THE SQUEAKY WHEEL- Mall maneuvers: Obstacles jeopardize blind walkers' safety

Charlottesville's downtown pedestrian mall is "one of the finest urban parks in the country" – according to the city's website. But the fact is, it's becoming less pedestrian-friendly and park-like each year. Increased signage makes the Mall more like an obstacle course than an urban park. The mall is full of sidewalk café fences, vendor tables, and signs littering the ground and mounted on poles. 

How pedestrian-friendly is the mall? 

Local advocate for the blind Bobby Burke uses the rain gutters on the mall as navigation aids: following the gutter with his cane, he can travel quickly to destinations on the mall– when the gutters are unobstructed. But, signs or chained bicycles often obstruct the gutter. Many pole-mounted signs are placed at head or shoulder height and are not detectable with a cane. 

What can improve pedestrian friendliness of the mall?

Burke suggests that portable and pole-mounted signs be placed a sufficient distance from gutters or at heights that allow cane users to pass in the gutter without hitting them. The city manager has administrative authority to redesignate café boundaries where necessary. So it seems reasonable that obstacles in and around the gutters could be removed through administrative actions by the city manager and the Department of Neighborhood Development Services.

A Downtown Mall of the future

The fire lane through the mall is a dedicated clear space. When the Mall is reconstructed with new brick, the design could incorporate navigation aids for the blind into the fire lane. City Council's vision for 2025 is to be "a great place to live for all of our citizens." Some simple changes and design innovations could make our Mall friendlier for all pedestrians.

But making it more of a park? Now that's a greater challenge.

Mall obstructions hazardous for some citizens.