Just imagine: safe, functional and well-maintained city sidewalks that are fully useable to everyone, no matter what a person's mobility limitations. Seems like a no-brainer, right?
Now imagine: sidewalks that are in such shoddy condition that they might as well not even exist in the first place — inaccessible, impassable and sometimes downright dangerous, these sidewalks flout American with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations and represent civic negligence at its worst. Seems like a mostly isolated thing, right?
Simply put, America's urban sidewalk infrastructure is in a sorry state. Roads may be repaved, potholes may be corrected and public transportation options may improve by leaps and bounds. Yet there's no clear single answer as to why sidewalks — lively and invaluable pedestrian arteries that they are — have been allowed to get quite so bad for quite so long. That is to say, every city is different when it comes to the dereliction and dilapidation of sidewalks and public rights-of-way.
A constant thread, however, has emerged in the ongoing struggle to improve crumbling city sidewalks, and it is this:
Few cities are willing to take responsibility and go into sidewalk-fixing overdrive on their own. Instead, it would seem that the most effective way to spur action is to file a class-action lawsuit. These lawsuits can be drawn-out, disheartening and costly. But as evidenced in cities including Seattle and Los Angeles, they are usually effective. It's just a shame they have to be filed in the first place, given that there's no good reason why any citizen, whether they get around by foot, wheelchair or magical Pogo Stick, should have to sue to make busted public sidewalks better.
Improving sidewalks in Sprawl City
Atlanta — sprawling, car-centric Atlanta — is the latest major city to face a class-action lawsuit for ADA violations relating specifically to sidewalks that are in extreme disrepair and/or lack the curb ramps mandated by federal legislation. Pedestrians Educating Drivers on Safety (PEDS), a local pedestrian advocacy group that is not a plaintiff but has thrown its support behind the "long time coming" lawsuit, describes the city's violations against the ADA as being "flagrant."
"... we're grateful to those with disabilities whose passion and grit will move Atlanta toward a future where sidewalks and curb ramps receive some long-overdue attention," writes PEDS in a recent newsletter to its members.
As reported by local CBS affiliate WGLC-TV, the plaintiffs in the case, a group of three wheelchair-using Atlantans, are not seeking financial compensation from the city. Rather, they simply want to see broken sidewalks fixed, obstructed sidewalks cleared and curb ramps installed where they should have been installed long ago. And they're just not acting in their own respective interests but in the interest of all sidewalk-using Atlanta residents and visitors living with mobility impairments.
"The damage to our sidewalks makes it impossible to pass certain locations without going off the sidewalk, going in the streets," plaintiff Laurel Lawson tells WGLC. "I have fallen, I have risked injury and I've come to places where I've been stranded and simply unable to pass."
Per James Radford, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, at least 20% of sidewalks in Atlanta were not ADA-compliant as of 2010, and the city has done little when it comes to allocating the necessary funds — an estimated $1 billion in all — to rectify what the suit describes as a "systemic failure to maintain sidewalks that are equally accessible to persons with mobility impairments."
"We don't want to fight the city, we want to work with the city, we want to help them do what is right," adds Lawson. "We just want them to commit the money to get this fixed."
Citing a 2009 settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, the city has released a statement claiming that is not in violation of ADA regulations and that improving accessibility "remains a priority for the City, as it will continue to make these improvements in the most fiscally responsible and prudent manner possible."
The lawsuit alleges that Atlanta is in clear violation of said agreement and has not instituted any of the fixes — necessary fixes that would bring tattered sidewalks up to ADA-compliant snuff, including a comprehensive system enabling disabled residents to easily report instances of inaccessibility — that the city agreed to execute nearly a decade ago.
Written for the Bitter Southerner, Emma Sarappo's "Can't Get There From Here" provides further insight into what it's like being disabled in a large Southern city with failing sidewalks.
Los Angeles' big deal accessibility win
For those following America's accessibility failures (and triumphs), the lawsuit in Atlanta might bring about instant déjà vu. As mentioned, similar lawsuits have been filed — and they'll been successful in prompting change.
A 2015 settlement stemming from a class-action lawsuit filed in Los Angeles has resulted in that similarly car-centric city committing $1.4 billion over a 30-year span to bring all of its sidewalks up to code. The plaintiffs in that lawsuit, which resulted in the largest legal agreement of its kind in U.S. history, claimed that the woeful condition of many L.A. sidewalks had relegated them, as disabled Angelenos, to "second-class citizen status."
"It's sad to think that the only thing that has caused any movement in 40 years is a lawsuit … but of course I'm glad they're doing it," Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at the University of Los Angeles, California told the Los Angeles Times.
As Curbed LA reported earlier this year, Los Angeles officials are struggling to make good on the agreement. Work is being performed but the city is overwhelmed with the sheer number of requests and complaints coming in, underscoring how dire the sidewalk situation is.
As of January, the city's engineering bureau was receiving roughly 700 monthly requests from residents to fix broken and inaccessible sidewalks. At the end of the 2017 fiscal year, it had remedied about 482 problem areas — simply put, more requests are coming in per month than the city can adequately handle in an entire year. The city has acknowledged and apologized for the growing backlog, noting that at this point it is only able to focus on requests directly submitted by residents with "mobility disabilities" and that a comprehensive plan of attack — the Sidewalk Repair Program — that will help speed things up is in the works.
The Pacific Northwest ramps up
Seattle is another city that has agreed to spend significant funds in repairing its sidewalks — all 2,000 miles of them — after facing a class-action lawsuit brought by disabled residents.
As reported by the Seattle Times, the city's preliminary agreement will involve fixing or installing 22,500 ADA-compliant curb ramps across the Emerald City over the next 18 years at a rate of 1,250 ramps annually. (Total estimated price tag: just under $300 million.) That suit, filed in 2015, is unique in that one of the three plaintiffs is also a disability rights attorney.
"It has been hard finishing up law school, setting up my practice or even getting to court when I have to figure out a way to get there that doesn't involve me going blocks out of my way or traveling in the street due to a missing curb ramp," explains plaintiff Conrad Reynoldson to the Times.
Per city estimates, there are roughly 26,000 Seattleites who, like Reynoldson, require a wheelchair, motorized scooter or similar device to get around town.
Just under 200 miles south of Seattle in Portland, Oregon, that city recently reached a settlement in a class-action lawsuit to the tune of $113 million — the estimated cost of upgrading and installing 16,000 curb ramps over the next 12 years. Portland currently repairs upgrades roughly 700 ramp-free sidewalks each year. Under the settlement, that annual benchmark will more than double.
As reported by the Oregonian, progressive Portland is a "particularly egregious offender" when it comes to lacking curb ramps or cutouts, which provide full sidewalk accessibility to wheelchair users and others. As of 2012, only 42% of the city's 37,000 street corners have one or more curb ramps per the Portland Bureau of Transportation.
"It means that people with mobility disabilities will no longer have to ride in the street," Linda Dardarian, an attorney representing the plaintiffs tells the Oregonian. Based in Oakland, California, Dardarian was also on the legal team representing the plaintiffs in the L.A. and Seattle sidewalk suits.
And there are others: Chicago, Long Beach, Sacramento and New York, where "decades of civil rights violations" have been committed, have all settled or are currently litigating sidewalk-centered class action lawsuits. Fewer cities — Montgomery, Alabama, being one recent example — have made major commitments to improve accessibility without being sued first.
Obviously, these lawsuits haven't prompted immediate overnight change. And as long as cities have budgets that must be abided by, they likely never will. But what they have spurred is progress, important progress that comes slowly and with significant hang-wringing. Baby steps. More than just a method of shaming ADA-violating cities into freeing up allocated funds, class-action lawsuits brought about by disabled Americans shine a light on a vital yet overlooked component of cities that many of us easily traverse — and take for granted — on a daily basis. No matter how long it takes and how high the tab runs, every stretch of American sidewalk should one day be accessible and open to all. Let's just make it sooner than later.