will become far more accessible and enjoyable to residents and visitors.

Infrequent sidewalk maintenance isn’t the only thing that stops sidewalks from being accessible. Many cities do not adequately enforce parking laws. When there is no consequence to blocking sidewalks with parked cars, construction, or other impediments, this behavior is encouraged.

Obstructed sidewalks create clear accessibility issues because people who are using the sidewalk may not have enough space to navigate through. If someone can’t step off the curb and into the street directly, they may have to turn around and find the nearest curb cut, then move on the open road to get around the obstruction, find the next curb cut, and re-enter the sidewalk at the next curb cut. These obstructions can be egregious, like an SUV using the sidewalk as a parking space, but they can also seem innocent, like the end of a car sticking too far out of a driveway. At the end of the day, both examples impact the accessibility of the sidewalk and endanger all pedestrians, disproportionately impacting those with more limited mobility.

Parking authorities are working to improve enforcement. The Philadelphia Parking Authority announced its Mobility Access Initiative in April, which pairs public education with enforcement to end illegal parking on sidewalks, and the blocking of curb cuts and intersections.

One under-discussed element of sidewalk obstruction is treating it as an extension of the road, instead of dedicated pedestrian space. Sometimes, sidewalks become extra space for road signs, construction, and utility poles instead of people.

While vehicular roads are full of redundancies, sidewalks and bike lanes are less so, which increases the disruption that occurs when a sidewalk or bike lane is blocked. Philadelphia requires that sidewalks are at least 5 feet wide to allow for wheelchair passage. Sidewalks are not only essentially one lane, but they also cover two-way traffic. Meanwhile, every vehicle lane is one way, and roads have multiple lanes for vehicles. This means that if there is a crash or incident in a vehicle lane, traffic can be diverted but not disrupted. When construction occurs, sidewalks are often the first to go, and pedestrians are directed to the other side of the road. A good way of addressing this (which sometimes happens) is for a city to block a road lane with a physical barrier, so pedestrians are diverted to an adjacent protected space.

Outside of maintenance, sidewalks aren’t accessible if everyone cannot easily enter and exit them. This means having appropriately graded curb cuts at every corner and crossing point. Intersections also need accessibility features. These include tactile indications that an intersection exists, as well as audio and visual notifications that it is safe to cross. Pedestrian signals should also be automated, so no one has to press a button or wait for an extra light cycle to get the signaled right of way.

While sidewalks and pedestrian infrastructure are one element of accessibility, they are not the only pieces that cities need to become truly physically accessible. Many old, underground transit systems do not have elevators and escalators to transport people who cannot take the stairs. This is slowly changing. In Philadelphia, SEPTA is using funding from the Inflation Reduction Act to retrofit its stations with elevators. SEPTA also just broke ground on an accessibility project at Erie Station, with funding from the Federal transit Administration’s All Stations Accessibility Program, which is part of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Beyond installation, regular maintenance is important to keep all these services in working order, because if an escalator is broken, it is just another set of stairs.

Many public busses in the United States are already equipped with ramps, lifts, and space to help wheelchair users safely board and ride the bus, and paratransit services supplement fixed routes to provide more transit options. Accessibility can be further improved with dedicated bus lanes, because people who can’t or don’t drive shouldn’t be forced into longer transit times when infrastructure prioritizes motor vehicles.

Accessibility impacts all aspects of daily life. Naturally, it follows that this should be a top priority for all cities. Not only will complete accessibility infrastructure improve the quality of life for disabled residents, but it will make cities more welcoming for all residents and visitors.


Grace Hanoian | [email protected]

Grace Hanoian is a Business Development and Marketing Associate at Econsult Solutions, where she supports the marketing and business development team by assisting with proposals, events, and social media. Additionally, Grace has experience working on political campaigns both with communications and fundraising, as well as in state government.







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