Do We Need an ADA-Style Equity-in-Access Law?

ADA 20th Anniversary logoThe Americans With Disabilities Act was signed into law just over two decades ago. The landmark legislation requires ramps, curb cuts and reserved parking, of course, but it also marked a new era by codifying universal access as a new civil right for people of all abilities. Accommodations that ensure access we see in the physical environment every day. But the cultural change is less-noticed but more important. Do cyclists need a right of access like the Disabilities Act in order to secure the accommodations we should expect by right, and to spark the cultural shift necessary simply to create conditions for our safe travel on public roads? I believe that we do need it, and I suggest we campaign for it.

Long ago, disability advocates organized to ask Congress and eventually the courts whether ethical norms and the federal Constitutional framework allowed for discrimination in access to public places and facilities, commercial spaces, and services simply because individuals were differentially-abled. Should we allow some of citizens full access but others partial access, simply because their needs varied from the able-bodied ‘norm’?

ADA Universal Access logoCongress and the courts answered in the negative, and thus was born the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). For the first time, a right of universal public access to physical places, services, and employment was created, on which protected individuals from discrimination based on ability. While the most important aspect of the law was the expansion of civil rights into a new sphere, as crucial was the required compliance at all levels of government.

ADA transformed nearly every corner of American life from public restroom to the roadway intersection. Handrails, signage, audible crosswalks and assistive devices are de rigueur today. Yet cyclists still battle for safe access to public roads. Isn’t it time that cyclists and pedestrians joined together to petition for safe and equitable access to all public conveyances as a civil right to personal mobility?

Much like ADA proponents called for accommodations meant to level the equity-in-access field, perhaps it’s time for active transportation road users to expect full, non-discriminatory access as a matter of right rather than some kind of special forbearance. Creating conditions for safe travel for cyclists is every bit as much a government obligation as is safe travel for motorists. Perhaps ADA provides a workable template for campaigning for our right-to-the-road and safe travel?

ADA: the Template for Road Accommodations?

When it comes to public conveyances, why are pedestrians and cyclists treated so differently than motorists? We’re allowed access by law (more accurately, the case law), but we’re not afforded appropriate accommodations that motorists take for granted (e.g., dedicated travel lanes or signals). Nor is our safety particularly regarded by transportation planners. We’re simply tossed into the automobile scrum to fight it out. And fight it out we do.

Already, ADA gets us at least part of the way to equitable access.  Consider the change that ADA has made to date in our everyday environment. Curb cuts and audible signaling are measures mandated by law and they are percolating down to the local street corner.We won’t find any department of transportation sidestepping ADA requirements because equitable access for all facility users is enshrined in the law; it’s not discretionary.

Beverly Hills Library disability access rampTake for example this ADA-compliant ramp at the Beverly Hills library. This ramp serves a secondary entrance to the library as well as separate commercial spaces housed within the library, adjacent to the sidewalk but elevated above it.

This ramp is mandated by law. Would the city have provided it if not explicitly required under ADA? Beyond the letter of the law, this library ramp attests to its spirit by according respect for all eventual ramp users whatever their abilities. Would the city have elected to integrate this ramp so carefully into the siteplan unless required to provide it?

(ADA-compliant accommodations  must comport with very specific, non-negotiable standards are spelled out in every ADA compliance manual. They may vary in form and design, but not in function as the law is quite specific as to what will be provided, not what may be afforded.)

Policymakers, planners, and traffic engineers wouldn’t any longer recommend creating curbs without cuts, so why do they evidently think nothing about creating the conditions for safe bike travel?

After all, cyclists have enjoyed a legitimate right to travel upon on all roads (unless expressly prohibited) for most of the past century.  For even longer we’ve advocated for road improvements as proponents of the Good Roads movement. Yet we still fight tooth-and-nail jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction for that most basic of road accommodations: a dedicated place to ride.

Dedicated bike lanes are few and far between in these United States. Worse yet, standards for bike accommodations vary from state to state in practice. Each state develops and promulgates their own. The European Union, by contrast, appears to better coordinate signage and markings; it’s consistent across countries because the Union follows principles of universal access.

Coordination remains very much a problem in the states. For example, the handful of local governments here on the Westside of Los Angeles have no program in place to coordinate improvements, not even signs on bike routes. Heck, motorists driving coast-to-coast enjoy consistency in signage and standards that we can only envy. In this regard, bike planning is still the Wild West of transportation planning: cyclists fend for ourselves in the motorists’ native habitat.

Dangerous by Design report coverWe see the toll taken by hazardous conditions, careless drivers, and occasionally reckless cyclists. Transportation for America published a report [pdf] about roads that are ‘dangerous by design.’ Why is simple bike accommodations such a heavy political lift?

We can look to truly progressive cities like San Francisco and Portland to imagine how improvements could look. But innovations like separate bikeways, dedicated signaling, and automated bike parking still seem like the stuff of like science fiction. Even bold pavement markings that to remove much of the dangerous uncertainty from our multimodal intersections  – the lowest of low-hanging fruit – seem outside our grasp, but you can find it anywhere in Europe.

Complete Streets: Close but No Cigar

Complete Streets illustrationIn brief, Complete Streets policies are intended to ensure that travelers of all ages and abilities can move safely and efficiently along and across our road network. The street properly planned and maintained will provide safe mobility for bicyclists, pedestrians, and all other road users, the principles say. (Read more from the APA Complete Streets Best Policy and Implementation.)

Supporters of Complete Streets (count me among them) say that the landmark federal legislation will eventually get us to road access equity. Indeed, Complete Streets principles as enacted in California under Deputy Directive DD-64-R1 Complete Streets (2008) read like a manifesto of equal access:

  • Statutory requirements, planning policy, and project delivery procedures will facilitate multimodal travel;
  • Projects will be planned, designed, constructed, and operated in accord with the safety and mobility needs of all road users; and,
  • CA DOT materials including manuals, guidance, standards, and procedures will reflect the policymakers’ intent by serving policy objectives to ensure multimodal travel.

Complete Streets will take time, however, and there is no guarantee of any kind of standardized accommodations for cyclists. It will also take time because policy documents like the General Plans will only incorporate the principles of access gradually. Consider that updates to time-sensitive plan elements (like circulation) are required at most every five years; whole GP updates occur every twenty or so years. So it’s clear the principles will become ingrained. (Read more about integrating Complete Streets into the General Plan in Complete Streets and the Circulation Element GOPR 2010 [pdf])

Here in Beverly Hills, for example, almost two years after Complete Streets law passed, our city had adopted a new General Plan in 2010 but sans Complete Streets principles. Ask about Complete Streets in City Hall and you may receive a knowing nod, but if the principles are not codified in local ordinances and ingrained in department thinking, aren’t they more hypothetical than practical?

Beverly Hills will undertake a thorough reconstruction of Santa Monica Boulevard in the coming years, but you likely won’t find any substantive Complete Streets principles integrated into the design. Why? Because the city is not required to. What if the law suggested that a ramp be provided for equitable access for the differentially-abled?

The problem with Complete Streets is that it does not mandate accommodations but rather provides policy guidance. Complete Streets can only get us part of the way there because it is not a universal law of equitable access. We might well travel by jet pack by the time we see real safety improvements on every major thoroughfare like Santa Monica Boulevard.

ADA as a Template for a Right-to-Access Law

Now, I’m not a genius in the law nor even an attorney. I like to ride my bike, though, and I  know a good model for equitable access when I see one. Let’s embrace ADA as a template for our renewed demand for accommodations and road improvements where the danger to cyclists is clear and present today.

Where auto traffic exceeds a specified volume, for example, or reaches a sufficiently high speed differential with respect to cyclists, there should be a circuit-breaker that mandates mode-separated traffic flow (just as traffic engineers respect triggers for road expansion). Only we’re not looking for more asphalt but instead our share.

The ADA has set a high bar and subsequently transformed the way we recognize and provide for people of different abilities. Whether discrimination in the workplace or access to public and commercial places, the Act has defined a new arena for civil rights while establishing baseline expectations across society for how we afford access to places. Cyclist accommodations are no different.  The ADA can and should be our campaign template should cyclists decide to seize an opportunity to demand equity.

Bringing Complete Streets and Equity in Access Full Circle

Proposed road user access logo When we look back to the Good Roads movement in the late-1800s, we can see a coalition of interest groups come together around the need for smoother and safer passage. Cyclists, farmers, and other commercial interests saw a quality system of interconnected roadways as a path to increased prosperity and enhanced recreational opportunities.

At the time, the need for national coordination was becoming clear. Road building practice was a roll-your-own industry in its early days, with each locality hewing to standards distinct from its neighbors. Only a coordinated system of roads and road building practices ensure safe and comfortable travel.

Out of the disaggregated collection of good roads proponents emerged the National League for Good Roads. It formed in 1893 to assess the state-of-the-art in road building and standardize design and construction.

The League had grander goals, however, and universal access appears to have been one of them. “This road should be worthy of its builders and of the age,” said General Roy Stone, Special Agent and Engineer for the Office of Road Inquiry (in collected remarks from the FHA history).

“It should have [paths] for wagons, carriages, automobiles, and bicycles, bridle and foot paths, plenty of shade and fountains, plenty of room on the borders for ornamental trees and plants, not set in stiff rows, but artistically grouped or scattered, the whole forming a continuous and practical lesson in forestry, floriculture, and landscape art, as well as in road building. It would become the main artery of American country life.”

Communication and promotion were key parts of the League’s mission from the beginning. Smooth, Macadam-surfaced conveyance was one objective; but framing roads as a new public space for travel and recreation was key to persuading Congress (and the public) to support construction was essential:

“Good roads are the highways to wealth. [And] when the wheelmen’s league and all the farmers’ associations pull together harmoniously in this direction, working only for justice and the public welfare, there is no limit to the power they may exercise and the good they may accomplish. Prosperity for the whole country will date from the happy hour in which that beneficent combination is established.”

Haven’t we come full circle? The origins of today’s Complete Streets movement is clearly seen in the League’s dedication to providing safe and comfortable travel to all road users.  The problem is that the good roads envisioned in the 1880s have yielded to a single-use conveyance with little provision for road users other than motorists and commercial freight.

A century ago, the streets that were the product of the Good Roads movement were shared by all comers: pedestrians, cyclists, horse carriages and electric streetcars. It was a scrum of competition that was eventually rationalized by innovations in transportation engineering like signals and traffic flow controls. Squeezed out over time were the pedestrians and cyclists, carriages and streetcars until only the motorist and the trucks remained.

Isn’t it about time that we seized the mantle of equity in access laid down by General Stone and his National League for Good Roads as long as a century ago?