Our streets need to be welcoming to deaf, disabled

Montreal offers vision of what is possible

WHEN I HEAR people say, “Remove parking and add bike lanes!” or “We need more walkable streets!” I cringe. These folks, usually White and nondisabled, often don’t take into account the needs of low-income, BIPOC, and/or disabled people.

Neither does our city. Boston has a long history of inequity in busing and redlining and making decisions without community input – including, most recently, closing the Orange Line for a month. And the meetings to address these issues are not held online — excluding those of us who might not have the personal care attendant support, transit money, ASL/CART (live caption) interpreters, or time and energy to attend an in-person meeting.

Without community input, the city has made decisions that perpetuated its discriminatory past, deepening old wounds. And it has raised animosity towards the government, especially in Black and Brown neighborhoods.

When I applied to be an artist in residence with the Boston Transportation Department (BTD), I knew my community was struggling with transit issues. I was tired of waiting and ready to be a part of the transformation.

In particular, we need to transform our city’s streets so that they are welcoming to deaf and disabled people.

Consider the “open streets” held this summer in Jamaica Plain. The temporary walkable street featured long stretches without any openings for vehicles to drop people off. That meant pedestrians had to walk more than a mile to the next point of pick up. In addition, only eight pedicabs were available to help transport thousands of people. There was no way for folks with mobility related disabilities to safely move through the full route.

Or consider our neighborhoods with cobblestone streets. Most folks don’t know that those uneven stones are not from colonial times; they were poured in the 1970s to create an old-fashioned aesthetic as a tourist attraction, even though they damage many mobility aids. And there are painted lanes for bikes that are too narrow for the wider bikes used by disabled folks. Because our sidewalks can be so cracked and cluttered, and curb cuts are covered by snow in winter, most mobility aid users resort to the narrow bike lane, exposing themselves to oncoming traffic.

When we are unable to equitably use the sidewalk, and we are forced to put ourselves in danger for the comfort of others, we face an ingrained systemic barrier that keeps us from participating fully in urban life. Boston’s “open streets” in JP only heightened the city’s inaccessibility.

It doesn’t have to be this way. This summer, I took my first vacation as an adult to Montreal. That experience changed my whole perspective on urban design. Montreal’s streets feature traffic-calming tools that work well. Art is everywhere – from musicians playing on street corners to murals painted on the walls of homes, businesses, and streets. Stores and restaurants line the pedestrian walkway, encouraging citizens to move through the city and engage in urban life. The city even provides outdoor co-working spaces, complete with wi-fi and power outlets.

Montreal’s open streets are truly accessible. They feature smooth granite saw-cut joints that allow one to glide from a driving street to a walking street with ease. Within the walking streets themselves there are plenty of raised intersections where a car can drop someone off while also providing a reduced-speed intersection for safety of all pedestrians. That can be life changing for someone who wants to take advantage of their city’s open streets without the pain of walking a mile to the next pick up.

Instead of narrow painted lanes for bikes, Montreal has designated wide lanes on both sides of the streets with islands in between to protect wheelchair users and cyclists from vehicles. It is important to note here the equity difference. Because these are safe, designated lanes, wheelchair use is normalized within the bike lanes as a way to safely navigate without exerting extra strength continually weaving through people. In line with universal design, it also keeps the cyclists safer as well. This encourages more bike travel, decreasing carbon emissions and improving physical and mental health.

Montreal’s open streets put human beings before cars and welcome people with and without disabilities. This builds economic opportunity, and recognizes the human right to access the city and fully participate in all areas of urban life. Boston’s “open streets” should do the same.

Ellice Patterson is the founder/executive & artistic director of Abilities Dance, using dance to promote intersectional disability rights in the greater Boston area. She has also obtained a bachelors in biology from Wellesley College and a Masters in Management Studies from Boston University.