Wheelchair Access in Houston Downtown Tunnels

Mr. Bill Murphy of the Houston Chronicle has written a much needed article on the issue of wheelchair access in the downtown tunnel system. You can view the original article here: Link to Chron.com

I applaud the article in that it identifies architectural barriers, but I don’t believe that this article fully addresses the issue. Are these barriers required to be removed?

The Americans with Disabilities Act only requires that architectural barriers be removed when it is readily achievable to do so.

“A public accommodation shall remove architectural barriers in existing facilities, including communication barriers that are structural in nature, where such removal is readily achievable, i.e., easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense.”

The article quotes Mr. Bob Eury, Director of the Downtown District, explaining that it “would be difficult or impossible to put in ramps and still leave enough headroom for pedestrians”.  This is likely a true statement.  Aside from varying floor heights and the street above, the tunnel system is restricted by underground utilities and existing structures.

Even if it were possible to install a ramp or provide a platform lift, the ADA does not have a requirement for these existing tunnels to be made accessible.  New tunnels, yes.  Altered tunnels, most likely.  But not existing tunnels.  Here is my explanation:

When an existing office building is altered, the ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) requires that “the path of travel to the altered area and the restrooms, telephones, and drinking fountains serving the altered area, are readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities” (4.1.6(2)).  From the ADA (28 CFR 36.403), Path of Travel is defined:

(1) A ‘‘path of travel’’ includes a continuous, unobstructed way of pedestrian passage by means of which the altered area may be approached, entered, and exited, and which connects the altered area with an exterior approach (including sidewalks, streets, and parking areas), an entrance to the facility, and other parts of the facility.

This section does not require that ALL entrances be made accessible.  Access is only required from the parking facilities and public transportation (if any). There is no requirement here to provide access between buildings that are located on different sites.  I suppose there was an assumption that all facilities would be connected by a publicly controlled right-of-way.  The tunnel system is neither.

One could argue that a failing of the ADA is that it considers individual buildings as islands and does not adequately address accessible routes within a complete downtown system.

The Downtown Tunnel is a unique convenience and it’s creation is uniquely Houston.  It is my hope that all new portions of the tunnel will be made accessible (as they are required by law) and that , given time and patience, we will see the existing tunnel system improved to make this convenience usable by all.  It may not be required by law, but it is the right thing to do.

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