Friday, July 15, 2016

Actually, you CAN'T get there in a wheelchair!

I'm about halfway through my temporary disability, and the novelty of getting around by wheelchair is wearing off.  It takes a lot of mental and physical energy to figure out workable travel routes and maneuver myself around our streets.  And as my friend Rant Woman points out, I'm not exactly a typical wheelchair user.  Aside from my healing hip, all the rest of my body parts are functioning very well.  I can see and hear just fine, my arms are strong, and I can use my lower legs as well as my arms to propel myself around.

And even with all these advantages, there are places I just can't get to on my own.  Closest to home,  I can't figure out how to get to my favorite neighborhood bar, the Bottle Neck Lounge.  It's only a block and a half away - but that block and a half is too steep for me to manage on my own.  I could take the bus one stop and roll down - but there are no curb cuts at all on the west side of 23rd, and the sidewalk by the Bottle Neck is a rough, temporary patch by a construction site.

I'm accustomed to using a combination of transit and biking to get around, so I'm familiar with the transit network.  But the steep hills, missing curb cuts and broken pavement are much more of a concern in a wheelchair than on a bike - I can't just get out and walk!  None of the information sources available to me tell me about the slope at bus stops or the condition of sidewalks and curb cuts between bus stops and destinations.  For example, Google Maps tells me I should walk from 25th two blocks to 23rd to catch the #48.  It doesn't tell me that those two blocks are among the steepest in Seattle, that the pavement on 24th is riddled with potholes and the curb cuts are substandard.  I know that because I live here!  When I travel to an unfamiliar destination, it's very challenging or impossible to figure out what obstacles I might encounter.  This sidewalk cliff certainly isn't featured on any maps!

In fact, missing and substandard curb cuts create such barriers to travel that Disability Rights Washington has sued the City of Seattle for failure to comply with the American with Disabilities Act requirement that cities install and maintain curb cuts.

And friends, please don't think this is just about "those people."  As I'm experiencing right now, and most of us will experience sooner than we expect, we're all just "temporarily able-bodied."  Sooner or later, we're all going to need those curb cuts.  Pay attention on your own travels, and post the obstacles you find #CrappyCurb.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

You Really CAN Get There in a Wheelchair!

I've been traveling around Seattle by wheelchair over the last couple weeks.  In my previous blog post, and in reports on facebook, I've highlighted the obstacles to wheelchair travel - which are significant.  But I don't want to leave the wrong impression - in fact I've been able to get where I need to go with only minimal problems.

Overall I feel extremely fortunate to live in a place where independent wheelchair travel is possible - despite our notorious hills and infamous rain.

Here are some positives:

1. Every single one of our public buses has a wheelchair ramp and can carry two people in wheelchairs.

2. With few exceptions, bus stops are accessible.

3. Bus drivers know how to operate the ramps and how to secure wheelchairs on board, and are cheerfully willing to help wheelchair riders get on and off.

4. Sidewalks near most bus stops have gotten at least a minimum amount of repair to make them passable.

5. Link Light Rail is very easy to use by wheelchair; just roll right on.

6. Most public buildings and many shops and restaurants are accessible.

7. There are enough people out and about in wheelchairs that nobody finds it especially remarkable.  Twice I've had to wait for the next bus because a bus was already carrying two wheelchairs.

8. Buses and trains run frequently enough that I don't need to pay close attention to schedules.

9. It doesn't really rain in Seattle.  Hmmm... I guess I can't count on that one!

I certainly hope YOU don't fall and break your hip - but if you do, try getting around in a wheelchair. You might actually enjoy it.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

View from a Wheelchair

I broke my hip three weeks ago. It's a nuisance, but it could have been much worse.  The main problem is that for now, I have to figure out how to get around without putting weight on my left leg.  When I'm at home, I hop around with a walker, but for going out in the community, that's much too slow.  So I borrowed a wheelchair from friends at Seattle Neighborhood Greenways and have been using it to explore the city.

The first thing I notice:  in a wheelchair, everything is much farther away than it seemed when I was walking and riding my bike.  The long block between my house and the bus stop is now REALLY long.

The second thing I notice: obstacles that present a small inconvenience when walking or biking can be daunting barriers in a wheelchair.  Hills are steeper, pavement is rougher, cracks in the sidewalk are bigger.

Here's one example:  In the photo above, I'm in the street.  That's because there's no curb cut at the intersection down the block by the bus stop.  When I'm walking, I just cut across the grass. But now, I have to roll about half a block in the street, hoping no one zips around the corner in a car and fails to notice me.

Over the past few days I've been taking the wheelchair on the bus (we are very fortunate that all our buses are accessible!) and meeting with safe streets activists from Seattle Neighborhood Greenways to help evaluate streets that are supposedly designed for walking and biking - a designated "neighbohood greenway" and a historic boulevard.  Are these streets also safe for wheelchair travel?

Here are a few of the obstacles we encountered - a sidewalk cliff:

Photo: Bob Edmiston
A poorly-placed recycling bin:

Photo: Mark Spitzer
A gravel sidewalk:

Photo: Mark Spitzer
With the help of my friends, I could make my way around these obstacles (and many others).  What if I had been alone?

Today I went out by myself, taking the Light Rail to University Station with a plan to explore a bit in familiar territory in the University District.  I was pleased to find a transit map on the Light Rail platform, so I was pretty sure where to go to find my bus.  I could see the row of bus shelters across the way.  When I rolled up to the shelters, I looked for a sign confirming which buses stopped there.

The sign was at the far end of the row of shelters, completely hidden until I'd rolled all the way to the end.  If I'd been walking or on my bike, the distance from one end of the row to the other would have seemed insignificant.  But in the wheelchair, already feeling a bit tired from rolling across the busy street from the Light Rail station, it felt like a long way.  I had a panicky feeling that I was at the wrong bus stop and would have to roll all the way back to get on the right track.  Fortunately the sign confirmed I was in the right place.

I got off the bus at 15th Avenue and Campus Parkway.  This is a big transfer point, where a lot of buses stop.  I wanted to cross the street to stroll along Campus Parkway - but wait!  There are no curb cuts and no crosswalks at this big intersection!  I've been here before, walking and on my bike, and it never seemed much of a problem to go one block out of my way to cross the street.  But today in the wheelchair, I felt defeated.  I could go one block uphill to the north, then roll back down; or I could roll down one block to the south and push back up.  I looked longingly at the far side of the street.  Then reluctantly rolled downhill.

The weather has been sunny and mild since I've been using the wheelchair, so I can only guess how much worse all these obstacles would be if it was dark and raining.  Even on these sunny days, I'll only venture out alone in familiar territory.  I'll probably be back on two feet in a few weeks - but what if I'm not?  What about the many people who have to get around by wheelchair every day?  When I advocate for safe streets for people, I'll keep in mind the view from the wheelchair, and insist that streets be made safe for everyone.  That's how I roll.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

SLOW Rides with Senior Ladies On Wheels

This photo of two women on bicycles was taken in Seattle on August 24, 1898.  Seattle had an extensive network of bicycle paths back then; it would be two years before the first automobile arrived.  These women were sharing the joyful freedom of bicycling together.

I started S.L.O.W. Rides with Senior Ladies On Wheels in order to give my contemporaries a chance to rediscover that joyful freedom.  Many of my friends parked their bikes in the basement years ago, and now feel hesitant to get those bikes back out.  Comfortable routes for bicycling away from hills and traffic are not obvious to people traveling by car or transit, and hesitant riders are nervous about being left behind when riding with more experienced companions.

Inspired by Cathy Tuttle, Robin Randels and Michael Snyder of Spokespeople,  who pioneered easy-pace neighborhood bike rides in North Seattle, I became a Ride Leader through Cascade Bicycle Club and started offering low-stress rides in central and south Seattle.

In the three years since I retired, I've explored all around my hilly Central Seattle neighborhood to find calm, low-traffic streets that bypass the steepest hills and connect with Seattle's network of trails.  Following these low-stress routes, I've organized rides to showcase neighborhood assets such as pocket parks, neighborhood greenways, p-patches, public art, and community events.

S.L.O.W. Rides welcome riders of all ages and identities - anyone willing to ride SLOW and enjoy the company of others.  Almost all of the 24 rides I've led since October, 2013 have included at least one other gray-haired woman, one or two men, and a few people half my age.

At first I was surprised that experienced riders would want to come along, but it turns out people enjoy the relaxed sociable atmosphere and the chance to explore unfamiliar routes.  And everyone especially loves to welcome the nervous rider with a bike freshly retrieved from the basement.  "I used to ride everywhere when I was younger, but it's been years..." "I might have to walk up the hills, is that OK?" "I'm not sure I can keep up with you..."

"Don't worry," we say. "We won't hurry!"  The slowest rider sets the pace, and we really mean it.  

S.L.O.W. Rides with Senior Ladies On Wheels are offered through Cascade Bicycle Club's Free Daily Rides program.  Helmets are required on all Cascade rides.  You can find S.L.O.W. Rides, and hundreds of other free rides, on the Cascade website,

Friday, February 13, 2015

What is a Crosswalk?

On the steep hillsides of Seattle, many streets are built out as stairways, not as roadways.  One example is East Thomas Street, seen here in Google Maps:

East Thomas Street is a stairway both east and west of East Madison (the stairway in this view is hidden in the trees).

As you know, every intersection in Seattle has crosswalks, whether marked with paint or not.  People are allowed to walk across the street at intersections, and people driving cars are required to stop for people walking.  I've often wondered whether this intersection of a busy arterial and a walking path also creates a crosswalk.

As you can see in this shot looking east across Madison, this intersection is marked with a street sign.  The sign for East Thomas Street includes a walking icon to indicate this is not a street for cars.

Is this a real intersection with an unmarked crosswalk?  The sign attached to the bottom of the pole suggests that some people might think so.  But it directs people NOT to cross here:  "Use Crosswalk."  The arrow points up Madison to this intersection:

As we know, there are crosswalks here.  They are all unmarked, and people who drive cars on Madison ignore them, but there are crosswalks here.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Keep On Nagging!

It was a surprise and an honor to be nominated as one of five candidates for "Greenways Champion" - the individual who has most advanced the cause of safe streets in Seattle in 2014.  As Gordon said in introducing the nominees, I wear a lot of hats, including this rather neglected "blogger" hat!

So in honor of this nomination, and in recognition of the actual well-deserved winner, Tom Fucoloro of Seattle Bike Blog, I thought I should blog about a past nag that has been, you might say, nagging at me.

On April 14, 2010, I sent the following message to Macy's department store through their website:
I notice that your website links to a Mapquest site that gives driving directions to your stores.  In Seattle, as I'm sure in many other locations, your store can be reached very conveniently by public transit(the transit tunnel, which carries our beautiful new Link Light Rail as well as buses that serve the entire metropolitan area, runs right through your store), as well as by bicycle and on foot. It is a shame that your website tells customers that the ONLY way to shop is by car!  I have seen a number of commercial websites with links to more comprehensive tripplanners.  Google Maps now includes walking, public transit and biking directions; our King County Metro has a web-based trip planner than can be added to a website.
I travel by bike, transit and by foot, and it can be very challenging to find the best route to my destinations. Just this morning, I was waiting for a downtown bus when I noticed a tourist puzzling over a tourist map.She was trying to find the Macy's store, which was only 4 blocks away.  A link on your website could have helped her find her way by foot from her downtown hotel.
Please let me know how you will address this concern.
A few days later I received this encouraging reply:
Dear Merlin, Thank you so much for your email inquiring about public transportation to our Macy's stores.
We apologize for the inconvenience to those not driving but we are very glad you pointed this out to us. We certainly will look into adding these services to make shopping more accommodating for all of our customers! In the meantime, Google Maps is a great alternative and as you pointed out, has more options than MapQuest.
Stay tuned for more exciting changes and additions to our website.Thanks again,Jennifer
JENNIFER GOTHELFManager, Macy’s Visitor Services and Tourism11 Penn Plaza, 11th Floor, New York, New York 10001
Well, time went by.  I checked in with Jennifer about the exciting changes, she reassured me they were coming.  More time went by.  Nothing changed.  On January 31, 2012, I sent this note (Kimberly had responded to an earlier nag):
Hi Jennifer and Kimberly,
How discouraging!  A visitor arriving at the Seattle-Tacoma airport, curious about taking a trip into town to go shopping, might check the Macy's website for directions to the nearest store.  And this poor soul would STILL not learn that the Light Rail train from the airport goes DIRECTLY to the basement of the Seattle Macy's store!  Your website still gives directions that are of use only to people traveling by car.  And by the way, your next-door downtown competitor, Nordstrom, now offers public transit directions on their website!
You might also be interested to know that less than 50% of the people who work in downtown Seattle arrive there by car.  If you want them to shop in your store, give comprehensive directions for people using ALL modes of transportation!
Again nothing changed.  A year and a half later, on July 12, 2013, I sent this exasperated note:
Today I read about Macy's great promotion for the Maison Jules Fall collection - giving away beautiful bikes!! So I checked your website again (first time since last year) thinking perhaps you had decided to include directions for people who travel by bike, and/or by transit or on foot.
I really honestly don't understand why Macy's would want to encourage people to drive to shop.  Especially in Seattle, which is the number 2 bicycling city in the US, and where fewer than half of the folks who work downtown arrive by car.  And your store has a Light Rail station in the basement!  Don't you want international travelers to zip over from the airport by Light Rail to shop for the Maison Jules Fall collection?  and win one of those lovely bikes to ride a few blocks to the Pike Market?
It's very easy to add multimodal travel directions to a website.  Google Maps includes walking, biking and transit as a matter of course.  Please pass this request on to your webmaster.  
I didn't even get a response, and after that I gave up.  I didn't even look at the Macy's website again until last week.  And there to my amazement,  I found this:

Multimodal directions via Google Maps!

Was my three-and-a-half year nagging campaign successful?  Or has the world of transportation just shifted?  I'll let you decide.  And meanwhile, I'll keep on nagging!