Clearing the in-betweens: Navigating accessibility during winter maintenance

Tuesday, March 26, 2019 - 3:40pm

.

Illustration by Christine Jegarl

Walking home from downtown Ann Arbor last month, I watched an elderly couple clutching one another, walking carefully and diligently to avoid falling on the slippery sidewalks. The man used his cane for as much support as possible, and the woman held onto his arm for more balance. I was only 20 feet behind them when suddenly, I was swept off my feet and landed on the asphalt of S. 4th Street. I hoped that the couple did not also experience a similar fate, falling from the same black ice.

It’s inevitable that living in Ann Arbor –– a Midwest city where winters feel like eons –– comes with horrific snow, ice and sleet storms. Nonetheless, as a city whose prime modes of transportation include walking, biking and bus-riding, the need for safe roads and sidewalks during winter conditions is inarguable.

In addition to safety, accessibility on campus and within the city is another priority. Noting the high population of pedestrians and bikers in Ann Arbor is essential when considering the maintenance of our sidewalks, crosswalks, ramps, streets and curbs. In my own experience navigating public walkways, I’ve been lucky to overlook obstacles like deep puddles, slippery sidewalks and snow-piled tactile blocks –– the red, bumpy blocks placed at the beginning and ends of sidewalks used for visually-impaired people. But regardless of the minor obstacles I may face, that experience does not equate to those who can’t pass through at all.

A snow-covered tactile block at a crosswalk on Hill and Olivia at 12:20 PM.

A snow-covered tactile block at a crosswalk on Hill and Olivia at 12:20 PM. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Erika Shevchek

Mike Heinrich is an advocate for Americans with Disabilities Act rights and is someone who experiences setbacks while commuting around Ann Arbor. Mike is also member of the advocacy and community group Disability Culture at the University of Michigan — also known as DC @ U-M. Two years ago, Heinrich was paralyzed by a tree on the University’s campus — which he said was already dead that fell on him. Now as a quadriplegic, he seeks to educate himself and the community on ADA policies, regulations and violations. More importantly, Heinrich openly speaks of his experience and struggles with being a quadriplegic, especially during winter.

“Winter used to be my favorite season … this year, with each snow storm after snow storm, I realized that when I was trying to get out and do things, I couldn’t be independent with the walkways not being taken care of,” said Heinrich in an interview with The Daily. Though his parents could drive him and drop him off places Heinrich mentioned the difficulty of finding handicap spots along the road that are clear of snow pile-ups and accessible.

For those who are able-bodied, a few inches of snow is manageable –– surely a nuisance, but bearable. But what happens for those with disabilities whose wheels, white canes, crutches, walkers and other commuter accessories can’t cross the street or feel tactile blocks? They cannot safely or efficiently get to where they need to go. A few inches of snow or a thin sheet of ice could change their entire day.

Traveling via wheelchair and handicap van, Heinrich’s experience commuting outside is highly dependent on weather. If it’s snowing or raining, he most likely won’t even go outside. This is due to the difficulty of traveling through snow and puddles, not to mention the difficulty of pushing his wheels with cold, wet hands.

“We (the disabled community) are directly affected by what happens on those sidewalks,” Heinrich said. “Not even just handicap people: The reality is no one should have to deal with that.”

Since being paralyzed, Heinrich has devoted much of his time to speaking with city and campus administrators about Ann Arbor’s lack of accessibility. Many of his arguments address non-ADA approved doors, entrances, ramps, sidewalks, elevators, parking and bathrooms. However, winter maintenance and accessibility isn’t as easy as changing door handles to be ADA-approved. Improving the maintenance of public spaces during winter is a difficult puzzle with an array of pieces –– it begins with a closer examination of all the moving parts between city regulations and resources. A solution would require the rigorous efforts and collaboration with the city, outsourced companies, landlords, the U-M grounds crew, University students and Ann Arbor residents.

* * *

Ann Arbor Code of Ordinances, Chapter 4 Section 58 A. “Sidewalk Maintenance” states, “all sidewalks within the city shall be kept and maintained in good repair by the owner of the land … if any owner shall neglect to keep and maintain the sidewalk … safe for the use of the public, the said owner shall be liable to the city for any damages … by reason of said sidewalk being unsafe and out of repair.” Further down in the section, it reads, “‘Sidewalk’ does not include curb ramps … that is both adjacent to the top edge of one or more curb ramps and at the corner of a property.” Essentially, street corners where tactile blocks and curb ramps are a few feet apart are not considered to be part of the “sidewalk.” If these spaces do not fit under the legal definition, then technically, by the language of the ordinances, it is not the property owner’s responsibility to clear it.

However, Chapter 4 Section 60 #6 of the Ordinances –– titled “Removal of snow and ice from sidewalks, walks, and ramps” –– says that “compliance with this section requires making sidewalks, walks, and ramps free of snow and ice for their entire constructed width and length.” In other words, the entirety of a sidewalk and/or ramp should include the curb ramps and tactile blocks, considering that is the start to the sidewalk. Thus, the language in Section 60 contradicts the ordinance’s descriptions in Section 58 on how and where sidewalk maintenance happens.

Sidewalk on Washtenaw and S. Forest shoveled just big enough for a bike tire, 4:32 PM.

Sidewalk on Washtenaw and S. Forest shoveled just big enough for a bike tire, 4:32 PM. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Erika Shevchek

Some non-residential properties downtown can afford outsourced companies that have the machinery, staffing and finances to do an efficient job at clearing sidewalks and curb cuts. Meanwhile, some property owners manually shovel and salt on their own.

To break down who is responsible for sidewalk maintenance and when, Section 60 states that non-residential property (downtown businesses, restaurants, etc.) will need to clear their “sidewalk” and “walks and ramps that are at bus stops or that lead to marked or unmarked crosswalks” by noon that day if snow is accumulated prior to 6 a.m.  If a property is residential, the owner has “24 hours after the end of each accumulation of snow greater than 1 inch” to do the same. Not only do non-residential businesses have six hours to clear their sidewalks and ramps, but residential properties have a whole 24 hours. For those commuting by 9 a.m. the morning of a snowfall, they cannot afford to wait until noon or even the next day to ensure safe conditions for travel.

If everybody is doing their part and following the policies set by the city, why do we still have so many winter maintenance problems? The answer is simple, harsh and true: We, as a community are failing to meet the necessary standards for the disabled community. That’s where Community Standards comes in.

Community Standards is a unit in the Ann Arbor Police Department that has a “primary responsibility to enforce the city codes and ordinances that protect the public health, welfare and safety of the residents.”

A2 Fix It is an app that allows community members to “report locations which may be in violation of the city snow removal ordinance.” From there, Community Standards staff will “perform an inspection,” and if the property or area does propose a violation, “they will then inspect all addresses” within the appropriate block “to ensure equitable treatment.”

Jessie Rogers, Community Standards supervisor, discussed with me the logistics of their winter maintenance procedures and the code of ordinances. Rogers explained that if a property does not do their maintenance procedure by noon on the day of a storm and there ends up being a complaint from a citizen, a representative from Community Standards will come to investigate the property. If their property is in violation, Community Standards will give a warning (allowed one per season).

If the violation is not treated after warning, Community Standards will come again, fine the property and fix the maintenance issue that was initially reported. That property may then receive a civil infraction ticket that is “no more than $100.00” according to Section 4:60 #11. These fines can grow in numbers up to $1000 if violations are further ignored.

Luckily, representatives from Community Standards are the ones who come solve the issue, but only if someone in the community makes the complaint. Otherwise, they simply hope city residents are following protocol. And to make matters more complicated, Rogers said even when they do come, it’s not always a smooth or fast process. By the time a report is made, faxed over to the office, sent out to a driver and maintenance person and someone finally arrives at the scene, the situation could have grown worse, with more snow or ice further aggravating the original problem.

Additionally, while Community Standards does fix the city’s problems, they don’t always have the staff or funds to be as efficient and effective as they’d like to be: “(We are) too understaffed to always be proactive,” Rogers said.

Snow-blocked tactile block and curb ramp on South U. and Church, 8:00 AM.

Snow-blocked tactile block and curb ramp on South U. and Church, 8:00 AM. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Erika Shevchek

These winter maintenance problems, however, should not fall on the shoulders of the Community Standards organization. Though I am grateful for Community Standard’s assistance to clear sidewalks, the concept of treatment is not as powerful as prevention. Treatment implies a long chain of events that relies on many external moving parts to help resolve the issues. Meanwhile, preventing the problems is set at the beginning: the initial action of shoveling and salting.

The concerns are embedded within text and action: what the ordinances demand of its citizens and how and if its citizens are complying. Though some of the policy language feels vague, confusing and almost hypocritical upon reading (see: curb ramps not being considered part of the sidewalk), it doesn’t excuse the community to settle into inaccessible practices. These are spaces that commuters use all day, every day, and hence, they should be prioritized for winter maintenance.

* * *

Understandably, major-scale winter maintenance is difficult for both the University’s campus and the city of Ann Arbor. Nonetheless, the enviroments are wildly different. Downtown and off-campus properties are given policies that need to be followed by each individual property owner, meanwhile University of Michigan Custodial & Grounds Services has teams of hired staff.

It’s a lot of moving parts, and people don’t always understand the work we put in,” said Rob Doletzky, the University’s landscape and grounds manager, when speaking about the laborious work of clearing 168 miles of sidewalk each season. “Some of this (winter maintenance) is timing.”

He went on to tell me an example of how his team will clear a sidewalk that borders campus and the city. The city then goes through the street and plows it, but when they widen the snow to make streets more clear, it creates a ridge that goes into the curb cuts, hence creating a snow pile.

A person walking over snow-piled curb cut and tactile due to snow widening on South University, 8:05 AM.

A person walking over snow-piled curb cut and tactile due to snow widening on South University, 8:05 AM. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Erika Shevchek

Doletzky explained that the team’s job is difficult because they work against the weather: “The weather throws curveballs,” he said. If snow is accumulating for a long period of time, it can take Rob’s team “four to five hours just to get through each route.” The grounds services team splits up into different zones: East Campus, North Campus, Medical Campus, Central Campus and South Campus. With 16 parking structures, 21 miles of roads and 11 miles of steps and handicap ramps, the responsibility to clear these spaces is never-ending.

Despite that initial first plow, Doletzky shared that “widening and moving snow takes days.” It becomes even more difficult if a snow or ice storm starts mid-day or later in the evening. His crew members can sometimes work up to 16 hours a day to get everything cleared, and the services have off-shift people on call for the hospital to clear entrances and sidewalks.

To dive further into accessibility on campus, Doletzky and the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities are looking to find out where it is exactly that people need help when it comes to commuting around campus and knowing their routes.

A snow-covered path in the Law Quad, 8:00 AM.

A snow-covered path in the Law Quad, 8:00 AM. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Erika Shevchek

“We’ve worked together with the Office of SSD,” Doletsky said. “We prioritize ADA entrances first, like ramps … Just one barrier to get into a building can stop people (with disabilities) from going in.” Additionally, he clarified that the grounds services are responsible for maintaining any tactile blocks and crosswalks that are on campus. Despite a persistent and organized University grounds crew, uncontrollable weather becomes a main setback in their operations, and pristine tactile blocks, sidewalks and crosswalks may not always be promised.

Regardless of the hard work and the long hours that the crew does put in, there are commuters who still complain, not understanding the ins and outs of the operation. To extend their services even further, they “created volunteer groups with students who now get paid.” “They go out to curb cuts and ramps that need more maintenance, Doletzky said.

During the interview, he reminded me of Ann Arbor’s four ice storms that happened in just four weeks this winter. With the constant effort to eliminate slippery walkways, it would be almost impossible for everything to be ice-free.

“Do you know how much salt it would take for campus to never be slippery during an ice storm?” he asked me over the phone. I was afraid to hear the answer.

“3,000 tons of salt for one day,” Doletzky said. “That’s how much salt we use in one season.” Additionally, through drainage and debris becomes a salt brine mixture that drifts into the Huron River and pollutes it.  

“The better job we do, there is an expectation that rises,” Doletzky said. More complaints plus more effort from the crew equals more equipment, materials and labor. In those scenarios where tons of machine energy and salt brine are being used, it becomes an negative, enviromental impact that is solely used to satisfy commuters and ensure safety on campus.

There is still a question of where the happy medium lies: How do we get enough snow plowed and shoveled that it isn’t overly laborious on workers or environmentally harmful, but is still accessible enough for the disabled community? These questions regarding winter maintenance and accessibility seem to become more multi-faceted and challenging each step of the way. For those like Heinrich who eagerly need an active solution, the answers become frustrating and fuzzy. Pieces that are clear and understandable, however, are awareness and effort from all.

* * *

An unshoveled sidewalk on Hill Street between Church and S. Forest, 12:20pm.

An unshoveled sidewalk on Hill Street between Church and S. Forest, 12:20pm. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Erika Shevchek

It is an unspoken truth that winter in Ann Arbor will never be trouble-free. As Doletzky mentioned, even if sidewalks are pristine after cleaning and re-assuring its accessibility for five hours, city snow plows can still come through at night and dump all that snow onto what once were snow-free sidewalks. There will be situations where sidewalks freeze, and someone will not be home until 5 p.m. to salt their sidewalk. These are all minor yet impactful situations that inevitably happen. Unfortunately, they become cyclical habits that we become accustomed to as a community.

Toward the end of our interview, I asked Heinrich what he thinks the solution to all of this is.

“It’s just people giving a shit,” Heinrich answered. After an hour and half interview, I could hear exhaustion in his voice. “People need to be less ignorant.”

“It’s all about universal accessibility,” he continued. “If you can make it good for people who are disabled, you can make it even better for everyone else.”

There isn’t exactly one answer or practice that will eradicate these issues. Factors like staffing, funding, timing, environmental impacts and overall communication are key barriers in this situation. But what we know are the facts: Commuters with disabilities can't get to their destination during winter, the city ordinances aren’t ideal for accessibility expectations and organizing the University grounds crew involves a complex system of considerations, and more moving parts than one may expect. And there are pieces to this puzzle that are held in the community’s hands.

Ann Arbor is commonly known for its progressive, liberal and open-minded nature. A place for leaders and the best with a highly-ranked position for higher-education institutions, artistic pursuits and athletics, the University is used to coming out on top. These practices of winter maintenance accessibility, however, don’t nearly fit the progressive model that the community tries to represent. Heinrich describes his experience of inaccessibility with a metaphor of Hatcher Graduate Library and its architectural design:

“The front entrance of Hatcher is a frame for the University,” he said. “It has these steps to go upwards, to gain access to knowledge and intelligence. And there’s a wheelchair ramp on the side … but the reality is that is not accessible. There is literally a sign that says ‘Not accessible by wheelchair.’”

“If you actually want to access the building (in a wheelchair), you have to go all the way around back to the one entrance,” Heinrich continued.  “And that is such a physical manifestation of what this University has to say about accessibility: It’s not a priority. It’s show and tell.”

As a campus that ignited a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative for the “assurance of non-discrimination and equal opportunity for all persons in our community,” it’s clear after hearing Heinrich’s story and the story of so many others, the University is not granting that equal opportunity for all people in the community.

Only when we begin to acknowledge and understand those who have difficulty accessing this city and campus, can we then take a step forward in our practices towards a truly inclusive DEI initiative. Only when we decide to sit down and discuss more effective winter maintenance operations with the city administrators, can we then take a step forward in our practices toward a truly inclusive DEI initiative. Only when we decide to shovel/salt just a few extra feet of pavement–– the tactile-blocks, curb cuts and all of the in-betweens –– can we then take a step forward in our practices toward a truly inclusive DEI initiative.  

Whether you’re a student, faculty member, a business person, a townie or an elderly couple walking to your car downtown, we are all vital pieces to this solution.

While Heinrich still seeks a better future for the disabled community, he believes in a more accessible and more enjoyable city for everyone: “We need to better our city for everybody and recognize that you (the city) have the ability to set better rules,” he said. “It’s not just, ‘How do we make a better downtown for people who are disabled?’ but ‘How do we make winter downtown a more enjoyable experience for everyone?’”

 
CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this article stated the tree that fell on Heinrich was already dead. While this is what Heinrich told The Daily, it has been pointed out that this has not been definitively proven yet.