My father lives in the same 1960s suburban neighborhood that I grew up in. When the developers built the houses, they had no inkling that anyone would ever need to walk or, for that matter, do anything outside a car ever again.
Because there were no sidewalks, I rode a school bus for 30 minutes instead of walking a distance I could have covered in 10. My father now feels as car-dependent as I did as a child; he has no sidewalks or transit service. If he wants to travel somewhere, he still has to drive.
The streets don’t offer him and others who can’t or don’t want to drive — older adults, children, people with disabilities, pedestrians, bicyclists — safe passage. A national organization called the National Complete Streets Coalition has laid the groundwork for communities all across the United States to address the needs of all commuters, not just drivers.
Though with a transit system and some sidewalks, bike lanes and trails, Lawrence is well ahead of my hometown. However, our streets don’t yet meet the needs of all users. Lawrence Complete Streets, affiliated with LiveWell Lawrence, would like to see a policy in place that would complete the streets for all.
Dot Nary, a disability researcher with KU’s Gerontology Center, knows intimately how difficult it can be for a person with disabilities to get around without a vehicle, since she uses a wheelchair herself. She says even though she lives in a newer neighborhood, the sidewalk on her street is so far elevated that, even though the city has worked hard to remedy the situation, they have been unable to make one curb cut safe. “I think Lawrence is good at remedies,” she says. “But I don’t think we’ve really looked at ways to ensure new developments are negotiable.”
Nary points out that because of the challenges associated with living without a car, which is true for many, people with disabilities have the highest rate of unemployment. Finding and keeping a job can be difficult because of our incomplete network of sidewalks and a transit system that doesn’t serve all areas or accommodate all work schedules.
“Many nights I need to stay at work after 8 p.m.,” she says. “If I had to rely solely on public transit, I’d be in trouble.”
Nary points out that we live in an aging society. To position itself as a place to retire, Lawrence must place a priority on non-motorized travel.
“We haven’t planned for people to age in place and fully participate in the community,” she says. “I think people cling to the ability to drive because there’s no alternative. As a culture, we’ve been so enamored of cars that we’ve created communities where you must have one. As people age and are on fixed incomes, having a car won’t be possible for many.”
Nary says that like most, older adults and people with disabilities would like to travel without a car to shrink their carbon footprint and get exercise. The more the city makes that possible, the more people will take advantage of the opportunities and the more attractive Lawrence will become.
Here are some things a Complete Streets policy could do to help older adults and people with disabilities:
• Retime walk signals for slower travelers.
• Install audible and tactile walk signals.
• Make pavement marking highly visible.
• Construct median refuges on four-lane streets
• Ensure sidewalks are even and have curb cuts.
• Install a shelter at each transit stop.
For more information about Lawrence Complete Streets, see Lawrence Complete Streets or contact Jennifer Church at at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, look for their display and bicycle valet service at the Earth Day event coming April 16 in South Park.