Lessons Learned About Road User Vulnerability
Jonathan French

It’s a brand-new year, and at the end of 2022, I will mark my ten-year anniversary of becoming a licensed professional engineer. While there are many experiences that I have had that have influenced the way I have thought about transportation engineering, including my time with Build the Era, one in particular stands out in October 2012, just a week before I’d sit for the PE exam that I would finally pass to obtain my license. That experience taught me extremely valuable lessons about road user vulnerability, and I’ve carried those lessons learned with me since that day.

In 2012, I was still an Assistant Engineer (AE), which was the entry-level engineering position at Maine DOT. Department management had put together a training series to help with developing its AEs by having them experience a variety of projects and locations within the Department’s oversight. Assistant Engineers were also selected to help plan these training events along with the various subject matter experts and managers within the Department to build those important working relationships.

It was decided in July of that year that the day-long training planned for October would be one that focused on pedestrians, specifically those with disabilities, and cyclists. I was nominated to be one of the AEs that would be working to develop the training. Portland was chosen as the location given the infrastructure present, and it was my specific responsibility to find a venue for the opening and closing sessions as well as lunch. Based on my research and calls and emails exchanged to Portland city staff, the then-under construction Ocean Gateway terminal was the best option.  

During the planning process, we involved the Bicycle Coalition of Maine as well as the Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired of the Maine Department of Labor, and Alpha One, a disability and aging advocacy organization. The training would consist of four separate units and experiences: Blind and Visually Impaired (walking module with simulators), People with Physical Disabilities (using wheelchairs), Bicycle Safety and Facilities (van tour), and Pedestrian Safety and Facilities (walking module). Participants would spend about an hour at each module and rotate around, shuttling between locations in vans, so that all participants had the four different experiences.

In the morning sessions, my group examined the various pedestrian and bicycle facilities in Portland. Given the challenging logistics of having everyone experience riding through the streets of Portland on bikes, the bike infrastructure instead was viewed as a tour by van with a separate module with participants riding bikes in the Augusta area to come later to get that first-hand experience. We received great information from the Coalition guide we had with us though, as we toured the various facilities in Portland by van. 

At lunchtime back at the Ocean Gateway terminal, we watched a video titled “Cross the Street in My Shoes.” The video consisted of separate interviews conducted with four individuals, each who were blind or had severe visual impairments, as they used the various facilities around Portland. They explained what they were thinking in the moment and the obstacles they were facing. Now I had known that there were people who were blind or had visual impairments that needed to navigate sidewalks and crossings, but I had no real idea of the challenges that they faced as well as their thought process when trying to navigate the road system as a vulnerable user with their various levels of vision. It was a great primer for what would be a memorable afternoon.

The first module of the afternoon was using various simulators and also white canes for navigation so that the group could experience different kinds of visual impairments such as loss of peripheral or central vision, blurred vision, and for some, total blindness. We exchanged various simulators at different locations. Going from acceptable vision to losing parts, or all of it via the simulators was a humbling experience. 

I remember that simple navigation became extremely challenging and frustrating at times trying to walk on the sidewalks, as now there was limited or no visual aid for that navigation. Instead, we had to rely on our instructors to give us commands on how to navigate. They did a masterful job in the planning of the locations to give us the needed experience while keeping us out of harm’s way, because all members of the group using simulators had challenges just staying on the sidewalk and avoiding obstacles that we wouldn’t think twice about with relatively normal vision, let alone trying to cross with moving traffic. 

The final module of the day was to experience navigating the pedestrian facilities in Portland using various wheelchairs. It was here that I learned the importance of ongoing maintenance, especially for brick sidewalks, where just a half inch rise for a set of uneven bricks could stop all forward progress and seem near impossible to overcome if one was alone. When it came time to navigate to a pedestrian curb ramp for a crossing, that was a harrowing experience to try to stop on an incline, knowing that if I lost control, I would be in the street and susceptible to being hit by turning traffic only a few feet away.

One of our instructors for the module, who was using a wheelchair due to her disabilities, was quick to comment on the various obstacles when we encountered them to make sure we understood what we likely were taking for granted as people who were able to walk everywhere. It certainly gave me a new perspective for those who have to use wheelchairs in order to navigate city streets.

There was a reporter and photographer from the Portland Press Herald documenting the group during the day, and you can read their report and see photos taken of the training in this article.

At the end of the day, I think all Assistant Engineers and managers took something away from the individual sessions that they experienced, especially those that were simulating various disabilities. For example, I certainly will not look at brick sidewalks the same again. In spite of their aesthetics, I would not recommend them on any project based on that one experience because I learned first-hand of the obstacles and hardships they can cause those in wheelchairs.

Several years later, it was also very important to me to make sure that the first roundabout I designed with pedestrian facilities in Orono was as accessible as possible. Roundabouts had developed a reputation among blind and visually impaired pedestrians as being challenging to navigate because circulating and exiting and entering traffic was sometimes hard to audibly distinguish from one another.

Based on the best practices known at the time and public comments, including those from an accessibility specialist, I incorporated raised crosswalks with a design adapted from Sweden, rectangular rapid flashing beacons with accessible pedestrian push buttons, locator tones and voice messaging, and staggered offset-left crossings to maximize that accessibility. It was the very first roundabout in Maine and one of the first in the country to have all of these features. Grades of the sidewalks and walkways were also taken into consideration to make sure that the five percent threshold set in the US Access Board’s 2011 Public Right-of Way Accessibility Guidelines was not exceeded.

For the efforts in innovation, many to maximize that accessibility, the roundabout was recognized in 2019 with the Kitty Breskin Project Award from the Maine Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers and is to date one of my greatest accomplishments as a transportation professional.

I have also used my experience of that October 2012 training to evaluate other situations, such as the walk I went on in my hometown of Augusta that I wrote about in my most recent Medium story.

Being involved with Build the Era and writing this post has been a welcome opportunity to have another chance to reflect on that day. Now I hope to continue to use what I have learned to not only try to make the projects I’m involved with more accessible and equitable for those users with disabilities, but to also educate others as to why that is so important. 

Some may think accommodation of those with disabilities is enough, but the integration of all vulnerable road users is going to be critical to reducing road user deaths and injuries in the United States. No matter who we are and how we are able to navigate our transportation system, it should provide everybody with an equitable level of safety, accessibility, and opportunity.