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Columbia Missourian

Wheeling over sidewalk problems

By Andrew Harman
June 24, 2008 | 6:51 p.m. CDT
Max Lewis rides down Broadway to cross at the intersection on Old Highway 63 on Thursday morning because the design of the nearby sidewalk cuts is too steep for Lewis to safely pass in his wheelchair. "I am forced out of necessity, not convenience," Lewis said about riding on the street.

COLUMBIA — The destination lies only 100 feet away, but the crumbling sidewalk leads to a curb too steep for a wheelchair to cross. Backtracking to the street is the only option, but that’s a dangerous move. And it often brings out the worst in motorists who sometimes have to stop in traffic and vent their frustrations by letting loose a string of profanities.

Columbia’s sidewalks pose major problems to citizens in wheelchairs, people such as Max Lewis, a quadriplegic family law attorney.

“It is a huge problem,” Lewis said. “The problem is universal in terms of Columbia, Missouri. The reason lies in the fact that there are scores of sidewalks that are broken or crumbled up to where it is impossible for a wheelchair to travel over that sidewalk.”

It’s a situation that hasn’t gone unnoticed. Two city commissions are lobbying the city to improve the city’s sidewalk conditions, not only to accommodate people with disabilities but also to promote walking in general. But there are challenges. Sidewalks are expensive to build and to repair. And many residents don’t realize that it’s their own responsibility — not the city’s — to keep their sidewalks up to snuff.

Lewis deals with sidewalk issues every day. There are many recurring problems, such as inclines in slabs that cause wheelchairs to tip over, curb cuts — the ramp-like areas of a sidewalk where the curb has been removed — that are too steep to get up and down and sidewalks that are too narrow to fit wheelchairs.

“These basic problems are the reasons there are so many wheelchairs using the streets,” Lewis said. “I consider myself a law-abiding citizen, but out of necessity I have to drive on the streets in order to survive, period.”

Evan Moser, a 21-year-old MU student and a member of MU’s wheelchair basketball team, said that after years of wear and tear, many of Columbia’s sidewalk slabs have shifted, causing ledges and cracks between slabs.

“For someone in a wheelchair, this can be difficult because the small front wheels on a wheelchair will get caught up and not roll smoothly over those ledges and cracks,” Moser said. “There have been numerous occasions where I have nearly fallen from my wheelchair or actually taken a spill because I was thrown off balance. The average pedestrian may be able to pick up their feet and avoid a small obstacle, but for someone in a wheelchair, their tires are always on the ground.”

Columbia’s Disabilities and Bicycle and Pedestrian Commission acknowledges the problems.

“The sidewalks are a problem; in some areas they are a severe problem. The city has been working to improve it, but there is still quite a bit of work to be done,” said Homer Page, chairman of the Disabilities Commission. “I think Columbia’s sidewalks are probably comparable or better than many cities in Missouri. However, I would also say that none of the cities are really adequate.”

Although Columbia did receive a $22 million federal grant for projects that promote non-motorized transportation, the city is running into problems using any of that for sidewalk repairs.

“We felt we could get into trouble spending federal money to fix sidewalks that are part of private housing,” said Ted Curtis, bike/ped project manager for the city. “If one person fixes their sidewalk with their own money, and then we come in and fix their neighbor’s sidewalk with our money, the person who fixed it with their own money may feel that that would be unfair.”

Still, the city is taking some steps. First, Curtis said the city has hired an engineer to work on adding sidewalk to areas where there are gaps. And the budget for fiscal 2008 shows the city spending about $200,000 in capital improvement sales tax money to improve downtown and Broadway sidewalks this year and about $703,000 worth of PedNet grant money to build new sidewalks.

Page noted that all new sidewalks have to conform to accessibility standards, so any new sidewalks should be easier for people in wheelchairs to use.

The Bicycle and Pedestrian Commission also proposed a series of recommendations to the city in April. These recommendations include public education, establishing priority sidewalks for the city to clear of hazards and obstacles and a plan of enforcement for the city to finalize.

“We are interested in working toward a more comprehensive sidewalk plan,” said David Heise, chairman of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Commission. “There is currently on the books a city ordinance that property owners maintain their sidewalks. Part of that is clearing any obstacles that inhibit passage. ... If we had some way of making citizens aware that this is something that needs to be done, many people will do it out of a sense of civic duty.”

The Bicycle and Pedestrian Commission suggests publicizing the ordinance through articles in the city source newsletter, establishing advertisements on the public access and city television channels, providing public service announcements and enforcing the ordinance through “complaint-driven enforcement combined with city initiated enforcement,” according to the April report.

Finally, the city’s 2007 sidewalk plan identifies the most important sidewalk locations in an attempt to “assist the city council in making capital budget decisions year to year, as well as inform the public of the city’s priorities in sidewalk construction.” But its projections are daunting. Completing all the priority 1 and priority 2 sidewalk projects it lists would cost $21.1 million.

But for Lewis, change can’t come soon enough. He suggested city officials might make sidewalks more of a priority if they had to experience them the way he does.

“I encourage any of our leading government officials or other citizens to utilize a wheelchair on these sidewalks for just half a day, and try to get over these barriers, just to get a glimpse or brief insight of the problems that face persons in wheelchairs,” he said.