When we consider what makes a city accessible for people with disabilities, we must discuss what makes a city valuable.
If you were to ask a 100 city dwellers what makes their city an attractive and desirable place to live, you are likely to get 100 different answers. However, If you were to ask those same 100 people why they prefer to live in cities compared to rural areas you are likely to get the same answer, namely proximity of services.
Cities are valued because they offer residents proximity to essential services in a manner that wouldn’t be possible in rural areas. This proximity makes cities economically productive as relatively little time is wasted in transit between destinations. Yet, In the age of car-dependency, the proximity mandate that historically characterized cities was flipped on its head. On one hand, the original promise of cars was about increasing our mobility freedoms, but on the other hand increasing our mobility freedoms via car-centric infrastructure eroded the proximity that made cities valuable. Space that was historically filled with productive and proximal land uses, like schools, businesses and houses, have now been replaced with parking lots, stroads, freeways and highway interchanges.
To add insult to injury, not only does car centric infrastructure make our cities less proximal but car-dependency creates traffic congestion as a result of cars being 28 times less space efficient than walking. The end result is an urban environment devoid of proximal amenities where everyone is required to own a freedom inducing vehicle that ironically robs us of our mobility freedoms.
If car centric infrastructure reduces the mobility freedoms of able bodied people, what does it say about the mobility freedoms of disabled people? If removing parking mandates helps to reduce car-dependency and increases the mobility freedoms for able bodied folks, does that logic also hold true for people with disabilities? Cities seem to be conflicted on these questions. Some cities (like those in Oregon) believe that reducing car-dependency benefits everyone, while other cities seem to think that reducing car-dependency harms the independent mobility of people with disabilities.
For example, all cities in the state of Oregon repealed parking mandates near high frequency transit service, even in facilities for disabled people. However, if a developer still chooses to build parking in Oregon, the state building codes prescribes a number of required accessible parking spaces relative to the number of spaces provided. In other words, the state of Oregon ensured that repealing parking mandates didn’t translate to repealing accessibility standards for parking spaces that developers built voluntarily.
In cities that still haven’t abolished parking minimums, people with disabilities are often used as a justification to maintain minimum parking requirements. As seen in Los Angeles, people often argue that since accessible parking spaces are often tied to the number of total parking spaces in a development, if you remove parking minimums you will also reduce parking for disabled people by proxy.
What is often lost in these conservations is that maintaining parking mandates doesn’t help to create alternatives to car-dependency, and crucially it doesn’t help ensure that people with disabilities who truly need cars have abundant parking and road space made available for them. As Anna Zivarts (director of the Disability Mobility Initiative) said at a PRN organizing roundtable, “For those of us who can’t drive, there are a lot of barriers we see that are only able to be addressed through rethinking auto dependence”. These barriers include things like poorly maintained sidewalks, car-centric pedestrian overpasses, buses lacking ramps or lifts, transit systems lacking elevators, parks lacking smooth or paved trails, wide stroads creating many conflict points with cars, and crucially a lack of proximity by virtue of all the non-places that car-dependency creates.
Freeing up valuable space in our cities by reducing car-dependency can provide immense opportunities to intentionally design our cities around the needs of people with disabilities, allowing disabled people to be as independent as their abilities and desires dictate. When cities are designed around people instead of machines, residents can enjoy an urban typology that encourages greater social connectedness, greater accessibility, greater equity and greater proximity to services and to each other.
Without looking at the bigger picture, it can be easy to believe car centric approaches to accessibility, like ensuring that businesses provide free parking accommodations to disabled people, are the end all be all solutions in disability justice. That’s why it’s important to remember that the one of the biggest barriers to creating an accessible city for all is the erosion of proximity brought about by car-centric planning. Abolishing minimum parking requirements is a relatively easy first step a city can take to challenge car-dependency, but it’s nowhere near enough. We must listen to people with disabilities and ensure that they are present on planning commissions, city councils, and in our city bureaus. It’s paramount that we don’t let car centric approaches to accessibility dominate the narrative surrounding equity and accessibility. There is simply too much at stake.