Oct 192009
Authors: Matt Minich

Despite the Fort Collins sidewalks and bicycle lanes, resident Vivian Armendariz sometimes finds herself riding her wheelchair in the city’s streets.

“It’s not safe at all, but it’s the only way I can get around,” Armendariz said.

Confined to a wheelchair by spina bifida since birth, Armendariz, 38, is unemployed and relies entirely on public transit and her electric wheelchair for transportation around the city. When snow begins to fall, she is often unable to travel as far as the nearest bus stop and can spend as long as an hour crossing a single street.

Even in warmer months, residents in wheelchairs have trouble navigating the city’s historic sidewalks, many of which have been degraded to the point where they are impassable for the handicapped.

“The sidewalks have been there longer than I’ve been alive,” Armendariz said.

In an attempt to limit the obstacles in the paths of wheelchair users, Fort Collins City Council will finalize the passage of an ordinance today that will allow wheelchair users to use the city’s bicycle lanes in areas where the sidewalk is snow-covered, damaged or otherwise unusable.

Whether sidewalk conditions impede movement is up to a wheelchair user’s discretion.

Though the ordinance was approved on first reading by a unanimous vote earlier this month, council members acknowledged that safety issues were a definite concern.

“This should be a very rare occurrence,” Mayor Doug Hutchinson said when asked how often he expects wheelchair users to use the bike lane. The mayor was careful to stress that the ordinance is intended only to allow wheelchair users to bypass difficult sidewalks, and that it would not result in wheelchair traffic inundating the bike lanes.

Armendariz, who frequently uses bicycle lanes herself, feels it is unlikely that wheelchair users will continue to use the city’s walkways.

“It doesn’t feel to me like (wheelchair users) have any intention of using the sidewalk.”

Terry Schlicting, the chairman of the Fort Collins Commission on Disabilities and the director of Alternative Testing for Student Disabled Services at CSU, frequently uses the bike lane to travel along Elizabeth Street, where the sidewalk is too narrow for his wheelchair.

“A lot of people can’t take the constant jarring of the sidewalk,” Schlicting said. Bumpy sidewalks can aggravate certain wheelchair users’ handicaps or damage the chairs themselves.

More wheelchair users will use the bicycle lanes as winter approaches and sidewalks become less accessible, Armendariz said.

Despite city ordinances mandating that businesses clear their sidewalks and the efforts of the city’s snowplows, streets and sidewalks are often impossible to navigate in wheelchairs even in a few inches of snow.

Though major streets and commercial sidewalks are typically clear, snow accumulates on “curb cuts” –/ramps on street corners allowing access to the sidewalk from the street. These snow piles, coupled with poor snow clearance on Fort Collins side streets, create a dangerous situation for wheelchair users after snowstorms.

“Sometimes I have to go down the middle of the street, which isn’t safe at all, but it’s the only way I can get around,” Schlicting said.

Senior Reporter Matt Minich can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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