Something as simple as a missing sidewalk ramp can make an entire block of sidewalk out of reach to someone who can’t step up onto a curb. Inaccessible sidewalks are all over DC, and researchers at the University of Maryland created a tool for pointing them out. Now, they just need you to help them do it.


If you use a wheelchair or a walker, how are you supposed to get around here? Image from Google Maps.



The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires governments to build sidewalks in a way that makes them accessible to everyone. But since the law passed in 1990, many city sidewalks and intersections may not have been redesigned. With no safe way to walk from one place to another, many people simply won’t travel on foot, while others may have to take a longer or more dangerous route to get to where they are going.

Project Sidewalk, from the University of Maryland’s Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS), is a tool that uses Google Streetview to rate whether sidewalks are useable by people who may have difficulty getting around on foot. That includes the elderly, children, and people with disabilities.


Rate this intersection for its accessiblity. Screenshot from author.


When you use the tool, you see a specific intersection in a DC neighborhood, and you rate it as passable, impassable, or somewhere in between. You can dive right into the work and let the program choose a street for you or you can sign up as a user which lets you track your own progress and choose which neighborhoods you want to audit.

Some intersections may be more passable on one side than the other. Other intersections may be technically passable because there’s a sidewalk ramp, but an obstacle like a utility pole may block the way. You can also note places where the sidewalk is missing or the surface is so poor that it might as well be impassable.


An okay intersection. Green circles are passable while the pink one is not. Screenshot by author.


With the data that the project collects, the District Department of Transportation or other transportation planners around the world (the goal is to launch in other cities soon, and not just in the US) see where neighborhoods’ greatest needs are in terms of being accessible for everyone. That could mean quick, small fixes, where repairing one part of a network would have a big impact.

I have audited two sections so far, each 1,000 feet long. In Spring Valley in DC’s northwest quadrant, I audited 1,000 feet of roadway and found 13 passable intersections and 13 impassable intersections thanks to a lack of sidewalk ramps. On Girard Street in Brookland, I found 22 passable intersections, but at least two blocks lacked sidewalks despite having painted crosswalks once you got to an intersection.


Crosswalks but no sidewalks in Brookland. Screenshot by author.


Check out the site and tell us in the comments what sections you audited and what you noticed.

Canaan Merchant was born and raised in Powhatan, Virginia and attended George Mason University where he studied English. He became interested in urban design and transportation issues when listening to a presentation by Jeff Speck while attending GMU. He lives in Burke.