On Walkability of Communities

My community cause is keeping the sidewalks clear in my neighborhood, primarily the very busy street leading to both a middle school and an elementary school, part of which is in a school zone. On my morning walks, I see parents and kids leaving the sidewalk to avoid things blocking the right of way (ROW).

Our city requires property owners to keep sidewalks clear because the area from the top of the sidewalk to the street is a public easement and intended for equal use by all residents.

map showing public easement between sidewalk and street

What’s the big deal? Well, anything impeding pedestrian traffic makes the community less walkable and presents hazards to those trying to navigate the neighborhood safely. It’s dangerous (and annoying) to lots of community members, including

  • Parents and kids going to school
  • Bikers
  • People pushing strollers
  • Joggers
  • People walking dogs
  • Wheelchair users
  • Blind pedestrians

These hazards fall mainly into two categories: cars and plants.

Cars

In Texas, impeding sidewalks with a vehicle is a ticketable offense. Cars are not supposed to park on or over sidewalks in any way, both by state law and further by city ordinance. Period.

§ 16-5-21 PARKING BETWEEN THE CURBLINE AND THE PROPERTY LINE PROHIBITED
It shall be unlawful for any person to park or permit or cause to be placed, stored or parked any motor vehicle on that portion of the public right-of-way between the curbline and the property line.

car parked over sidewalk near a flashing school zone sign

Some folks want to rationalize their choice to block sidewalks, illustrated nicely in this article. Here’s a video from the story:

In my neighborhood, street parking is not a problem. The roads are wide and there is plenty of room.

Plants

One of the things I love about this neighborhood is that it doesn’t have a homeowners association. No one can tell you what to plant or do with your yard; and with that freedom comes a necessity to keep plants under control. As an ardent gardener, I’m sympathetic to the amount of work it takes to maintain landscaping, until it becomes a safety issue.

overgrown shrubs blocking the sidewalk

The city started a campaign this summer to inform residents of their foliage responsibilities.

Streets, sidewalks, and other public rights of way are for everyone’s use. Property owners are responsible for their private trees and all other vegetation in the public right-of-way next to their property. Overgrown vegetation is a safety hazard and limits the use of sidewalks, trails, streets and alleys. It further threatens public safety when vegetation blocks the view of traffic signs, signals, vehicles, or cyclists. Trimming vegetation and caring for your trees are effective ways residents can enhance neighborhood safety.

Next Steps

I think this is primarily a problem of apathy. People don’t care if their cars impede sidewalks probably because they don’t use sidewalks. On morning, I tried asking someone in his car blocking the sidewalk to keep it clear and it did not go well.

Our city has a very useful 311 (code compliance) app where you can log a complaint in real-time with a photo of the issue and geolocation of the address, leaving enforcement to the professionals.

Just as we have to advocate continually for usability and accessibility of digital spaces, the same still holds true for many physical, public spaces. Education and laws are our current tool set. I’m hopeful we can change some minds though awareness, but for the rest who don’t care, it’s important that we make concerns known to community leaders.

Why I Love the Harbor Freight Experience

If you don’t know about Harbor Freight Tools, you’re missing out. In my opinion it’s the best store for anyone needing tools.

Harbor Freight logo: quality tools at ridiculously low prices

Always 20% off

If you go to HFT without a 20% off coupon, you’re not trying at life. They usually have an ad in those weekly mailers that most of us throw away without reading but not to worry; you can always pull one up on your mobile while waiting in the checkout line.

20% off coupon

Quality tools at ridiculously low prices

Their motto says it all. It’s hard to beat the value of their products. They aren’t top of the line but most of us don’t need industrial quality tools either. I’ve had really good experiences with all my purchases. Here’s an example that compares prices between the HFT Chicago Electric brand of a breaker hammer at $369.99 ($295.99 with your 20% off coupon) to a Dewalt or Bosch equivalent at $999. Even if it breaks, you can buy three for the price of one.

comparison chart for prices on breaker hammers

We bought one last week to dig up old fence post hole concrete and it has already paid for itself.

man using a breaker hammer on a fence post hole

It’s fun!

I rarely go to brick and mortar stores anymore, but for HFT I make an exception. I enjoy walking around and just looking at what they have. Where else can you easily find a 4 foot long pipe wrench?

boy holding up a 4 foot long pipe wrench
Photo credit: denzien

Friendly, helpful employees

Most of the people working at HFT tools seem to really like their jobs and that makes the shopping experience much more enjoyable. They’re happy to answer questions, pull something from the back, or help you find an item. It’s very easy to do a return or exchange as well. I think people make or break the customer experience.

FREE STUFF

You get something free with every purchase. This incentive makes me so happy, even if it is cheap things like a pair of gloves or a flash light. My favorite item is the blue tarp because you can always find a use for a tarp.

various free item coupons like zip ties, measuring tape, multimeter

This might be one of the oldest ploys in the book to get you to buy something and it sure works on me! The next time you need a tool of any kind, give Harbor Freight a chance.

Why are some toilets still inaccessible?

The other day, I was in an older office building, definitely pre-ADA (1990). I went into the bathroom and saw an interesting and flawed attempt to retrofit it for accessibility.

photo of a double bathroom stall with an outer door to close off the space for a wheelchair user
Inaccessible bathroom

The bathroom has two regular-sized stalls with openings I estimated to be about 30″ wide. In order to accommodate a wheelchair, someone just added a door that would close off both stalls since neither stall is large enough to allow wheelchair access.

Granted the ADA regulations for bathrooms are complex and confusing to the lay person but even so, I’ve seen enough bathrooms to understand this was not cutting it.

Drawing of an accessible bathroom stall with door opening outward, width 35-37 inches, depth 60 inches, and grab bars
ADA small stall requirements

This drawing demonstrates some of the features required of an accessible stall. I can’t be sure of the width or depth of the stall, only that it lacks grab bars and the door opens inward.

This kind of oversight might not seem like a big deal to most people; but if you’re in a wheelchair and can’t use the bathroom, that’s an indignity. I’m always disappointed when I see half-ass things like this 26 years after the ADA was passed.

Design Recommendation

Seems like there are two good options:

  1. If you’re going to restrict the bathroom to use by one person only if she is in a wheelchair, remove the other stall and make one, large, accessible stall. The building is not that busy.
  2. Move the door for the first stall to the side wall so it’s usable even when someone else is in the accessible stall. Then remove the door on the accessible stall, turn the commode sideways, and install grab bars.
drawing of a wider, wheelchair accessible stall
Large, accessible bathroom stall