Jan 26, 2022 - News

D.C. explores the future of accessible public space

Outdoor dining in Washington, D.C.
Photo: Deb Lindsey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

As the pandemic stretches into a third year, disability advocates are exploring how to best use public space for accessible outdoor dining and social distancing.

Why it matters: Streateries and extended sidewalks are pandemic-driven pilot programs meant to allow people to safely dine and socially distance from others, but as the pandemic continues, these programs may take new and more permanent shapes.

  • D.C.'s streatery program is set to expire on Feb. 28, but DDOT is still working on an approval process that would allow restaurants to continue their programs permanently, a spokesperson told Axios late last month.

One program, the Georgetown extended sidewalk program, which was piloted by the Georgetown Business Improvement District, is aiming to continue its pilot this year after receiving approval from the Public Space Committee.

  • D.C.’s Multimodal Accessibility Advisory Council, which advises policymakers on a number of accessibility issues, has recommended extended sidewalks as a potential model for other parts of the city.

Flashback: Last summer, the Georgetown BID installed 3,400 feet of sidewalk extensions throughout the neighborhood, expanding the sidewalks from roughly 9.5 feet to about 15 feet. The space has been used by restaurants to operate streateries and by pedestrians to move more quickly down Georgetown’s notoriously narrow sidewalks.

  • The program has faced some pushback from the Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E which opposed the extension of the program, writing in a letter to Georgetown BID president and CEO Joe Sternlieb that extending sidewalks limits parking, isn’t aesthetically pleasing, and causes micro-mobility safety issues.

However, D.C.’s multimodal accessibility advisory council vice chair Phil Sklover and MAAC member Clarence “Buddy” Moore, both who are visually impaired, visited the extended sidewalks and said in a report that they were “a plus for Georgetown and may indeed be a viable option for other areas of the city."

  • The council nonetheless in October recommended that Georgetown ban scooters and bicycles from the commercial areas where the extended sidewalks are.

Between the lines: While the Georgetown Decks program is not the same as the streatery program, accessibility has been an ongoing discussion around both. DDOT has noted in its guidance on the streatery program that some streateries have limited mobility on the sidewalk.

  • The temporary streatery program does not require streateries to be level with the street, but does require restaurants to have an ADA-compliant ramp on hand. Additionally, appropriate space for mobility devices needs to be available on the sidewalk.
  • MAAC chair Heidi Case told Washington City Paper last year that streateries sometimes block access to curb cuts, or places where people can hail cabs or be picked up by MetroAccess.
  • The Georgetown extended sidewalks, by contrast, are level with the sidewalk, meaning a person with a mobility device would not require a ramp to access it.

What they’re saying: Case tells Axios that MAAC is pushing DDOT to include requirements for the permanent streatery program that are accessible, including having streateries at street level, something Case is optimistic about.

  • “I understand the permanent process will be closely scrutinized by [DDOT’s] ADA people. That’s what we’re really hoping for. We’re going to go to [DDOT] performance oversight hearings and mention that.”

Yes, but: Case says there’s still work to be done on the extension of businesses into the street on the accessibility front, including in Georgetown. A lack of curb access, she says, creates safety problems for accessibility vehicles, MetroAccess, taxis, and bicycles and it is an issue she plans to raise with DDOT in the coming weeks.

  • “We have to have curb access. It’s just one of the biggest issues,” she says.
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