Safer Rolling in the City
In the 24 years I’ve used a rear-wheel drive power wheelchair, I’ve made many mistakes. In addition to these hard lessons, I worked as civil engineering drafter and served on a city commission which oversaw vehicle, pedestrian, and bicycle facilities. I’m basically an infrastructure fan, and will shamelessly deploy that jargon. glossary at end
In the US, those of us who use power mobility for disability reasons are always “pedestrians” thanks to the ADA. This covers power wheelchair, scooter, and Segway users. We can’t be told to get off the sidewalk. We can’t get “driving under the influence” tickets, although every year some ill-informed traffic cop tries to issue one. Where bicycles belong – on the sidewalk, the roadway, or a separate bike path – is determined by each locality.
However, no explicit guidelines have been provided in the US Americans with Disabilities Act for accessible sidewalk design. There’s guidance, but the final regulations have been orbiting planet Fed since 1993. In this vacuum, some follow the specs for exterior entrance ramps (noted below).
This leaves sidewalk and curb ramp design up to individual localities, with sometimes disastrous results. Municipal boundaries, property owner disputes, and decades of changing design aesthetics mean that sidewalks aren’t always where we need them.
That’s why I’m very cautious, especially the first time I go anywhere.
Some curb ramps are dangerous.
- too steep overall (my chair tipped over sideways, dumping me in the street). ADA limits any ramp to 1:12 or 8.33% slope.
- too much cross slope, which means my wheels are not parallel to the ground plane thanks to side-to-side variation (My chair skews sidewise, circling back down no matter how I steer). ADA limit is 2% cross slope.
- too steep an angle between the street and the sidewalk, or too deep gutter (My front wheels and anti-tippers contact, but my drive wheels spin in mid-air) ADA is silent.
- too high lip between street level and start of curb ramp (It’s why I have 8“ front wheels, which help me mount 1” obstructions.) Legal settlements limit sidewalk displacement to 1/2" in some jurisdictions.
My Road Rules
I’m short in my chair, well below the front hoods of trucks and SUVs. I’ve been hit twice, when I was legally traveling the intersection of driveway and sidewalk. (While I wasn’t bodily damaged, both increased my car terror). These experiences have burned the following rules into my brain.
- Match Travel Direction with Vehicles. When the sidewalk network is continuous and accessible, I always travel so I’m moving the same direction as the closest street traffic. When people leave driveways they generally check traffic on the street they’re entering. By moving in the same direction as the nearest traffic lane, there’s a better chance drivers will see me.
- Signal My Intentions A single curb ramp that points out into the center of an intersection is cheaper than one for each crossing. The drawback is when I’m waiting at that ramp it doesn’t communicate which street I intend to cross. When there’s room, I’ll go down the ramp and wait in the street, headed in the direction I want to go. When a car hesitates in a turn-on-red situation, I’ll point in the direction I intend to cross.
- Only I Decide Where I Go. Although well-meaning folks will often wave me through an intersection, only I decide when and where to cross. Several times cars have waved me across and then sped up before I make it to the other side. (Maybe thoughtless, maybe malice but definitely more car terror.) To avoid after-you, no-after-you windmills, I fold my arms, shake my head, and turn my chair away from the ramp. In Wisconsin, road vehicles don’t have to stop, only yield to pedestrians. I strictly follow the ped laws in my state.
- Slalom through broken sidewalk networks Continuous and accessible sidewalks are ideal, but not ever-present. With dangerous or no curb ramps. I must zip in & out of driveways to proceed. I must see oncoming traffic: that’s why I travel against the flow–which is also the general rule on rural roads with no sidewalks
Increase Visibility with Lights and Clothing
Bicycle tubing and wheelchair tubing are different sizes, so it can be hard to attach standard bike lights. I have found a style of small bike light that attach with sturdy rubber bands. They don’t illuminate my path, but they increase my visibility even in the daytime (they are that bright).
Planet Bike Spok lights http://ecom1.planetbike.com/3057.html
The light is the size of a big toe, and shines a super-bright LED in one direction through a clear or red lens.The control button is where the hair would grow: a gentle press once for steady light, again for flashing light, and again to turn off. The underside is permanently connected to a rubber strap which closes with a ball-headed stem.
It took a minute to install one on the tube where my armrest mounts. I put the red light facing back on my joystick side (left) and the white light facing forward on my right, rotating them down so the armrest pad doesn’t occlude the flash. Just to be super-visible, I’ve also hung reflective/flashing LED strips from zipper pulls on my always-there back bag. (They are also easier to grip!)
If Planet Bike products aren’t in your area, similar styles are “Knog Frog” and “Blackburn Click.”
In rainy weather, my hot-pink and bright-yellow waterproof-breathable cape makes me stand out (some say “visible from orbit.”) In cold weather I choose among my brightly-colored hats. While an orange flag is often shown on wheelchairs, I’ve found it’s a nuisance inside. If it’s high enough to be seen on the road, it’s taller than I am, and it’s too hard to incorporate into my body envelope.
Pedestrian Facilities US-UK Glossary
- In the US, urban streets have a sidewalk on both sides for pedestrians, which is elevated above street level. In the UK, it’s a pavement or footpath.
- The intersection of the street and the sidewalk is the curb, usually stone or concrete. In Wisconsin, the curbs are 6 inches higher than the road, creating the gutter to channel storm water, store snow, and support sleeping poets. The UK engineers create kerbs and channels
- When a vehicle crosses the sidewalk to a garage or alley, they use a curb cut. The smaller driveways for wheelchairs are curb ramps (many US wheelchair users don’t make this technical distinction) In the UK vehicles travel through kerb cuts and wheelchairs use dropped kerbs.
- Suburban streets may have no sidewalks at all, or only on one side. Rural roads have no curbs at all – ditches by the side carry away water (and hide snakes).↩