Exploring Accessibility In The Bosque

Jan 21, 2016

The city of Albuquerque plans to break ground next month on phase two of a controversial multi-use trail in the Rio Grande bosque. The new trail system is intended to keep people from trampling sensitive areas and to increase wheelchair accessibility.  

On a brisk winter day Caitlin Anderson rolled down an older trail in the bosque marked wheelchair accessible. She has multiple sclerosis and uses a motorized scooter.

"I have two speeds,” she exclaimed, “bunny and turtle!”

A shy teenager rolled ahead of her in his wheelchair, which kept getting stuck on twigs littering the path.

“I think the hardest thing is that the concept of accessibility is different for each person,” Anderson said. “I have friends on wheelchair recumbent bikes, so they prefer the paved areas.”

This trail was built out of crushed granite and organic stabilizer almost a decade ago. It loops around some picnic tables before a muddy unmaintained path takes off towards the river. Anderson delicately maneuvered down the spur, towards the water.

“We do our best,” Anderson said. “This is beautiful today, now that it’s warmed up enough. It’s gorgeous out!”

Even if trails are labeled wheelchair accessible, Anderson said, that doesn’t mean they’ve been well maintained by the city. But she can see how with minor tweaking, the little side trail could also meet accessibility standards for hiking trials which have to be at least three feet wide with a firm and stable surface that sheds water.

Janet Zeller is the National Accessibility Program Manager for the U.S. Forest Service and uses a wheelchair herself. The most important thing, she said, is that the trail should match the natural environment.

“Trail building is an art, not so much a science unfortunately,” Zeller said. “It shouldn’t yell 'Trail!' You know, it needs to blend in.”

Zeller said there are a myriad of ways to achieve building a firm and stable surface. It could be as simple as adding a little limestone slurry on top of the existing compacted soil.

“I think one of the things when people hear the word 'accessible' and hear 'trail' put together,” Zeller said, “they think flat and boring and awful, blasting through the environment. And it’s just not the case.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act includes best practices for building accessible hiking trails, but Zeller said there’s nothing to dictate design for multi-use trails where bikes, horses and pedestrians all use one path. That’s what the city of Albuquerque is building in the bosque.

Credit Rita Daniels

“That really has to come from public comment, the needs to accommodate the expected use, and that can only be determined locally,” Zeller said. “Because after all, people go out on a trail because of the character and experience of the setting, and if you blow that up for the purpose of the trail, people don’t feel the same way about the place.”

The public process for the bosque development project was controversial long before the first segment more then a mile long was put in last spring.

Matt Schmader is Albuquerque’s Open Space Division Manager.

“It needs to be done thoughtfully and it needs to involve the public,” Schmader said.

Some people concerned about the impact on the bosque say the city has failed to do extensive environmental monitoring. One of the proposed routes for phase two north of Interstate 40 goes right through a known coyote den and roosting territory for porcupines and raptors.

But Schmader said so far everything looks good on the first segment of the trail which starts where Central Avenue crosses the river. It is six-feet wide and butts right up against the water in some areas. They’ve shut down several narrower trails in this area – managing the people to protect the environment, according to Schmader.

“All of the studies that have been done show that there is no change in the use of wildlife, or any indication erosion, changes in vegetation or soil conditions,” Schmader said.

Mary Beresford uses the new path a lot. She had polio as a kid and has used a wheelchair for decades. She can come out here alone, she said, watch geese land on the water, and not worry about getting stuck in the mud.

Beresford, taking in a view of the Rio Grande on the multi-use path in the bosque.
Credit Rita Daniels

“I don’t get this experience very often. It’s refreshing for the soul,” Berseford said. “And I just get to observe it from here. If it wasn’t for this trail I wouldn’t be able to get down here.”

City officials say they’ll take public comment on phase two of the project through the end of January. Layout and construction are slated to begin February 1, 2016.