Tuesday, June 20, 2017

How far is it?

After spending a month getting around by wheelchair a year ago, I'm much more aware of how the physical environment influences my ability to move around and explore my surroundings.

In my usual healthy state, I can almost always combine walking, biking and public transit to travel wherever I want to go in my city.

But even then, my choices of where to go are influenced by environmental factors.

For example, there are five public libraries within 2 miles of my house.

to Madrona/Sally Goldmark Branch: 1.2 miles
to Capitol Hill Branch: 1.2 miles
to Montlake Branch: 1.3 miles
to Douglass-Truth Branch: 1.6 miles
to Central Library: 2.0 miles

I usually prefer to travel by bike.  The easiest library to reach is not the closest; I choose the low traffic and "mostly flat" route to the Douglass Truth Library most of the time.

Traveling by wheelchair and public transit last year, Douglass-Truth and Capitol Hill were a close tie. I could reach either library without either transferring to a second bus or negotiating a dauntingly steep hill.  Douglass-Truth requires a longer, more circuitous bus ride; Capitol Hill means a longer roll along the sidewalk.

Walking, I usually prefer the Capitol Hill Branch.  Getting there requires climbing a steep hill - both ways! - but there are interesting destinations along the way, including grocery stores, restaurants, and lots of elegant old houses with colorful yards.  Even though Madrona/Sally Goldmark is the same distance away, the route there doesn't include other destinations so it "feels" much farther.

The Central Library has amenities that the other libraries lack - I love the Seattle Room on the tenth floor! - but getting there is much more challenging than the 2-mile distance would suggest.  It requires a transfer to get there by bus, and the bus stops are on steep hills making wheelchair access daunting. Hills, traffic, and inadequate bike lanes discourage bike access.  So I only rarely visit this Seattle treasure.

Distance is only a minor factor in determining "how far away" these five libraries are from my home. Hills, traffic, interesting surroundings and bike infrastructure count for much more.

Move More - But Don't Stop Driving!

Good health requires movement. We see that advice over and over. This weekend, the Seattle Times Magazine featured "functional fitness" - how to incorporate movement into your life without setting aside time for "exercise."

The two movement experts interviewed for the article had numerous practical suggestions to help us move more:  walk more! Stretch your feet! Sit on the floor!

All good so far.  We're given several examples of people who walk up to three miles for practical reasons, like getting to the grocery store.

But the article fails to explore practical ways to move more while traveling longer distances: public transportation, and my favorite movement amplifier, the bicycle. This article suggests several times that we increase our activity by "parking farther away."  But why not consider leaving the car behind altogether?

Granted, when you ride public transit, you spend most of the ride sitting (or standing).  But research shows that getting to and from the bus stop or train station allows transit riders to meet or exceed daily recommended activity.  Why not put in a plug for transit while promoting active living?

An even more glaring omission: the bicycle.  The bicycle shows up over and over as a symbol of "healthy living."  More and more urban families are turning to the bicycle as the most efficient and most fun means of everyday transportation.  It's even possible to get to the Great Outdoors and go camping by bicycle.

Have these advocates for "functional fitness" never heard about bicycles?

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, www.cascade.org.

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.