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The Braille Monitor–March, 2001 Edition

Truncated-Dome Threat Still Looming

 by Bryan Bashin

Bryan Bashin
Bryan Bashin

From the Editor: In the January issue we published the minority report of the Public Rights of Way Access Advisory Committee (PROWAAC) of the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (ATBCB). When the final report is eventually approved, regulations for implementing the recommendations will then be developed over a period of time and with the inclusion of public comment. So it will still be some time yet before federal regulations will require mats of truncated domes at every intersection, alley entrance, and reflecting pool across the country.

The city of Sacramento, on the other hand decided last fall to see about installing such plastic obstructions ahead of the federal regulations, whatever they finally look like. Officials sought public comment, and one of those who submitted it was Federationist Bryan Bashin, Executive Director of Sacramento's Society for the Blind. His efforts and those of the commentors who agreed with him were not completely successful, but they did effect a partial victory. At a meeting on January 9, 2001, City Council voted unanimously to approve the proposed ADA Transition Plan, which mandates installing the plastic bumps on all curb cuts with a change in elevation of one inch in fifteen or less--about a quarter of the city's curb cuts. The rest, which are much easier to detect with foot or cane, remain plastic-free, at least for the time being. This decision was made to comply with a three-year-old California law, never enforced, requiring the domes at these almost-flat intersections.

Soon everyone concerned about truncated domes will be asked to write personal comments on this subject in the federal regulation-writing process. Here are Bryan's excellent comments as he submitted them on December 18, 2000:

 

Comments on the Proposed City of Sacramento ADA Transition Plan

by Bryan Bashin

INTRODUCTION

On the whole the proposed Transition Plan is a fine document. It addresses the urgent and long‑standing needs of Sacramento's mobility-impaired residents, but this blind Sacramentan finds the proposed plan's extravagant, expensive, and nonstandard mandate for additional bumpy warnings for the blind to be a waste of time, money, and compassion.

Furthermore, the process by which these proposed bumpy warnings have been proposed has been arbitrary, non‑scientific, and unrepresentative of the blind community which it purports to serve. Striking the requirement of bumpy tactile warnings and passing the rest of the Transition Plan is the preferred alternative.

In general I must be clear at the outset that these comments are my own, stemming from my longtime professional experience as an administrator in the blindness field and as a blind person myself who has walked the city's streets for eighteen years.

My employer, the Society for the Blind, knows that the proposal to equip tens of thousands of curb cuts with new tactile mats is highly controversial within the blind community. It knows that many feel passionately on both sides of the issue and that no general agreement among blindness groups has emerged on whether these bumpy mats are to be supported.

Therefore the Board of Directors of the society has taken and will take no formal position on the matter. The Society for the Blind intends to remain the blind community's open living room, where partisans from all philosophies can and should feel comfortable.

Therefore please review these comments with the full understanding that they represent my personal and professional views and that the Society intends to take no formalized position on the matter.

 

A HUGE SOLUTION TO A THEORETICAL PROBLEM

With little public fanfare, if this plan is adopted, Sacramento will be committed to building a dozen square feet of bumpy yellow plastic tiles into nearly every curb cut in the city. The bumpy plastic mats are supposed to help blind and low-vision pedestrians know that they are about to cross a street. The argument goes that, unless all such curb cuts are thus rebuilt or modified, blind pedestrians will unwittingly walk into traffic.

The reality is lack of such tactile warnings in curb cuts is a trifling problem for the blind. After all, the wheelchair ramp itself creates an easily-perceived trench four feet wide with detectable features such as its sloped walls and, ultimately, the striking tactile contrast between the feel of concrete and macadam. Finding such an opening with a cane is as easy as finding the Grand Canyon.

The proponents of expensive plastic mats insist that the city use them because blind pedestrians could then use them as guides to align themselves with a crosswalk for a safe traverse of an intersection.

The problem with this argument is that it's not the way blind people are taught to travel and may in some cases actually increase the risk of crossing an intersection. Modern cane travel techniques, as taught by the prestigious AER and others, actually advise that blind pedestrians do not use curb cuts as guides for street crossing. That's because thousands in each urban area don't point into crosswalks but instead have been installed at odd angles, sometimes pointing into the center of an intersection, sometimes pointing elsewhere. To depend upon such curb-cut orientation for safe street crossing is decades away, until the City of Sacramento corrects thousands of errant curb cuts.

Consequently, orientation and mobility instructors in Sacramento advise their students not to use curb cuts as guides for street crossing but instead to verify each corner's location for themselves. So what, many wonder, is the rush to codify the need for these bumpy tiles when the federal ADA doesn't itself require them?

Some on the City's ADA Advisory Committee believe that, whenever possible, the most stringent enhancements should be made to existing ADA law. Thus, although the ADA doesn't require additional tactile warnings such as truncated domes, California's title 24 has recently added some requirements for them.

However, in other instances where California's title 24 and ADA conflict, the City's ADA committee has chosen to go with the ADA. Thus federal ADA requirements that curb ramps have flush lips superseded California's requirement that an inch lip exist at the base of curb ramps.

I believe the city should not rush to embrace enhanced requirements for tactile domes but instead, as with curb lips, should conform to the existing federal standards used by thousands of cities, certainly at least until federal and state codes are realigned. This is particularly true because federal and state standards are in conflict, and California's requirement for tactile domes on curb ramps can easily be replaced with some other equivalent facilitation, far less expensive, less experimental, less ad hoc, and more likely to be used by blind pedestrians.

One example of equivalent facilitation might be to ensure that all curb ramps are built with slopes steep enough to be easily detected, yet shallow enough to be easily navigated by wheelchairs. Another might be to use the existing federal ADA requirement of simply scoring the concrete surface of the wheelchair ramp with grooves or roughening it with aggregate. These are practical solutions which are cheap and long-lasting and lend themselves to universal design. Why approve the present Transition Plan, which locks Sacramento into a nonstandard, bumpy tile design?

Approving Sacramento's Transition Plan now, when the Federal Access Board is in the midst of designing standards for tactile warnings, may very well be a waste of money, too. The federal Access Board, especially with the incoming Bush administration, may approve standards much unlike those proposed in Sacramento's Transition Plan, requiring costly removal and retrofitting because Sacramento chose to jump the gun and invent its own nonstandard standards before the federal Access Board promulgates its own.

The Transition Plan proposal would have the city somehow create a new curb ramp design, one probably not used by one city in a thousand. The problem is that blind Californians walking, say, in Davis or Stockton or Roseville won't have any experience with our new proposed system. And Sacramentans walking outside our immediate area won't have any assurance of plastic tactile warnings at any other curb cut in 3,000 U.S. counties. Some say a patchwork of differing urban plastic-bump standards could even endanger blind pedestrians statewide, as some may mistakenly assume that, finding no bumps, they have not entered a traffic zone in a city, which has not chosen to adopt the nonstandard Sacramento tactile-dome design.

 

A HUGELY EXPENSIVE PROPOSAL, WE GUESS

How much would it cost to reconstruct or retrofit each of the city's 76,000 curb cuts with the plastic bumpy tiles? I asked this question in several meetings of the Public Works ADA Advisory Committee; each time I was told exact numbers were unavailable but that cost estimates would be provided later.

Now, fifteen months into the process, we still have not a single dollar amount stated in the Transition Plan. No major public works project, not a road, a bridge, or a retaining wall is debated without regard to cost. Oddly, the Public Works Committee chose to discuss the issue as if expense were not a valid consideration. Is there something about blindness that doesn't subject us to the same laws of economics as any other city project?

The best estimate I've been able to determine is that the cost of adding the proposed bumpy plastic tiles is something like $250 to $300 per curb ramp. Multiply that by a minimum of 1,500 ramps per year and the cost of this enhancement comes to $450,000 annually. Were more aggressive measures adopted, this annual cost would be still higher. Eventually the cost of adding the plastic mats to all the city's curb cuts could exceed $20 million.

That's an enormous sum, and the expense is all the greater when one realizes that only 2,000 Sacramentans are blind. Building out this project over time would result then in an expenditure on the order of $10,000 for every blind Sacramentan--a staggering subsidy, and surely a misplaced expense way out of magnitude for its benefit.

Let's put it another way: if you asked a group of blind Sacramentans how they might like to divide a $10,000 per-capita city expenditure, I would doubt that one in a hundred would vote to see that money spent on bumpy plastic curb ramp tiles. My professional experience tells me they would want additional transit, more access to city jobs and job training, greater access to technology, training services, and perhaps additional city help in remaining independent in their homes. The prospect of up to $20 million of city funds being allocated to untried and nonstandard plastic navigational aids would probably be laughed out of the room.

And there's a serious side to this calculation, too. There simply is no statistical evidence that blind pedestrians in Sacramento have actually been hurt or killed by unwittingly walking into the street. Though Sacramento ranks high in pedestrian fatalities, no one has yet come forward with published evidence that any pedestrian casualty has been the result of walking mistakenly down a wheelchair ramp. True, blind people have been struck in various ways: by vehicles backing up, by light rail trains, by turning vehicles, but none by mistaken curb cut crossing.     Emphasis on spending monies on safety measures which could affect all pedestrians is wholly welcome; emphasis on spending $20 million for a theoretical rate whose evidence has the credibility of an urban legend is poor public policy indeed.

And what of the likely fate of these bumpy plastic tiles over time? The real world is a very different place from the sanitary experiments done a couple of times in Sacramento's corporate yard. These plastic mats would be on the lowest part of shallow curb cuts--just the place where leaves and other debris would collect in leafy Sacramento's streets. Unable to be cleaned by street sweepers, the leaves would likely stick to the plastic during wet weather, providing a dangerous banana-peel type surface. This slip-on-leaves problem is already a dangerous one on rough concrete; are we really ready to vote for a Transition Plan which depends upon a plastic surface which has never been tested for coefficients of friction underneath Sacramento's leaves and urban muck? After all, just a single successful lawsuit by a heels-wearing pedestrian could cost more than the annual curb ramp construction budget.

Any observer today can see dozens of remains of good intentions for the blind scattered throughout Sacramento. There, on 15th and L Streets, for example, are the peeling and dangerous remains of rubberized bumpy tiles put there by the same people who now want to put in plastic ones. Those rubber tiles, we were told, would be safe and permanent. Now they are neglected parts of the urban jungle, serving no one, unrepaired, and a tripping hazard. With this record can we believe that the city will see to repairing plastic tiles that the manufacturer will guarantee for only ten years?

As a person used to traveling with a cane, I often get comments from sighted people about existing bumpy plastic tiles, like those used alongside light rail. Many women have told me that their high heels have been caught on the bumps, a decided tripping hazard.

I am not against all uses of such bumpy tiles. Fixed-route rail, for example, is one place where the benefits may outweigh the tripping disadvantages. But there are only several dozen such places now in Sacramento; the proposed Transition Plan, by contrast, envisions that eventually there will be 76,000 such mats.

 

BUY BEFORE YOU FLY

One objectionable part of the advisory process thus far has been the fact that committee members have had only assurances about safety and practicality and no real models to observe for themselves. Fifteen months into the process, demonstration ramps of any style have still not been built for public scrutiny. Yet the committee is supposed to vote for a Transition Plan this month in which we are told these solutions would be worked out in the future.

But the outstanding questions are serious. Proponents claim the bumps on the plastic will not materially affect how well wheelchair users could push themselves up a ramp. But the public hasn't had the chance to try out any design. Proponents say the winter frost, rain, and summer heat won't warp or crack the panels, yet none are present to observe. Proponents say the surface won't trip women in high heels, won't be a trap for cigarette butts and leaves, and won't crack under a skateboarder's wheels. I am uncomfortable trusting a $20 million project with assurances that are little more than vendor hand-waving.

 

UNREPRESENTATIVE TESTING AND DESIGN

It needs to be stated clearly that the rush to include plastic tactile warning mats in the city's Transition Plan stems from additions to a lawsuit filed by an out-of-town law firm. The presence of this lawsuit was little mentioned formally during the city's ADA Advisory Committee meetings, but it was as obvious as the unspoken elephant in the living room.

I strenuously support those original objectives of the lawsuit that call for increased construction of curb cuts throughout Sacramento. The city's wheelchair community desperately needs such access, and the law is clearly in their favor.

But the attempt by some access extremists to hijack this process by piling on additional features supposedly for the benefit of the blind is a poor substitute for the orderly process of public policy. The Public Works Department created a subgroup of its ADA Advisory Committee composed of an unrepresentative group of participants. This group was charged with constructing a satisfactory ramp design to be approved or disapproved by future Advisory Committee meetings. The problem was, and continues to be, that the design group was composed of people entirely partisan to the cause of tactile warnings, including plaintiffs to the original lawsuit.

Never invited to the design group, for example, were any employees of Sacramento's Society for the Blind, despite the fact that the Society employs three certified orientation and mobility specialists (two AER-certified) and teaches more people the techniques of cane travel than anyone else in inland northern California.

Also not invited to the design group was any member of the National Federation of the Blind, the nation's oldest and largest group of blind people, with an active chapter in Sacramento.   Having a design committee without key groups invited is as if the Electoral College were to meet with one party only invited--clearly a breech of standard procedure for city advisory committees. No surprise, therefore, that a pro-bumpy-tile design came forth from this chummy and pre-arranged committee composition. To depend on such a subcommittee for technical specifications, assurances, and testing procedures is to make a charade out of a supposedly broad-based community effort.

 

HOW THE BLIND REALLY TRAVEL

For someone unfamiliar with how blind cane and dog users travel, it must seem that street crossing would be a dangerous and deadly activity. To the layman it might appear that every extraordinary effort must be made to keep blind people from crossing the street.

Yet the fact is, once trained, street-crossings are a normal and everyday part of life for Sacramento's blind citizens. There are perhaps a hundred techniques that blind people use to determine when it's safe to cross, to find the crosswalk, and to walk down the sidewalk. I am not saying that bumpy plastic tiles are horrible but only that they are horribly expensive in comparison to the tiny benefit they give to the average blind pedestrian.

Actually, if one wanted to benefit the greatest number of visually impaired pedestrians, most of whom do not use canes or dogs, one could simply paint the curb cut a bright yellow. That would clearly be the greatest good for the greatest number.

Blind cane users don't need the expensive bumpy plastic tiles. The city can make a far more significant contribution to our pedestrian lives by doing what it needs to do for all Sacramentans--putting in sidewalks where none exist, maintaining broken or root-lifted sidewalk trip hazards, eliminating blended curbs, enforcing existing laws which should eliminate head-gashing wounds from projecting objects. After all, to get to those few feet of vaunted plastic tiles at every curb cut, the blind pedestrian has to walk 400 to 600 feet through such obstacles. We have to navigate parts of our city's main streets, like Folsom Boulevard, which still do not have sidewalks. We have to endure inhospitable pedestrian planning which provides routes for cars around malls and retail centers but has no defined pedestrian route through the maze.

These are the real pedestrian safety issues for Sacramento's blind and sighted residents. That's where the city should place its real concern and real money. If the objective is to get the greatest number of visually impaired Sacramentans out traveling safely, then focus here. Please pass the Transition Plan, but strike the controversial section requiring those experimental plastic mats in curb cuts. Our road to Hell should not be paved with the bumpy good intentions of those who would fix our blindness through the promise of plastic.

Respectfully submitted,

Bryan Bashin

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