August 18, 2008
The tunnels and the ADA

This is rather dicey.

What's the best way for downtown workers to get to Beck's Prime restaurant in the Bank One Center on a scorcher of an August day?

The downtown tunnel system, of course. But if you're a person with a disability, that's not always easy. Depending on where you work, the average pedestrian's air-conditioned stroll presents a daunting obstacle course for someone in a wheelchair.

Approaching Beck's from the north end of downtown, a person in a wheelchair could face as many as three sets of stairs -- including one connecting to the Houston Chronicle -- while trying to get a hamburger for lunch. Two of those hurdles can be bypassed via inconvenient detours of two or three blocks. But getting around one set of stairs requires exiting to street level and crossing at a stoplight.

Eighteen years after the Americans With Disabilities Act became law, several spots along the 6.5-mile downtown tunnel-skywalk system, used by more than 150,000 downtown workers, remain blocked or altogether inaccessible to those in wheelchairs.

These areas haven't been made ADA-compliant because it would be difficult or impossible to put in ramps and still leave enough headroom for pedestrians, said Bob Eury, director of the Downtown District, a public-private association that promotes and manages downtown development.

"In an ideal world, we would get it to the point where there would be no barriers," he said. "There have been complaints from time to time, but those have been modest."

I'm not exactly sure how installing ramps would affect headroom, but maybe I'm just not envisioning the solution Eury has in mind. My "I am not a lawyer" take on this is that the tunnels' noncompliance doesn't actually prevent anyone from getting from point A to point B downtown, since taking the street is a viable option. It's an inconvenience to be sure, but it's not the same as, say, a lack of wheelchair access at building entrances, or a lack of sidewalk ramps at intersections. I would venture to say that if after 18 years of the ADA's existence, no one has filed a formal complaint about the tunnels, it's not been a major barrier. But as I say, I'm not a lawyer. If any actual lawyers want to correct my naive legal reasoning, please feel free to do so.

That said, the spirit of the ADA surely argues for making the tunnels fully accessible for folks in wheelchairs. I'm a little ashamed to realize that after all the times I've been in them myself, I'd never thought about this before.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on August 18, 2008 to Elsewhere in Houston
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