“You know, that might be the answer – to act boastfully about something we ought to be ashamed of. That’s a trick that never seems to fail.” – Joseph Heller, Catch-22
“The calculated simulated of enthusiasm…is also common within contemporary culture. In a variety of configurations, the applause sign has become a social principle.” Stuart McEwan, Spin: A Social History of PR
On Wednesday August 28th the Vancouver edition of the Star ran an article with the headline ‘Vancouver Ramps Up Accessibility On Sidewalks.’
The article reiterates the same information posted on the City of Vancouver website, which was also shared on the City’s social media.
In short, the City was given some extra money through a TransLink program to install an ‘extra’ 140 curb cuts this year. The article states that this is “in addition to the nearly 200 ramps installed every year” but that number is misleading because it includes upgrades and repairs to existing curb cuts. The correct number of new curb cuts installed where none exist is approximately 40 per year.
The information below (which has since been verified to be accurate on multiple occasions) comes directly from City staff presented at an accessibility workshop – so not from City communications staff.
Whether this ‘good news’ coverage is a source of celebration or consternation depends on perspective, context and relevant background information, all of which are missing from both the Star article and the City web site.
As a wheelchair user living in Vancouver, here’s the headline I would have chosen:
City of Vancouver announces you can cross from one side of the street to another in a relatively small number of additional locations.
It’s not as catchy but it is more accurate. Without curb cuts these are parts of the city I am excluded from – by design – as a wheelchair user.
As mentioned the City of Vancouver has deliberately planned, budgeted and installed new curb cuts where none exist at the rate of approximately 40 per year. (That number excludes repairs to existing curb cuts or work done in conjunction with road repair.) In contrast the cities of Edmonton and Calgary have been budgeting for and installing approximately 250-350 curb cuts annually (where none currently exist – and excluding special area programs and new developments and repairs).
That means, after the additional 140 curb cuts on top of the previously planned 40, there will still be about 7,820 corners in the city of Vancouver where I, as a wheelchair user, cannot cross from one side of the street to the other.
In the U.S., which has had the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) since 1990, the presence of curb cuts remains inconsistent but the absence of them is at least understood as a form of discrimination with a some legal protection (albeit flawed) and recourse available to disabled people. The fact we don’t have such legislation here does not alter the fact that inaccessibility is discrimination. The inability of disabled people to reliably and safely access public space that general public is able to, has significant and wide-ranging economic, social and health consequences for disabled people and for the city as a whole.
“Lacking social connection carries a risk that is comparable, and in many cases, exceeds that of other well-accepted risk factors, including smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day, obesity, physical inactivity, and air pollution (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2010).”
The earliest versions of curb cuts trace back to 1930’s UK where they were installed to help those pushing prams around the city. They first appeared in North America in the 1940’s as part of a pilot project in Kalamazoo, Michigan to aid in the employment of disabled veterans. It was only decades later, in the 1970’s when disabled people, most notably Ed Roberts and his fellow disability rights activists in Berkeley, California, began demanding (sometimes creating at midnight) curb cuts as integral, necessary condition for respecting the civil rights of disabled people. Without them the city is literally building barriers. (Highly recommend this article about the history of curb cuts by 99 Percent Invisible.)
So how is it that in 2018 Vancouver installing an additional 140 curb cuts in a city where 8,000 out of 27,000 corners have none is newsworthy?
Based on the budgets of Council, the previous timeline for completion of curb cuts in Vancouver would be approximately 200 years. Their planning would mean that two centuries from now Vancouver would finally have infrastructure that dates back to the early decades of the last century throughout the city. This one time announcement of an additional 140 moves the date of completion to 196 years instead of 200 years from now.
It is also important to factor in the number of corners in this city with poorly designed and/or poorly maintained curb cuts. New and old, many curb cuts in Vancouver do not come close to meeting acceptable, let alone best practice, design standards. (Curb cuts that have no landing, where the slope is dangerously steep, where the road, gutter and curb create a ‘V’ that can cause wheelchairs to tip, where the curb cut doesn’t align with the crossing lines and you end up in oncoming traffic…)
Sometimes in their zeal to promote something that is essential and just, people will suggest attaining that goal is simple. I am not one of those people. I do not think achieving an accessible city will be simple. In fact I do not even think defining accessibility is easy. The most important people necessary for defining and achieving accessibility have been largely or entirely excluded from conversations about cities and about accessibility. We have a long way to go.
That said, installing properly designed, truly accessible curb cuts is easy. Curb cuts are among the barest of minimum necessary infrastructure for an accessible city. Creating an accessible city involves a great deal more than curb cuts so a city that can’t even manage those is a city that is long, long way from claiming to ‘prioritize,’ let alone be, inclusive and accessible.
Yet in the Star article, Eric Mital, manager of streets and electrical design for the City of Vancouver, said accessibility is a priority for the City.
- Housing, affordability, and homelessness
- Safety, inclusion, and creativity
- Economic development
- Greenest city
- Value for money
A generous interpretation would be to assume the intention is for accessibility to be understood to included as part of the second item on the list, inclusivity. After all accessibility is a necessary condition for inclusion of disabled people (approximately 14 -15 percent of the population, a percentage that will continue to grow as our population ages), but while there are many laudable, important things mentioned – accessibility is not among them and neither are disabled people (with the exception of mental health).
Elaborating on the second priority, the City web site states:
Building safe, inclusive, and creative communities means investing in:
- Support for arts and culture
- A framework to become a City of Reconciliation
- Participating in the 100 Resilient Cities program
- Inclusivity by producing Canada 150+ in partnership with First Nations and Indigenous art and culture
- Continuing to work with health authorities and other levels of government to manage the impacts of the opioid crisis, while also exploring how we can better support those struggling with addiction and mental health issues
- Public realm cleanliness
- Public realm activations
- Support for Vancouver Police Department and Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services
- Extreme weather response
- Park Board initiatives including Biodiversity Strategy, Urban Forest Strategy, Parks and Recreation Services Master Plan, Vancouver Aquatics Strategy, Outdoor pool, Vancouver’s Waterway Recreation Strategy, Dogs in Parks Strategy, Marpole Community Centre renewal, and Park washrooms improvements
- Expansion of public space at Central Library
- New Vancouver Public Library branch and programs
- Transgender inclusion
- Creation of childcare spaces
In the 2018 Budget and Five Year Financial Plan, the City’s list of work for inclusion, safety and creativity includes: support for arts and culture; city of reconciliation; resilient cities network; Canada 150+ celebrations; opioid response; public realm cleanliness; public realm activations (parklets, pop-ups, laneways, Mobi bike share – which doesn’t include adaptive options for disabled people…); transgender inclusion; public safety and others. Accessibility is not on the list.
So while the City of Vancouver may say accessibility is a priority, the preponderance of the evidence suggests otherwise.
Rather than boasting, the City should be apologizing and making specific commitments – in writing – about when every citizen, resident in, and visitor to, Vancouver can cross every street – not just some. That will be newsworthy.