Despite overcast conditions, people flocked to Santa Monica State Beach during last year's Labor Day. (Daniel Archuleta daniela@www.smdp.com)

By Camille De Beus
Daily Press Intern

As a city by the sea, Santa Monica has long drawn people to its famed beaches and the City uses a variety of tools to ensure access for everyone.

With a fleet of free beach wheelchairs and paved paths leading to the water, Santa Monica has a history of keeping the ocean accessible and recent additions like a pair of electric wheel chairs and an accessible playground build on that tradition.   

“The city made a commitment quite a while ago, to really set objectives to making the beach accessible,” said Community & Cultural Services Department Beach Administrator Judith Meister. “We’ve been able to do that and will continue to do so.”

Officials said the city has a responsibility to keep the beaches open.

“We have an inherent duty to make our beaches accessible to all, because of their beauty,” Recreation and Parks Commission member Kurt Schwengel said. “We have, in my opinion, the most beautiful beaches in southern California, and it’s a shame that not all people are able to access them.”

For individuals that need a more stable surface, the city has five walkways leading from Ocean Front Walk to the ocean. There are five walkways located at Ashland Avenue, Ocean Park Boulevard, Bay Street, Arizona Avenue, and Montana Avenue.

City Hall began work on the paths about 20 years ago and the see steady use.

“I don’t have any numbers, but I can see the walkway from my front window and my balcony, and it’s a nonstop stream of people walking down,” Schwengel said. “A lot of people have stuff on wheels, like coolers or strollers that they love to wheel all the way down to the ocean instead of making that long walk through the sand. So they use [the walkways] for that. We actually saw someone wheeling their entire barbecue down to the ocean the other day. Families with a lot of stuff that they have to lug down to [the ocean] love it.”

The paths make it easier for anyone to walk to the ocean, but are particularly helpful to those who have mobility issues or are in wheelchairs. As an additional aid to those in a wheelchair, the city provides free beach wheelchairs at several locations. The specialized chairs have large, wide wheels that are easier to push over sand and the chairs are designed to travel right to the water’s edge. The chairs shouldn’t be used for flotation and shouldn’t be taken into deep water but they are water resistant enough to allow someone that wanted to feel the water at their feet to do so.

These beach wheelchairs are available at four different locations on the beach: the Perry’s located at 2600, 2400 and 1200 Ocean Front Walk, along with the Annenberg Community Beach House.

Meister said the manual chairs were a good start but the city has taken the program a step further.

“This started back 20 or so years ago-[we] made beach wheelchairs available, and we started with manual ones that you have to push,” Meister said. “They are heavy and difficult to push in the sand, so several years ago we bought electric wheelchairs, which we have two of. Those are much easier to use on the sand. Someone doesn’t need to push you, so an individual can cover a lot of the beach by themselves in the wheelchair.”

Electric wheelchairs are only available at the Perry’s located at 2400 and 1200.

Renting a wheelchair is completely free, and all that is required is a valid ID.

The chairs are available during business hours on a first come-first served basis but anyone can call the beach house or Perry’s to see if a chair is available.

“Just based on anecdotal information, I’d say that on a monthly basis maybe 10 to 15 people use [the wheelchairs],” Meister said. “That number grows in the summertime, where that could be 10 people per week using them.”

The City recently increased beach accessibility with the opening of a universally accessible playground on the south side of the beach at Ashland Avenue. A second is currently being built near the north side of the beach close to Montana Avenue.

“That means children who may have a disability are able to play alongside other children,” Meister said. “There are children with other disabilities — so there are sensory play opportunities as well. In the sand area there is a wheelchair, so that they can play at the sandtable next to a child who is also playing.”

While there are other coastal cities that have made efforts to make their beaches more accessible, both on the west and east coast, Santa Monica remains in the minority of cities that has made an effort to provide electric wheelchairs on the beach.

“We hear from visitors who come, they say, ‘This is great, but how can we do this where we live?’” Meister said. “So we do get emails or phone calls from people who wonder about doing the same thing in their own community.”

Even the simple walkways have helped Santa Monica Beach garner a reputation.

“The tourists and friends from out of town that I have spoken to say that Santa Monica is at the forefront because of those walkways to the ocean,” Schwengel said. “For the most part, I think what the walkway does is makes it a lot more convenient for people to walk to the ocean…but, I do see a lot of people wheeling people out here on wheelchairs, and another great thing about these walkways is that they have benches at the end of them. So people can wheel down there and then sit almost at the ocean’s edge with people in wheelchairs.”

Officials said the efforts are an ongoing program.

“Santa Monica has been [at] the forefront, has recognized that the city belongs to everyone and has made efforts really to make it accessible,” Meister said. “I think there’s probably a lot more that needs to be done, but it’s been a priority in Santa Monica, and I think that demonstrates certainly what we’ve been able to do at the beach.”

editor@www.smdp.com