Jacob Struiksma, a youthful 36, stands about 6´3˝ and wears his red beard thin.
He knows the Roosevelt neighborhood intimately—he can find by touch every signpost and tree box and faux-rustic sidewalk bench between Northeast 60th and 66th Streets around Roosevelt Way Northeast. He can act like he owns the place, picking up sandwich boards put out by businesses and placing them elsewhere, where they are not obstructing pedestrians. But sometimes something catches him by surprise, like the “Road Closed Ahead” sign that had been set out by construction workers on the edge of the sidewalk on Northeast 65th Street on a recent Tuesday afternoon. Walking westbound at a good clip, Struiksma’s white cane slips past the sign without hitting its base and his large shoulder barrels into the blaze-orange marker.
“Oh!” he says with surprise, giving the sign a few investigatory taps with his cane. “What the heck is that? This is a problem with construction all over the city, and nothing is happening.”
Struiksma grew up on a dairy farm in Arlington and has been blind his whole life. He has lived in North Seattle for about 15 years. Though his active urban lifestyle comes with inherent challenges, Seattle’s building boom—expected to be even more pronounced in 2016 than it was in red-hot 2015—has had a particularly acute impact on the thousands of disabled people like him. Signs, cones, and tape all conspire to impede transportation. In particular, rampant sidewalk closures have made the difficult task of getting from point A to point B wall the more so, forcing Struiksma to turn around halfway down a long downtown block and find another path—not to mention the makeshift walkways and shoddy barriers to dangerous sites.
“I’ve had construction workers yell at me and push me,” he says. “I’ve run into it all over the city. It’s a problem on every single block of the city.
“I have to do a lot of zigging and zagging, which adds time I haven’t planned for. There’s such a big discrepancy to how . . . cars [are accommodated around construction sites] compared to people who are walking and taking transit.”
New rules kicked in on Friday that the Seattle Department of Transportation says should tip the scales a little toward pedestrians, including the disabled. They come after years of widespread grumbling that the city was too willing to allow construction sites to take over entire blocks for building. The rule promises to make sidewalk closures a “last resort” when city planners are permitting a construction site.
“Whenever you have more development than in previous years, there will be greater impacts,” says Brian de Place, who manages right-of-way permits for the Department of Transportation. “You can’t build without some level of impacts. But my sense is once we’ve set some pretty clear expectations, people will try to work with us to provide pedestrian access. This says ‘Thou shalt keep the sidewalk open.’ ”
Exceptions will remain, but de Place says those will usually be confined to places where, for example, taking away a car lane would impede transit.
Nothing in the rule explicitly improves disability access, but de Place says it does put already existing rules in clearer language that should help construction managers make their pedestrian walkways compliant with Americans With Disabilities Act requirements. The City Council also increased the department’s enforcement budget to help ensure site managers are following the rules. The subtext of this is that right now, construction sites are all over the map, so to speak, in terms of how well they accommodate people with impaired mobility.
Meanwhile at the University of Washington, a small team of computer scientists are searching for solutions through technology. Access Map Seattle, a mobile app now in beta testing, may be the first of its kind: a trip planner that gives detailed information about disability access across Seattle.
“As you can agree, for a person with a disability, if they’re attempting to coordinate a route, it is a nontrivial endeavor,” says Anat Caspi, the director of the Taskar Center for Accessible Technology at UW who is overseeing the app development. “My concern is people stick to places they know.”
The app, which grew out of a hackathon hosted by SDOT but is now being developed by students working for credit, takes far more into consideration than construction zones: which sidewalks have curb cuts, for example, and which streets are too steep for easy wheelchair access.
But the app does address construction sites in a way that’s telling for how those sites are viewed by the disabled community: Even where construction permits call for walkways to be provided, the app tells users to avoid them. There’s just no telling what people will find on the ground. Caspi says that as part of the development process, the students accompanied a group of wheelchair users around some downtown construction sites.
“At one site, the rerouting turned out to be a tarp placed to bridge between the sidewalk and some other mush. [One man] basically got stuck,” she says. “The whole thing was not navigable. To me that’s inexcusable.”