Erin Allen: Good afternoon, I'm Erin Allen. And this is The Rundown.
One of the things that brings people to Chicago and keeps them here is how easy it is to get around without a car. I can ride my bike in a dedicated bike lane, I can take the train to all the places I need to go in the city. And I can do something that a lot of us city folks take for granted. I can use the sidewalk with pretty much no problem. But I can say all of that because I'm not living with a disability that limits my mobility.
All kinds of folks in Chicago do have this type of disability, whether they're unable to see signals and barriers in the street, or unable to wheel around them. For these folks is not as easy to get around. Today we're going to talk about why that is. Yochai Eisenberg is an assistant professor of disability and Human Development at UIC. He's also a researcher at the Great Lakes ADA Center. Yochai, hello.
Yochai Eisenberg: Hello Erin. Great to be here. Thanks.
Erin Allen: Great to have you. So who is using sidewalks in most cities and communities?
Yochai Eisenberg: I mean, it's a lot of times people who are commuting to work right are the biggest users of sidewalks. We see people on scooters and bikes nowadays, frustratingly using sidewalks. And then I think one of the interesting things that people don't know is people with disabilities actually walk for trips and take transit for trips at a higher percentage than people without disabilities. Sidewalks are a key piece of infrastructure and people who, with disabilities, who are navigating on sidewalks are using them, but still encountering barriers and finding ways of navigating around those barriers. A lot of times, you may see people who use wheelchairs navigating in the street using the bike lane, instead of the sidewalk when they encounter barriers, as well.
Erin Allen: Let's talk about the types of barriers. What would be a barrier? You know, give me some examples.
Yochai Eisenberg: Yeah, definitely. So there's the pedestrian signals themselves. The city of Chicago had a big lawsuit. I think it was 2021 related to the lack of fully accessible pedestrian signals that have the beeping or auditory signal. For crossing. And there's, you know, they found something like 99% of the signals in Chicago don't have this. And so the lawsuit set out a plan for moving forward and removing those barriers and making more fully accessible pedestrian signals.
There's attitudinal barriers, the ways that, you know, people without disabilities and society view people with disabilities and the kind of experience that people have as a person with a disability. How they feel treated by other people and looked at and that whole experience.
If you think about sidewalks, right, there can be surface problems with the sidewalk: tree roots, lift the sidewalk up and make it so that there's a big level change. Where you walk from the sidewalk to the street, that's called a curb ramp. And many places are missing curb ramps, so that'll require someone to have to step down to go from the sidewalk to cross the street, and crossing the street can feel very unsafe. So I think safety comes into this a lot. When you you see these barriers, when you, when people disabilities encounter them it, it really becomes an unsafe situation.
Erin Allen: Wow. Thanks for going through all of those. So you worked with the Metropolitan Planning Council to do a study specifically about walking and wheel ability in Chicago. I'd love to hear you talk about what you found.
Yochai Eisenberg: Yeah, definitely. So this was a great partnership between the Metropolitan Planning Council and the Great Lakes ADA Center. And essentially, we wanted to conduct the study that I did similarly in nationwide, where we found that many communities don't have what's called ADA transition plans. And it sounds like a very technical word, but I kind of tried to describe it is a barrier removal plan. But the degree to which communities have made progress in that barrier removal is one, unclear, but two, from the data that we have, the communities have collected, it appears that it's nearly half of the infrastructure is inaccessible, or nearly half of the infrastructure has barriers. That's what we found nationally.
We wanted to repeat it with the Metropolitan Planning Council locally. And we found that very similar rates where I think it was about 11% of the 208 communities, I think, around the Chicago area, had what this barrier removal plan called an ADA Transition Plan. And then that the quality of those plans really varied. Right? So if you think about, you know what, what makes a good plan, right? It's a plan that involves the public. It's a plan that sets out a schedule, that notes who's going to do what and when it's going to happen when these barriers are going to be removed. And then has some kind of accountability, right? Of monitoring and noting when things are going to be improved.
But what we found is that many of those plans, really were all over the place in terms of quality. You know, I think, to kind of look from the the local government side, it's a pretty tricky situation that they're in. Or a situation that, in some ways, a lot of them would like to avoid. And I think that's, you know, perhaps the stance that people have taken, because there's this fear that if you start to address it, if you start to think about the ADA, if you start to collect data on barriers, then it's going to open you up to lawsuits. And lawsuits are a real thing. The city of New Orleans is an example. They had a data, they had a plan, and then they sat on it, they didn't do anything for 10 years. In 20- I think 2020-2021, they had a lawsuit. A judge ruled that you guys are not doing anything, you know, we're gonna make you put up a lot of money up front right now, and work towards removing barriers.
Erin Allen: So you're talking I mean, you mentioned several lawsuits. That sounds like you know, that's the penalty. Like that's what happens when cities don't invest in this and do it upfront. It's kind of like apologizing later, as opposed to asking for permission first. What else? What are other repercussions to cities? I mean, and are those not good enough incentives?
Yochai Eisenberg: Yeah, I would think that they would be, you know, I think somehow, many cities just think it won't happen to them in a way. But, you know, I would say that lawsuits have really been the, the main way that these plans and that barrier removal has happened, and in some ways, the main driver of success for communities becoming more accessible. And then what happens is the communities around that city that got sued, are like, Oh, I don't I don't want that to happen to us. And then they start to, you know, do some work towards development of that plan.
Erin Allen: It's a ripple effect.
Yochai Eisenberg: It's a ripple effect. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Erin Allen: Speaking of advocating, just going to state the obvious that winter is coming. Snow is...
Yochai Eisenberg: Yeah, yeah. May happen at anytime.
Erin Allen: It may happen any moment. And there - is there a push for the city of Chicago to be responsible for clearing the sidewalks of snow, as opposed to like individual residents, business owners. Can you talk about how this factors in here? Has there been any movement on this, you know?
Yochai Eisenberg: Yeah, no. I've been trying to follow a little bit. This is a campaign by Better Streets Chicago and Access Living a joint campaign that they're trying to use examples of other cities that are doing some of this, I think they mentioned like Wilmette and Toronto where the city is taking a more active responsibility for clearing the snow. And I think, you know, the city likely thinks this is a very daunting task. Right? But I think with a pilot, you could really see how might this work, right? And learn ways that, that other cities, test out ways that other cities are doing that, and have some evidence that could support, you know, clearing the snow. Because people need to get to work, people with and without disabilities need to use the sidewalk infrastructure, and do so safely.
Erin Allen: Yeah. If a person is feeling so moved by this conversation, or just really starting to think about this a little bit differently, like I was when I started to come across your research, and they want to get involved and making their area more walkable and wheelable. What would you suggest?
Yochai Eisenberg: Yeah, definitely, I think, you know, contacting your local government is a great first step to find out where they're at. You could reference our report, which is on our Great Lakes ADA website to know if your community has a plan. And then you can start to work to advocate for creating a plan. And one of the key - another project that we're working on in our center is related to a crowdsourcing tool called Project Sidewalk, which we're deploying in the Chicago area with lots of different partners. Where we're trying to collect data on accessibility. It's a virtual crowdsourcing tool. So speaking of winter, this is a great activity that involves mapping and labeling with Google Street View imagery, and noting where there are barriers and where there is accessible sidewalks and curb ramps and infrastructure, and this data is going to be directly used for improving the infrastructure.
Erin Allen: Great. Well, thank you so much for your work. Yochai Eisenberg is Assistant Professor of Disability and Human Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Applied Health Sciences. He's also a researcher at the Great Lakes ADA Center. Yochai, thank you so much.
Yochai Eisenberg: Yeah, thank you Erin.
Erin Allen: And that's it for The Rundown today. We'll be back bright and early tomorrow morning. I'm Erin Allen. Talk to you then.
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