9.01.2006

Wheelchairs in Berkeley?

Editors, Daily Planet:

The current discussion about access for wheelchair riders is another reason Berkeley is such a great city. The fact that sidewalks are in worse shape than many roadways suggests nirvana has yet to be achieved. But we limit ourselves by focusing solely on wheelchairs.

Cities across the U.S., from Arizona to Maine and now Berkeley, are struggling to assimilate all kinds of new personal transportation devices. Local governments are confronted with retirement community residents, fully capable disabled, skatepunks, golfers, cyclists, eco-activists and users of slow, non-internal combustion transport machines demanding a fair share of the road for urban golf carts, electric and gas-powered scooters, EVs, three-wheeled bicycles, bikes with trailers, small and large motorcycles, mopeds, skateboards, roller skates, those wheelie things with the handle, children on hotwheels, rickshaws, pedicabs and even the ill-fated Segway riding machine. And it’s obvious they can’t all be on the sidewalk.

American tradition and court rulings have affirmed the right to travel. City streets have never been the sole province of automobiles. Public roads serve multiple purposes beside transit; unloading groceries, pouring concrete, walking your dog, riding your wheelchair. Those who do not own a motorized vehicle retain

the civil right to mobility. In addition, legal precedent affirms the right to go slow on all public roads except those with controlled access or minimum speed limits like freeways. Municipalities are only allowed to enforce traffic requirements such as periodic yields. Many of these laws come from rural areas where farm machinery and horses maintain the right to the road and include legal precedent from Amish country.

Unfortunately, some localities dealing with electric and human-powered vehicles try to fashion laws giving slow vehicles a “little access,” amounting to second class citizenship, even requiring counterintuitive traffic gestures confusing to car drivers. But special rules setting apart various classes of vehicles are not the solution. Accident statistics prove what traffic engineers and bicycle scientists say. Full integration of bicycles in traffic is not only necessary for the cyclist’s right to travel, but is safer than segregation. Adding other classes of small personal vehicles will have similar minimal impacts on traffic if automobile users decide to share the road.

Of necessity and inkling, wheelchair users are social pioneers, but we will all benefit from emerging forms of personal transportation and must support them, and we all must take cues from bicyclists who have struggled for access for more than one hundred years. Some day in Berkeley’s future is a city crisscrossed with trees and multi-purpose public spaces where automobile users are expected to yield to little children, EVs and Wheelchairs. The automobile will have it’s place, but so will the rest of us.

Hank Chapot

Oakland

Bicycle commuter, employed in Berkeley

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