As city officials prepare to make Shared Spaces permanent, The San Francisco Examiner set out to explore the potential impacts of the popular program, which began as a temporary emergency measure introduced during the pandemic to help small businesses. Today’s story is the third of three in a series.
As city officials hammer out details on legislation to make Shared Spaces permanent, some advocates worry that concerns from people with disabilities aren’t being heeded.
“We very much want to support businesses and their continued viability and survival after the pandemic,” said Scott Blanks, senior director of programs for the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. “However, we do still have questions that we feel need addressing.”
Mayor London Breed’s proposal includes extensive design requirements intended to ensure Shared Spaces structures comply with accessibility standards set by the American Disability Act and various state and local codes.
For example, merchants must preserve a six-foot-wide continuous path for pedestrians on the sidewalk clear of tables, chairs and other fixtures; demarcate sidewalk seating areas with diverters; ensure there’s an equivalent facility for wheelchair users; and maintain accessible entry to platforms.
Additionally, the legislation does not allow approval of a curbside permit – the kind that would allow a store to set up shop on the sidewalk – that would eliminate a blue zone, the curb classification that sets aside a parking space for drivers with disabilities.
Still, there remains some concern that these requirements don’t go far enough to truly make the public spaces livable and accessible for individuals with limited mobility or low vision.
Pi Ra, who runs the transit justice program at Senior and Disability Action, said six feet of clearance “will not work” for sidewalk travel paths, even though it meets the minimum standards under Americans with Disabilities Act rules. Many wheelchairs are about four feet wide, he noted.
“You have to make it so it’s not an obstacle course,” he said. “If you do things like that, you discourage people with disabilities from using that and force them to go someplace else.”
Blanks said there’s no provision calling on businesses to alert a person who is blind or has low vision that a Shared Space is ahead and that they might encounter structures or groups of people.
“We are as keen, as I am sure The City is, to get back to some kind of normalcy, but this should not be done at the expense of the confident and independent travel of the blind community,” he said.
These concerns don’t only exist in the abstract.
Anecdotal reports have poured in over the last year of businesses with platforms that jut into the sidewalk, encroach on accessible curb ramps or leave little space for passersby to navigate.
Nick Smith frequents Market Street in the Castro neighborhood, where he said he regularly observes an overflow of crowds, tables and other structures onto the sidewalks.
A former transportation planner in San Francisco, Smith loves the idea of repurposing parking spaces into areas for pedestrians, cyclists and businesses, but he does worry that if sidewalks are readily turned over to businesses, especially those that also have the option to use a parking spot, it might disrupt accessibility for all pedestrians, especially those with limited mobility.
“Certainly being permissive during COVID was the right thing to do, but the formal program should err on the more restrictive side,” he said, arguing The City should beef up the regulations around sidewalk usage.
Robin Abad, director of the Shared Spaces program, acknowledged at an April 22 Planning Commission meeting that there had been a lack of enforcement of accessibility requirements during the temporary emergency period. He said relying on businesses to self-certify wasn’t always the best or clearest way to ensure compliance.
The permanent version of the legislation does include a more substantive plan for enforcement.
A single agency or department will coordinate enforcement for each type of Shared Space. For example, parklets will be overseen by the Department of Public Works.
The legislation also allows for The City to levy fees commensurate with staff time used to keep the structures up to par, which The City hopes will encourage compliance, Abad said.
Smith said guidelines should be clear and manageable enough for merchants so that only the small percentage of bad actors are weeded out naturally, leaving business owners to easily follow the rules rather than burdening city staff with excessive time spent on enforcement.
Advocates say many people with limited mobility support the idea of Shared Spaces; they’re simply wary of the one-size-fits all approach to accessibility and the misinformation around what’s really needed to make space safe and navigable for their communities.
“People with disabilities by federal law are a legally protected class, meaning we have more rights than a bicyclist, a motorist or a small business owner,” said Bob Planthold, a longtime transit advocate in San Francisco. “Our needs should be paramount, taken first and fully before the needs or even wishes of any politician, commissioner or business group.”
City officials said the Mayor’s Office on Disability convened stakeholders regularly over the last year to solicit and incorporate feedback, meeting at least four times with the Mayor’s Disability Council and affiliates over to discuss Shared Spaces.
Moving forward, Pi Ra recommends The City adopt a grassroots neighborhood-by-neighborhood strategy to craft guidelines, as opposed to a top-down approach.
“It takes more work, but you can’t just do the same thing,” he said. “In the long run, if you put in that extra effort, then you won’t spend so much time fighting to keep it there.”