Seconds Mean Safety for Wheelchair Users Crossing Woodward
(Alan Hejl, Feb. 4, 2021)
Ferndale, MI -2020 was a year of changes and disruptions for everyone, particularly people with disabilities. Making up over 25% of our population according to the CDC, people with disabilities make up the largest minority demographic, with intersectionality with all other identities, and an eventuality for every person to experience in their lives, whether it’s yourself, a family member, or close friend. COVID brought challenges to everyone, but largely opened the eyes of many of us living in a new normal with limitations to the same challenges that many people with disabilities have been facing even before 2020, whether its limited access to safe transportation, struggling with working remotely while juggling everything else in life, or simply getting out of your home to walk around the neighborhood.
In the city of Ferndale, where we’re lucky enough to have a community that prioritizes sidewalks, pedestrian access, and bike access; accessibility is a priority. But like many cities in the midwest, our public infrastructure could always use more support between design and funding. In the spaces of our day where my partner and I would normally be rushing home from the office to enjoy our evenings together, we can now disconnect from our respective home offices to more closely enjoy our surrounding neighborhoods as we end our work days with long walks across town.
One unique part of our walks is that my partner is paralyzed and uses a manual wheelchair, giving us both a critical eye for obstructions in our path, many of which can be solved as simply as a quick phone app submission through SeeClickFix to reach our amazing DPW staff who are usually quick to fix issues like broken pavement, overgrown brush, or debris. On the rare occasion, there may be cars parked over the sidewalk which unfortunately have to involve a quick call to the Ferndale PD non-emergency number to resolve.
Some challenges involve a little more work though. It was on a long walk in late September, where we decided to mask up and walk to downtown Ferndale to check out the new Schiffer Park, a small downtown pocket park that my partner had helped design with her involvement in Ferndale’s Park Commission. While we began to cross the intersection at Woodward and 9mile, we found the need to run to cross only one half the road to the median. Normally, we’d be able to cross the entire span in one go, but suddenly we found ourselves stuck on the median for what seemed forever surrounded on both sides by 4 lanes of traffic going well above the 35 mile an hour speed limit. Normally being stuck at the median is reserved for folks who are on their phones not paying attention to the attention it takes to make it all the way across, so we were baffled why we were stuck in the “time-out median”.
After waiting, we went to cross again, and found a similar issue. Despite the little white light man on the crosswalk sign, he merely popped in to say hello for a few seconds before the dreaded countdown appeared, telling us to speed it up if we ever wanted to cross this street. This wasn’t the pedestrian-friendly downtown Ferndale we had known, and even though we knew the usual summer festivals were happening, surely our downtown wasn’t getting cut in half by these crossing times? We stopped to watch the lights cycle once more and timed it at 22 seconds, which seemed ridiculous given that the last time we had walked across, it had been well over a minute (60+ seconds), which could still be a speed test in certain conditions for many.
While this bothered us, we thought it was an isolated or temporary case, and while inconvenient, thought it would work itself out. It wasn’t until late October where I was invited by Joe Gacioch, our Ferndale City Manager, to help provide feedback to the new parking garage in Ferndale through the Ferndale Accessibility & Inclusion Advisory Commission. The topic of trouble with the intersection came up in conversation with Mayor Piana, and she mentioned that the city had challenges in getting the problem resolved with our partners at MDOT for the past several months.
Knowing that this problem was causing wider frustration and was outside the reach of our local city government, I knew I wanted to help bring some change however possible to fix this issue and improve accessibility and walkability for everyone that relies on this route to connect our city’s east and west halves.
Through my work in the autonomous vehicle space and being a local community transportation advocate within metro Detroit, I had met Trevor Pawl, the new Chief Mobility Officer for the state of Michigan’s new Office of Future Mobility and Electrification, and I knew he would know the right folks who couple help our city with this issue. I sent him a quick email note about our problem around the light timing, and within hours, I had an introduction to an MDOT contact, Kelly Bartlett, who helped bridge the ties between this issue from the voice of the community to the leaders at MDOT that had been in touch with the city of Ferndale.
Everything seemed to converge at once, with rapid communication between MDOT, city staff at Ferndale, and myself, to identify what we needed to recommend to fix this. There had been a miscommunication on what is safe and accessible for pedestrians with MDOT officials, and they took the complaint seriously and worked quickly to resolve this. There are many parts of public standards in Michigan that can apply to this, whether it’s a 3.5ft/second vs 4ft/second pedestrian speed, how it applies to segments & medians vs total length of the intersection, and how vehicle traffic is prioritized vs pedestrians.
I’m happy to say that we saw a rapid improvement to 39 seconds by the first week of November 2020, and now 55 seconds for the light timing as of writing this in January. While it’s still not perfect, I believe the bond our city has with MDOT has strengthened and I’m looking forward to the proposed changes coming in the future for better walkability and bikeability along our Woodward corridor with Woodward Moves fast approaching a public kick-off on January 27th, 2021.
Bike Lanes, Bump-Outs, Crosswalks and More as Ferndale Considers Mobility Plan (Dec. 16, 2020)
8 Mile-Woodward Improvement Committee to Select Design Group (Dec. 6, 2020)
Crossing at Woodward Leads to Talks about Timing, Technology, and Priorities (Jan. 25, 2021)