Opinion

I’m Disabled and City’s Bike Friendly Efforts Don’t Feel Friendly to Me

My car is my mobility aid. But parking spaces I depend on keep disappearing.

By Allison Tom 29 Sep 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Allison Tom is an associate professor in the UBC Faculty of Education, currently on extended leave.

[Editor's note: Is Vancouver becoming easier or harder to move around for people with disabilities? Vancouver resident Allison Tom submitted this letter to city hall on Monday, and asked that The Tyee make it public. Please share your experiences in the comments thread below.]

Dear Mayor Robertson and Members of the Vancouver City Council,

I am writing to tell you how I, a person with mobility impairments, am being affected by the city’s well-intentioned efforts to pressure Vancouver residents and visitors to drive less and bicycle, walk, and take the bus more.

Over the past few years, the city has made a concerted effort to reduce reliance on automobiles. This effort has included reducing parking in congested areas; installing bike racks and bicycle borrowing stations; installing bicycle lanes that eliminate parking; dedicating parking spaces to car share systems; and emphasizing and praising walking, biking and busing. Taken together, these efforts have had the effect of reducing my mobility and independence because parking spaces that I and other disabled individuals rely on as we go about our daily lives are being eliminated and pressured.

I am all in favour of making sure that Vancouver does its best to address climate change and reduces emissions and other negative byproducts of overreliance on personal vehicles. But I do not see any evidence that the city is aware of the needs of disabled residents and visitors to continue to have access to our city in our private vehicles.

My car is one of my mobility aids. If I can find parking close to the venues I need to go to in order to shop, see doctors and physical therapists, visit friends, and participate in the life of the city, I am included. But every time I am not able to find parking close enough to these locations, I am excluded. Furthermore, every time drivers are demonized and bicycle riders and pedestrians are valorized, I am excluded from social value and I am treated as if I am a thoughtless polluter instead of a worthy member of our society who has the right to participate in and move about this city.

In the past year, I have seen more and more parking spaces on which I rely eliminated in favour of bicycle lanes, bicycle parking, bicycle borrowing stations and car share parking. I have a SPARC placard, but there are very few parking spaces marked for disabled individuals in busy areas — I can find no disabled parking spaces on the stretch of Broadway between Heather and Cambie, for example, and there is only one disabled space in the same stretch of Tenth Avenue — a street that is full of medical offices. (I cannot ride a bus and I am not eligible for HandyDart services.)

As the spaces available to all drivers are reduced, more disabled individuals have no choice but to park in the reserved spaces. At the same time, more and more able-bodied drivers are telling themselves that it’s okay for them to park in disabled parking spaces “for just a minute.” Last week I encountered an able-bodied courier parked in one of Kerrisdale’s two disabled parking spaces. He told me he “had to” park there because there was no other parking. When parking is at a premium, this is simultaneously more of a hardship for disabled people and more likely to happen.

Vancouver’s city street repairs and construction also regularly eliminate or restrict access to the parking disabled people need. Since disability spots are often at corners, it’s very common to see that disabled parking spaces are the first (sometimes the only) parking spaces to be closed off. Once again, parking becomes harder to find and disabled parking is eliminated or reduced. Likewise, owners of private buildings and lots often seem to find it acceptable to park repair or service vehicles in disabled parking spots.

Some proposed solutions

There are things that can be done to continue Vancouver’s commitment to addressing climate change while preserving the ability of disabled people to move independently about the city. Here is a list of suggestions:

Conduct a public awareness campaign about the importance of empty disabled parking spaces. These spaces are not “wasted,” as many able-bodied people seem to believe. They are available to disabled individuals.

Conduct a ticketing campaign focussed on cars parked in disabled spaces without proper documentation. Make the fines steep enough that individuals find them prohibitive and couriers, delivery vehicles and construction vehicles find it unpalatable to absorb these fines as a cost of doing business.

Significantly increase the number of disabled parking spaces throughout the city. As the total of unmarked spaces decreases, the total and the percentage of disabled parking spaces needs to increase.

Require that construction and street repair crews create and protect disabled parking spaces in the same way bus stops are moved and protected during construction and street repair. The default option when parking is blocked off should be that disabled spaces are added through temporary signage and not eliminated.

Teach construction and street repair crews about the importance of accessible parking and the right of disabled individuals to find parking close to their destinations. Forbid these crews to use disability parking spaces to park their personal vehicles.

Penalize owners of private lots who allow service crews to block disability spaces. (City bylaw 4.8.4 requires the creation of disabled spaces in larger buildings, but these spaces must be protected if they are to function as the bylaw intends.)

I find myself continually excluded, offended, and insulted as I try to navigate the city in my car. Flag people have yelled at me when I have tried to park in an empty disabled spot, they have sighed in annoyance when I have asked why signs have been put in the centre of disabled spots (“you can park there — just move the sign”). I read articles that disparage car drivers. I read articles that praise the worth of pedestrians, bike riders and bus passengers — as if people who are in need of their cars are morally less worthy.

Vancouver city planning needs to become deliberately aware of the needs of disabled people. It’s not enough to apologize or dismiss the concerns of disabled people after implementing plans that make their lives harder.

When I worked for the federal government in the 1980s, a strategy had been implemented of screening all new policies for the effect they might have on women. It had been recognized that there were many situations where unanticipated negative consequences flowed disproportionately to women, and the response was hiring individuals with expertise to screen policies for their unintended effect on women as Canada attempted to address gender disparities. The city of Vancouver would do well to implement a similar screening process — employing individuals well versed in the many different needs of disabled people — for the effect of its policies on disabled people.

I am calling on the City of Vancouver to commit to meeting the many different needs of Vancouver’s disabled residents and visitors with the same enthusiasm it directs to meeting the needs of people fortunate enough to be able to walk, bus or bike through the city. I hope to hear from you soon about your response to these issues.

Yours truly,

Allison Tom  [Tyee]

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