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‘Speed cushions’ hit Health and Human Services Committee

Thursday, June 21, 2018 by Sommer Brugal

Though the program that brings new speed cushions to Austin is currently in a holding pattern, the City Council Health and Human Services Committee received an update regarding traffic calming devices at its meeting last Wednesday afternoon.

Chair Ora Houston said the need for the such a discussion arose after several people testified at Council explaining how difficult it is to go over traffic calming devices, especially for individuals with neck or back issues. She said the the main issue speaks to individuals with disabilities and the harm or discomfort they feel when using such devices.

Specifically, Houston was referencing prefabricated “speed cushions,” which have provoked public discontent in recent months at City Hall. The cushions, which a layman might refer to as “speed bumps,” are raised pavement on the road. Director of Transportation Robert Spillar explained the engineered devices are used to mitigate public safety hazards like speeding.

Due to the numerous complaints raised from community members over the past year regarding the cushions, the city’s current traffic calming program is paused and has ceased to take new applications. Spillar said the city is doing so in order to rethink the program and concluded the presentation by encouraging individuals who continue to experience pain or discomfort while using the devices to contact him.

According to Spillar, the issue of discomfort regarding the cushions had come up before; he referenced a project in West Austin that was investigated as a result of such complaints. He said the findings indicated that the benefits of managing speed using prefabricated speed cushions were overwhelmingly positive. Spillar also said that the devices met the requirements in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“We find, as does national research, that in terms of getting people to adhere to speeds on streets that have not been built for slower speed limits, the vertical displacement cushion is the most sustainable, long-term device that creates a change in behavior,” said Spillar.

While there are a number of other methods the city can use to decrease speeds in neighborhoods, like narrowing the streets, changing the painted stripes and increasing signage, Spillar said they tend to be short-lived if there isn’t a commitment from residents to self-enforce such processes.

Houston mentioned a few other complaints she had heard, like the lack of sidewalks or an ADA-compliant route around the devices, and Spillar said ATD was aware of the grievances.

“We also received complaints that we weren’t allowing for an ADA-compliant route around some of those cushions, for instance a sidewalk or a clear and free distance between the curb and the device,” said Spillar. He said that the design has since been modified, and the department is working to correct the routes where the city might not have the option for a sidewalk. “In the case of the person in the wheelchair, if he or she has to be in the street because of a lack of a sidewalk, we want to make sure there is enough space between the cushion and the curb.”

Other complaints noted that the cushions were intruding into bike lanes, which, Spillar said, the department found to be true in some cases. Spillar said the city is working to ensure there is enough space for both bikes and additional wheeled vehicles to move past and around the cushions.

He added that other improvements to the devices include adding a flat section to the rubberized cushions that should reduce the jolt individuals might experience.

“I guess it’s our position that we believe these cushions are consistent with the ADA rules,” said Spillar. “We understand that some people still may experience difficulty. It’s our recommendation that if drivers slow to an appropriate speed of 20 to 25 miles per hour going over these cushions, they will minimize that discomfort.”

Photo courtesy of the Austin Transportation Department.

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