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Suit Demands Overhaul of NYC Pavement

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

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Thousands of broken, ill-designed, poorly constructed, blocked and missing curb cuts and sidewalks are illegally denying public access to hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, according to a new federal class-action suit by advocates for individuals with disabilities.

If successful, like a similar case in 2002, the case against New York City and its Department of Transportation could force billions of dollars in public upgrades and repairs, in addition to major changes in regulations governing the streetscape.

The landmark litigation calls "nearly all" of New York City's sidewalks "dangerous and difficult" for more than 600,000 people with disabilities.

Curb cut and wheelchair user Crossing Street

A pavement grinding project left the lip at left impassably steep, the Federal Highway Administration noted. Ambulatory older Americans find inadequate curb cuts (right) equally daunting, the agency adds.

Those residents are unable to use public streets, sidewalks and routes in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York (CIDNY) contends in its new complaint.

Marking ADA

The suit was filed Wednesday (July 29), three days after the ADA's 24th anniversary. The timing was not coincidental.

"As we enter the 25th year of the [ADA] this week, more than 400,000 New Yorkers with ambulatory disabilities and more than 200,000 people with vision disabilities continue to be excluded from the pedestrian culture that is so critical to community life in New York City, because nearly all of the City's sidewalks and pedestrian routes are dangerous and difficult for persons with disabilities," CIDNY said in announcing the litigation.

The suit says the city "has ignored its obligations to provide curb ramps and accessible pedestrian routes whenever it resurfaces City streets or alters its street and sidewalks."

Accessing the Streetscape

The suit refers specifically to accessibility to the buildings of Lower Manhattan—a "national hub of business and commerce" that includes Wall Street, the 9/11 Memorial, the departure point for the Statue of Liberty, and the City Hall and Courts.

Blocked curb cut

Some Lower Manhattan curb cuts even feature built-in obstacles, a survey found. Bicycles, construction, kiosks, business signs and newspaper stands add more.

The barriers unlawfully impede the residents' ability to work, travel, attend attractions and socialize, the plaintiffs say.

New York City settled a similar lawsuit in 2002 filed by the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association (now the United Spinal Association), WYNC reported. Since the settlement, NYC DOT has installed curb cuts at nearly 150,000 locations.

But the settlement did not extend to maintenance, the news outlet noted.

Now, the new suit says, many of those curb cuts "have dangerously steep slopes, broken pavement, a lack of level landing and turning space for safe entrance onto the sidewalk at the top of the ramp, and lips at the bottom of [the] ramp."

Crumbling curb cut

A recent survey of 1,066 curbs in Lower Manhattan found many cuts crumbling—if they existed at all, said the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York.

Patchwork repairs "have resulted in horribly inconsistent curb ramps at intersections throughout the City," the suit says.

Sidewalk Obstacles

Reaching the sidewalk is not the only challenge, the suit says.

Sidewalks and other pedestrian routes frequently lack "a level surface wide enough for wheelchair users" and are cluttered with signposts, benches, trash receptacles, newspaper stands and other obstacles that impede wheelchair and cane users."

The suit says the city has never conducted a complete evaluation of its sidewalk and pedestrian route program or developed a plan to improve the accessibility of its sidewalks and pedestrian routes, despite those requirements under ADA.

CurbCut Chart

A June survey of Lower Manhattan curb cuts found "horribly inconsistent" construction.

CIDNY says its own recent survey of 1,066 curbs in Lower Manhattan found that more than 75 percent had barriers, and that nearly a quarter had no curb cuts at all.

The suit also notes that pedestrian safety is a key component of Mayor Bill de Blasio's six-month-old "Vision Zero" project.

'Stuck in the Street'

Plaintiff Dustin Jones, who uses a wheelchair, said he feared for his life on his frequent trips to Lower Manhattan. “Barriers at curb ramps have left me stuck in the street, where I have had to rely on the kindness of strangers to help me up on the sidewalk," he said in a statement

"Poorly placed curb ramps have forced me right into the path of vehicle traffic where I fear for my safety."

Plaintiff Myrna Driffin, 57, a grandmother of 15 who is blind, said, "Just last week I ended up in the middle of the street before I knew I was off the curb. Cars were honking at me.

Myrna Driffin

Plaintiff Myrna Driffin, who is totally blind, says confusing curb cuts often steer her into the middle of New York City's streets.

"It was really scary. I am a smart lady and I have been blind almost my whole adult life, but New York City streets are so poorly marked that this happens regularly.”

Plaintiffs and Defendants

Jones and Driffin are named plaintiffs in the case; the proposed class includes "all others similarly situated."

Named as defendants are the City of New York, NYC DOT, and NYC DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg.

Blocked curb cut

Even when curb cuts are in good repair, they are often blocked by temporary structures, the suit contends.

The city issued no immediate response to the litigation.

'Fundamental Civic Right'

Supporting the suit are Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit disability-rights legal center; and the law firm Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP.

"It’s a shame that it’s going to take litigation to ensure that everyone has access to the fundamental civic right to travel freely and safely," said Sheppard Mullin partner Daniel Brown, "but we’re confident that this case will bring about justice for the New Yorkers with mobility impairments and who are blind.”


Tagged categories: Commercial Construction; Concrete defects; Construction; Design; Health & Safety; Maintenance programs; Roads/Highways; Urban Planning

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (8/5/2014, 9:03 AM)

Construction blocking a sidewalk is supposed to come up with an alternate route for pedestrians (Per MUTCD) - and this applies to all public roads and sidewalks.

Comment from Tony Rangus, (8/5/2014, 11:33 AM)

"...could force billions of dollars in public upgrades and repairs..." I guess we have the conundrum of where we expend resources. Do we fix our major infrastructure problems - bridges, highways, water, sewer - or do we let people sue to accommodate a small number of folk. Do we set priorities and do a "triage" on what is really needed for the USA in total, or pander to the few to satisfy political correctness. Hard choices need to be made, and I doubt our political establishment will ignore ADA folks versus fixing our sewage system problems. Political death awaits.

Comment from Mike McCloud, (8/6/2014, 7:30 AM)

Why is a blind person walking in the middle of the street without some sort of escort. She can't take a little self responsibility? It's always somebody else's fault! Ours.

Comment from M. Halliwell, (8/6/2014, 10:42 AM)

Actually, Mike, I know a good many who get around just fine without least to a point. As long as they have some way to tell where the sidewalk is and where the road is (like a curb) then an escort isn't a big deal for "local" trips. It's when there is something "funny" happening that they get into trouble (like blocked sidewalks where they are detoured onto the street or ramps that slope in the wrong directions). I can understand the purpose of the suit (more for awareness than to actually get the City of New York to fix everything right now) and it could easily be avoided with a little common sense (which seems grows less and less common these days).

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (8/7/2014, 8:32 AM)

I’ve also seen a fair number of blind people (well - people with the red-tipped white cane, I haven’t actually asked their vision status) - and they seem to get around pretty well, especially where we have audible crosswalk signals and the properly textured ramps/curb cuts at crosswalks.

Comment from John Fauth, (8/7/2014, 10:10 AM)

As I see it, the issue isn’t whether disabled Americans (differently abled for the PC amongst us) are deserving of public accomodations... they are. Period. The issue is one of maintenance, and the fact that no politician can get re-elected on the basis of maintenance. Maintenance of public infrastructure is sorely insufficient...ignored in favor of highly visible new construction that more effectively buys votes.

Comment from Andrew Piedl, (8/8/2014, 11:45 AM)

I would add that in most instances, accommodations made to meet ADA requirements benefit others (though I personally find bending down at ATM's annoying). The numbers listed in the article indicate that about 7% of the population of NYC is with a disability of some type. These 'improvements' (mandated by federal law, signed by Bush senior) make it easier for others: the elderly, people with strollers, carts, luggage and those of us, like myself, who occasionally will just get tripped up while walking on the sidewalk... Everyone of us can suddenly find ourselves disabled, restricted to a wheel chair,partially or totally blind.

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