For Walkers, The Last Six Inches are Important

By Wendy Landman and Brendan Kearney

Wendy Landman is the Executive Director of WalkBoston. She has led the growth of the organization into a statewide advocacy presence and works with leaders in state and municipal government and the non-profit community to broaden the organization’s impact. Wendy is also a leader in the national walking movement and serves on the Board of America Walks.

Brendan Kearney is the Communications Director for WalkBoston where he manages outreach and communications through WalkBoston’s email and print newsletters, website, social media, and Ped 101 training programs. Brendan is also a key member of the Vision Zero team at WalkBoston and sits on the City of Boston’s Vision Zero Task Force.

WalkBoston has been talking about transit as the middle leg of a walking trip for many years. We understand that even the most avid walker or walking advocate knows that many trips are too long to make a single-mode-walk trip possible. Now, the transit and active transportation worlds have become more attuned to the facts that buses serve the broadest network of transit riders, are often the transit mode that serves low-income riders, and are the transit mode that can be modified most easily. For American communities – urban, suburban, and rural – to become truly walkable, they must also be served by transit. Understanding how the bus and walking networks must be linked is critical to shaping investments in transit and the built environment.

While many big city downtowns are making progress on walkability and high-density development, many big city neighborhoods along with rural and suburban communities are being left behind. A new study from the University of Utah Department of City & Metropolitan Planning analyzes Salt Lake City bus stops using 18 variables and then reports on the differences between stops that were made fully accessible and linked to neighborhood sidewalk networks with those that were not improved. Three years later, the analysis showed that, “the improved bus stops are associated with a statistically significant increase in overall ridership and a decrease in para-transit demand, compared to the control group stops.”

It is no surprise to those of us in the walking advocacy world that making bus stops accessible and linked to neighborhood sidewalks can increase bus ridership and reduce the number of para-transit trips that are called for. This is a logical outcome of thinking about how people make real life choices about how to get around. What this research demonstrates is an amazing win-win-win for walking and transit advocates. It shows how we can shift trips from autos to transit; give more people more independence by making it possible for them to use regular bus service rather than setting up special, scheduled para-transit trips (some of which require appointments to be made at least 24 hours in advance and only for specified purposes); and save money for transit systems over the long run.

WalkBoston has been a member of the advisory committee working with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s systemwide accessibility department on their plan for accessible transit infrastructure (PATI) over the last several years. More than 30 percent of the MBTA’s customers use the bus system for some or all of their daily commute – or about 350,000 trips/day.

The PATI team undertook a detailed audit of the system’s 7,600 bus stops and found significant accessibility problems at thousands of the stops, including 31 percent without crosswalks. Many more were missing curb ramps and other elements of accessibility. Happily, the MBTA is starting to undertake improvements at the most egregious locations. Starting this summer, the MBTA will be engaging in a yearlong project to construct improvements at over 140 bus stops located in 20 different communities. These bus stops were identified in the recently completed audit as being the worst bus stops in the system in terms of accessibility.

In addition to our work with the MBTA in the Boston metro area, WalkBoston has partnered with community advocates and municipal staff in many of Massachusetts’ small towns and rural villages. Safe walking routes and bus stop accessibility are critical issues in communities where a high percentage of transit users are people with no other transportation choices. Local participants in walk audits and community transportation efforts have been especially receptive to seizing opportunities to improve accessibility to transit and add ways for people to walk safely between schools, municipal buildings, local shops, and senior housing.

A strong case can now be made that investment in many more of the stops will serve the needs of bus riders with disabilities, make the bus system more attractive to all riders, and potentially save money over the long term by reducing the fastest growing part of the MBTA’s (and many transit systems’) budget – para-transit service.The walking movement has built strong ties with environmental advocates, community development organizations, and the public health world over the last decade. We are now working hard to join forces with transit advocates and the disability community to create communities that are truly inclusive and accessible to all.

“If you’re trying to get across the street and there are no curb cuts, six inches might as well be Mount Everest,” said Lawrence Carter Long of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund on the 99 Percent Invisible Podcast. “Six inches makes all the difference in the world if you can’t get over that curb.”

Fixing the “last mile” has long been the mantra of transit and walking advocates. While difficult to achieve, it has been taken up as an important goal by many transportation agencies and transit providers. Now is the time to take up the “last six inches,” too, ensuring Americans with Disability Act-compliant curb ramps and crosswalks are present. These last six inches are critical elements of age and disability-friendly communities, growing bus ridership, and improving mobility for all community members.

Discussion

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3 Comments

  1. I completely agree with this.

    What I have found in the Boston area that the burden of walkability falls upon the cities, and that there is a significant difference in how some localities address walkable connections to transit. Even with similar distances to bus stops and T stations, not all Greater Boston communities put that much effort into walkable connections.

    Wellington station, for example, is a nightmare. If you don’t drive to and from it, you’re basically out of luck. Buses service is horrifically bad (MBTA drivers don’t even show up for their routes some days). Seriously, try walking anywhere from Wellington. Although Route 16 and Route 99 at the Everett Boston line is a construction nightmare, right now, I am skeptical about how pedestrian friendly the final product will be.

    Sullivan station is another horrid situation. If you want to walk from Sullivan towards Charlestown, you put your life in danger repeatedly, as you try to navigate faded crosswalks with signals that are busted… all over a convoluted pedestrian nightmare of an interchange. Try doing this: Just walk from Sullivan Station to the Schrafts building.

    I cannot even imagine navigating any of this as a disabled person. Regarding the ADA curb cuts to which you refer, I also suggest that you go to Everett and see how many poorly constructed sidewalks there are. I am glad that I am not in a wheelchair, because I would not be able to go up 3-4 inch differences in grade or over gaps at the curb cut.

    Lastly, you don’t mention sidewalks, but these are worth mentioning. I think trying to walk at non-signaled (ones which require a yield under MGL ch. 89 sec. 11) crosswalks in Everett is hazardous to your health. Even on signaled crosswalks on Main Street, when you push the button get the red and yellow light, two- three cars will zoom past it/around you. On top of this, half of the signal buttons do not work, and have not worked for ages. There is zero enforcement of pedestrian safety.

    No one cares about able-bodied pedestrians in Everett, never mind disabled ones. I would re-join WalkBoston, but my sense has always been less well-off urban edge communities like Chelsea and Everett aren’t as important as Cambridge and Brookline are to the organization. (In fact, at a gala even years ago, a previous executive director was taken aback and expressed her condolences to me when I told her where I live! )

    I would love to be proven wrong. I would love to help advocate for pedestrians, but, outside of the nicer communities, no one cares.

    Reply
    • Hi Ed – WalkBoston is working more and more in communities of all sizes across MA. We just did a major revamp of our website to try and make the info easier to find, and have the walk audits and comment letters more readily available (still adding from a backlog of documents!). In 2017 WalkBoston organized two neighborhood walk audits in Chelsea, participated in the City’s Re-Imagining Broadway initiative, and testified in support of the City’s Complete Streets policy to build momentum for safer streets for everyone. We just led a walk in Chelsea in May to highlight those efforts we’ve been working on in partnership with residents and city staff — that route as well as other Chelsea efforts can be found here: https://walkboston.org/chelsea/

      Reply
  2. Good article. Designing appropriate City bus stops is one of the most neglected aspects of transport planning, especially in young cities located in the south. In most cases the bus stops are designed without appropriate link to foot-prints of those who struggle on a daily basis to access public transport. For the physically challenged it is a disaster. In one study we did on a new highway in Nairobi, Kenya, largely branded as a super highway, the PWDs pointed out that they have a challenge boarding public transport due to accessibility. Their problem is further complicated by the poor design on public vehicles which are not designed to take wheel chairs. Transport planners need to do more in designing and linking bus stops to foot-prints coming from various origins to board public transport.

    Reply

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