By Hannah Younes, Robert B. Noland, Leigh Ann Von Hagen, Jeffrey Dennis, Colin Roche, and Sam Rosenthal
Governor Phil Murphy signed S-147 into law in January 2023 directing the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) to update its Complete Streets policy to include design practices for neurodivergent people, including those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and/or intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDDs). The legislation was inspired, in part, by a Rutgers University study that observed travel patterns and barriers for over 700 adults with ASD in New Jersey.
In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in the United States. The civil rights legislation was intended to protect those with disabilities from discrimination. In the context of transportation, this means that people with disabilities shall have the same access to transportation services as everyone else. This includes the construction of curb ramps on sidewalks, functioning elevators at public transit stations, wheelchair access to buses, audible crosswalk signs, and dedicated paratransit services for those unable to use traditional public transit services.
While the law covers all abilities, historical progress has mainly favored infrastructure improvements focusing on physical and/or visual disabilities. Moreover, individuals with disabilities are at a higher risk of injuries in a traffic crash. Obstacles for individuals with ASD and IDDs look very different, and transportation infrastructure progress to accommodate those individuals has lagged.
Individuals with neurodivergence experience a wide spectrum of symptoms that can alter cognitive functioning, making it difficult to generalize individual experiences. This wide variety of symptoms makes it challenging to design a fully accessible and safe transportation system for these individuals. Walking or cycling can be affected by difficulty with sensory inputs, such as sounds, bright or flashing lights, or exposure to inclement weather. Estimating the speed of vehicles when crossing a street can also be difficult, making walking especially dangerous. Difficulty reading signs can affect the ability of someone with ASD or IDDs to safely navigate their environment.
The Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center (VTC), with funding from the New Jersey Department of Transportation, recently hosted the 2023 New Jersey Complete Streets Summit. The Summit featured a session on the topic of Complete Streets for individuals with ASD and IDDs, exploring how to improve street design standards to be more inclusive. One of the main takeaways from the session was that there is limited existing research and guidance on how to improve streets for those with ASD and IDDs. Finding solutions will require engagement with cognitively disabled individuals and their caregivers.
VTC’s New Jersey Travel Independence Program (NJTIP) provides the ability to do this. A good example is shown in this video interview during a commute that takes place along a major state highway with no basic pedestrian infrastructure, but is the fastest, if not the only way, for the interviewee to get to his workplace. While the interviewee reports feeling safe on his daily commute, the conditions (i.e., no sidewalk, three lanes in each direction, posted speed limit of 40 mph) are not favorable for pedestrians, and are near impossible during inclement weather.
Individuals with neurodivergence are less likely to have a driver’s license than the general population, so assuring that New Jersey’s Complete Streets are accessible to this demographic is of even greater importance. They may also be less likely to recognize or react quickly to potentially hazardous conditions. As New Jersey communities implement Complete Streets policies consistent with the new State legislation, planners must consider how to make the “quickest way” the safest one too, regardless of ability. How can we ensure that street designs address access, inclusion, and safety of all people, including those with a cognitive disability? As we change the paradigm of Complete Streets to account for the obstacles of individuals with cognitive disabilities, consider these words spoken at the Complete Streets Summit: “Inclusive design expands beyond access, mobility, and safety; it broadens equity and economic participation.”
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Feeley et al. Detour to the Right Place: A Study with Recommendations for Addressing the Transportation Needs and Barriers of Adults on the Autism Spectrum in New Jersey. September 2015. https://vtc.rutgers.edu/publication/detour-to-the-right-place/
Schwartz et al. “Disability and pedestrian road traffic injury: A scoping review.” Health & Place, Volume 77, 2022, 102896, ISSN 1353-8292, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.healthplace.2022.102896.