The Forgotten History of How Accessible Design Reshaped the StreetsBreaking News
tags: urban history, transportation, disability, accessibility, mobility
In the summer of Covid-19, sidewalks are expanding — making room for new outdoor restaurant seating or extending the square footage of existing dining areas much further, all the way into the street. In what used to be parking spaces, there are now tables and chairs, surrounded by cheery temporary fences and bunting, all to provide the social distancing that our new rules for public life require. The street itself is being temporarily remade. When my home city of Boston recently announced a new program for restaurants to request temporary ramps, guaranteeing wheelchair passage from the sidewalk to the newly commandeered parking spaces, I was thrilled — but not because of the novelty. The quest for accessible passage through the built environment is an old story, and its history is newly alive in the shifting shapes of our streetscapes in 2020. That forgotten history contains clues for reinventing street life that might be our best resources in a pandemic, and as the U.S. confronts a renewed national racial justice movement.
The need for accessible streets and sidewalks has utterly reshaped the contemporary cityscape, and the most profound change is also the most modest: the curb cuts that you’ll find now at many street corners in cities all over the world. The revolution in street corners seems like an obvious civic good now, a common‐sense softening at the edges of the built environment, a simple solution to buffer the concrete shape of a world built with homogenous users in mind. But it would not have happened without disability activists’ long, hard fight.
Curb cuts are nothing but edited concrete shapes, an inclined plane newly cut and laid where there had once been a step down. The angle of the “cut” is calibrated for ease of use by people in wheelchairs. It needs to be shallow enough for safe passage when someone is traveling alone, whether using their hands to push their wheels or a motorized chair commanded by button or switch.
If you’ve ever dragged your wheeled luggage over a dozen blocks of busy sidewalk, walked your bike through a crowded area or gingerly pushed a sleeping baby in a stroller — be careful to avoid any sudden bumps and jolts! — then you stand in this inheritance, too. This commonplace rite (and right) of passage was rolled out at improbable scale, taking old cities and chopping their corners, one by one, bending their angles for the work of wheels.
Long before the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 mandated curb cuts at all street corners, 30 years ago this summer, disabled people had pointed to the design of the street as a key locus of their political rights — the sidewalk that stands for being in public space, and therefore in the public sphere. Disabled people had called for curb cuts since the 1940s as a form of rehabilitation for veterans, requests that went largely unheeded except for rare exploratory programs. In the present day, curb cuts are so common, both ordinary and even mundane, that most people know nothing of this history. But the resistance to their widespread implementation was protracted and fierce. Outside a few small communities like Berkeley, where vocal activists won some local implementation, there was little understanding of the chicken-or-egg problem of accessible design. “When we first talked to legislators about the issue, they told us: ‘Curb cuts, why do you need curb cuts? We never see people with disabilities out on the street. Who is going to use them?’” recalled Ed Roberts, a disabled civil rights leader in the Bay Area in the 1960s. “They didn’t understand that their reasoning was circular.”
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