For Steve Lewis, board president of the Alliance of People with disAbilities, navigating downtown Seattle is an awful experience. He uses a wheelchair, and Seattle’s steep hills can be a significant barrier to access.
“Most of the east-west streets south of about Pike Street are too steep for somebody in a wheelchair to get up. Many of them are too steep for someone in a wheelchair to get down,” he explains.
Last week, Lewis had to go from a meeting at 3rd Avenue and Columbia Street over to City Hall, just a block south and one block east. Rather than head straight there, Lewis went away from City Hall for a block, entered a building with an elevator that took him from 3rd Avenue to 4th, then headed down 4th to his next meeting.
Lewis has learned tricks like that from years of traversing downtown Seattle. But for someone less familiar with the area, the challenge of getting up the steep hill to City Hall may have been insurmountable.
It’s the sort of problem AccessMap Seattle hopes to address with its website and mobile apps. AccessMap shows street steepness (green for negligible slope, yellow for moderate, red for steep), curb ramp locations, elevators, bus stops and construction sites. Beta testers including Lewis are using a more robust version of the app that includes end-to-end route finding and has an option for users to input problem areas such as broken sidewalks or missing curb ramps.
AccessMap grew out of a city-sponsored civic hackathon in March 2015 that asked developers to create data-driven transportation solutions. The AccessMap concept was one of three finalist projects and was later awarded first place by a panel of judges. Nick Bolten and Veronika Sipeeva, two of the team members, have continued developing the app in partnership with Anat Caspi, director of the University of Washington’s Taskar Center for Accessible Technology.
“If you have mobility impairment typically you want to be able to plan your route accordingly,” says Caspi. “For some it means wanting to have benches along the way or means needing curb cuts. For others it’s about the limit of elevations you can take.”
One of their biggest challenges right now is good data. Bolten says they’ve found the Seattle Department of Transportation’s sidewalk data to be inaccurate, especially when it came to curb ramp locations. “We spent a lot of last year cleaning up the data set.”
The sidewalk data is fairly limited. It says whether or not a sidewalk exists, if it has curb ramps, and how steep the street is. But someone with limited mobility may need to know if there are significant cracks in the sidewalk or if it’s uneven from tree roots or if the sidewalk slopes at a significant cross-angle that would tilt a wheelchair.
“It’s really hard for the city to collect data on temporary problems such as construction blocking the sidewalk more than it’s supposed to or bad pavement quality. We want to be able to crowdsource that information, similar to how Waze does it,” Bolten says, referencing a popular traffic app.
Caspi says ultimately they want AccessMap to be a nationwide resource. They are currently working to expand it to Denver and Savannah, Georgia. That too presents data challenges.
“Every municipality has its own way of representing pedestrian ways … it’s hard to deploy a uniformly available tool to put this up in cities,” she explains.
They’re hoping to tackle that problem by using Open Street Maps, an open-source global mapping project. (Bolten calls it the Wikipedia of mapping.)
“We’re trying to create a new layer in Open Street Maps that adequately describes the physical environment so people can attribute those kinds of descriptions about sidewalk quality or missing curb cuts or other problems,” Caspi says.
Lewis sees two benefits to AccessMap. The first is that it could be a useful navigational tool especially, “as it gets mature enough to really find the best routes.”
The second is that it helps highlight the barriers to access people with limited mobility have to deal with every day. Lewis says that he hopes to draw attention to the need for better elevator access in downtown buildings.
“When the library closes at 9 in the evening, it’s very difficult to get from 4th Ave. to 5th. When buildings are closed on the weekend, a lot of the routes you would normally use to go through the buildings are impossible. If you’re coming downtown on the weekend accessibility can be really difficult or impossible,” he explains.
Lewis wants to talk to the city and building owners about the possibility of after-hours access for wheelchair users and people with limited mobility: “In terms of this discussion, AccessMap helps you talk about what’s accessible with the elevator open and what’s accessible without the elevator open.”
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.