Blog: Scott Clein

Scott Clein is an Associate with civil engineering firm Giffels-Webster Engineers where he manages the firms’ Detroit office. A graduate of both U-M and WSU, Scott has spent much of the last 14 years working to improve the region’s physical environment. He'll be writing about the redevelopment of Metro Detroit.

Post No. 4

I wrote a few days ago about putting our infrastructure on a diet. The theory went that replacing unneeded travel lanes with bicycle and pedestrian facilities would not only reduce construction and maintenance costs but would provide amenities that would in turn help attract and keep the talented workforce needed in today's economy. Looking back at it I realized that I neglected to speak to a growing issue connected to pedestrian movement, that being personal accessibility. 

Have you noticed those bright red or yellow mats that have started showing up at intersections around town? They're usually rectangular with little bumps all over them, and look conspicuously like the mats used to keep people from falling in the shower. (As we engineers are prone to do, these bumps are referred to as truncated domes to make them sound more official.) The purpose of these mats, officially referred to as detectable warning strips, is to provide a visual and tactile experience that let’s pedestrians know that they may be about to step in front of a bus. 

This makes sense to me, as all people deserve a safe and accessible route when not driving. As a society we need to make sure that those with vision impairments or who are confined to a wheelchair have the same opportunities as anyone else.  The nutty part of this recent trend is not the intent, but rather the insanity of implementation. 

Our story starts, as many do in this country, in a court of law. A small and seemingly well intentioned group of citizens began suing communities for failure to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. These deficiencies certainly do exist throughout most community’s public spaces, most noticeably at street corners, and should be addressed. 

Consent judgments in these cases, such as in Ann Arbor and Detroit, bind the communities to provide public spaces that conform to ADA guidelines. Fair enough, except that adequate time is never provided to correct the problems.  Cities are instead required to undertake massive programs intended to wipe out the deficiencies throughout their jurisdiction in a matter of months. 

When you’re talking about a city like Detroit, consisting of 140 or so square miles, this is a daunting task. Add to it the budgetary problems most municipalities face, especially related to transportation funding, and it becomes almost mind boggling. 

But here’s the fun part: this isn’t even the most difficult aspect of the endeavor.  Since the United States Justice Department is involved, lawyers (not engineers) are determining what is and isn’t compliant. When you consider that the ADA only offers guidelines, this means that we are now subjected to multiple interpretations of compliance offered by people not trained in the design or construction of infrastructure. This Pandora’s Box has led the Michigan Department of Transportation to revise their standard construction detail for ramps 6 times since February. (And I personally still think there is an issue that must be addressed.) 

What is a City to do when they are told by lawyers to complete an immense task in a short time period with little funding, when only a few of us actually understand what the ADA guidelines are trying to accomplish? Waste a lot of money and effort. 

If you’re involved in municipal planning or construction, or even are a private developer of a small shopping center you need to discuss this matter with a competent engineer as soon as possible. Getting it right the first time will save you thousands of dollars and provide everyone with proper access to mobility that is their’s by right. And if you’re a lawyer or judge involved in these types of cases you need to set realistic goals and understand the magnitude of the undertaking you’re discussing. You may even want to talk to an engineer…