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Hamilton's inaccessible bus stops 14:00

The city’s new pedestrian mobility plan lumps everyone on city sidewalks into one big group – and mobility advocates say that’s extremely shortsighted.

“It’s just not true in any way whatsoever,” said Teri Wallis, a member of the Advisory Committee for Persons with Disabilities (ACPD), a volunteer group charged with advising the city on how to best make city services accessible for everyone. She says the distinct needs of people in wheelchairs and on scooters should shape city planning more than they do right now.

“People walking don’t need the space people on scooters do,” she told CBC Hamilton. “We tell [the city] all the time — but they just don’t seem to listen.”

While those pleas seemingly fall on deaf ears, the number of scooters in Hamilton is booming. According to the province, the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care has funded more scooters in Hamilton in the last four years than in Kitchener-Waterloo and Windsor combined. On top of that, local retailers say provincially-funded scooters make up only a fraction of actual sales in Hamilton.

Even though Hamilton seems to have a higher number of people using mobility devices than other similar-sized centres, the city isn't planning sidewalks and roadways specifically with that in mind, says Al Kirkpatrick, manager of transportation planning for the city.

The city’s new pedestrian mobility plan is coming to the general issues committee for review on Nov. 6. Kirkpatrick says the plan is still being hammered out, but in it, walking pedestrians and people using mobility devices are slotted into the same category.

“I wouldn’t say we look at them separately — we look at them as a group,” he said. “The focus is on providing a pedestrian zone, and that’s a very diverse group of people. Mobility devices are a part of that.”

Space on sidewalks

Kirkpatrick says he was “surprised” to hear that mobility advocates felt like the city wasn’t listening to them. “We do our best to try and address the concerns,” he said. “From our perspective, anytime we have a comment brought forward to us, we look at that.”

But Wallis says the city not listening to the ACPD’s concerns is nothing new. She says the committee wasn’t consulted on plans for the new MacNab Transit Terminal or for city hall renovations. “They’re supposed to run plans like that past the ACPD and they don’t always,” she said. “We’re supposed to get a lot more than we do.”

Sometimes scooter riders and wheelchair users end up in bike lanes and roadways — a sore spot for many drivers. But there’s a good reason for that, says Michael Hampson, an electric wheelchair user from Hamilton. He says he simply can’t ride on many city sidewalks because they’re in such rough shape.

“They will cause me to spasm, they will cause me to urinate or go number two, depending on how you hit them,” Hampson told CBC Hamilton. To avoid all those problems, he ends up in bike lanes.

“I go past the police station nearly every day. My guide dog is on the sidewalk and I’m on the road – and they don’t even stop me anymore, they just wave,” he said.

“They’ve stopped me so many times, but I just say ‘I’m sorry officer, but I’m going to be back on the road.’ Otherwise, I would have to cut what I’m able to do in half.”

But scooter and wheelchair users should be on sidewalks and not on roadways, says Daryl Bender, project manager of alternative transportation for the city. “A mobility scooter is the equivalent to a pedestrian,” he said.

“Sometimes a bike lane disappears, and we don’t want to find a scooter sharing the road with a car. We don’t want people getting stranded.”

Wiping out in a wheelchair

Wallis says it’s fine to say that scooters belong on the sidewalk — but the city has a lot of work to do to make them properly accessible, she adds. It’s no trouble for her to rhyme off street after street in Hamilton that poses problems for people in mobility devices.

She has wiped out and fallen out of her chair a half dozen times on city streets in recent years, she says. People only help her up half the time.

“People just don’t care,” she said. “They look, they see you, and they keep going about their business.”

Keeping sidewalks in good repair is a constant strain of the city's finances, Kirkpatrick says. Fluctuations in temperature cause sidewalks to shift and crack, and it’s not feasible for the city to constantly replace them.

“And our sidewalks are fairly standard with the province,” he said. “They’re in fairly good shape.”

He says above anything, the city is just trying to make sidewalks and roadways as accessible as possible for everyone.

“We’re trying to be as balanced as we can.”