Monday, March 19, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

City defends unusual sidewalk design

A short stretch of zigzagging sidewalk in downtown Austin has wound the city’s Public Works Department into a small patch of controversy.

The meandering path on West Seventh Street just before West Avenue first appeared last month and, according to the city, was laid by a contractor doing work on behalf of Cirrus Logic, which had leveled an existing office building and parking garage and replaced them with a surface parking lot.

The Austin Monitor inquired about the unusual design after a photograph of it surfaced on Twitter in February and was told by department spokesperson Alexandria Bruton that it appeared that the developer was unfamiliar with the Texas Accessibility Standards.

“These are the rules the State of Texas adopted for implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Bruton explained. “In general, an ADA-compliant route isn’t allowed to exceed 5 percent grade, but under TAS rule, a sidewalk can match the grade of the adjacent road. The zigzag looks like their attempt at meeting the 5 percent rule.”

One disability rights advocate said that reasoning doesn’t sit well with her.

“It doesn’t look right,” Jennifer McPhail, a community organizer with ADAPT of Texas, told the Monitor. “Usually when people make a mistake, they blame it on the ADA.”

McPhail said the pathway appears to be needlessly complicated for anyone with a mobility issue to traverse. She added, “I can imagine for someone who’s blind and used to navigating a typical sidewalk, the zigzagging could be very confusing.”

In an email obtained by the Monitor, city engineer Bill Hadley affirmed his conviction that the sidewalk conforms to the letter of the law and offered that it does not present any problem to pedestrians.

“A handicapped person confined to a wheelchair should have no difficulty traveling along the sidewalk since the minimum acceptable width for continuous passage of a single wheelchair is 36”, while the minimum clear width at a point is 32”,” he wrote. “Visually impaired pedestrians should be able to identify changes in alignment by using their canes to trace the edge of the meandering sidewalk as they travel along the sidewalk. Other pedestrians should have no problems traveling along the sidewalk.”

In another email, the Planning and Zoning Department’s Great Streets Program Manager Humberto Rey told Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association President Chris Riley that he thought the sidewalk design was a joke when he first learned of it.

“It does seem like a joke,” Riley responded. “But it’s real, and disturbing for anyone who’s interested in actually walking or rolling a wheelchair on downtown sidewalks.”

Neither the Public Works Department nor Cirrus Logic responded to phone calls from the Monitor about this story.

Photo by Dan Keshet.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Planning and Zoning Department: Planning, preservation and design services are under the purview of this department.

Public Works Department: This city department oversees major capital improvement projects; maintains the city's trails, roadways, and bridges; and promotes safe travel on city thoroughfares.

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