Crumbling Sidewalks Become a Legal Battleground

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Just last month, a woman in Atlanta made the news when she injured herself after tripping on a hole in the pavement and needed paramedics to respond. It prompted the latest in a years-long string of complaints against the conditions of sidewalks in the city, where it’s not hard to find missing pavement, crumbling curbs, cracks, or buckles.

These conditions present hurdles for anybody who encounters them. For people in wheelchairs, they can be insurmountable. Now Atlanta is among a number of U.S. cities having to answer for the state of their sidewalks: In June, three wheelchair users filed a federal lawsuitalleging that many of the city’s sidewalks aren’t properly maintained and, as a result, violate the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Atlanta is hardly alone here. In May, Portland, Oregon, settled a class action dispute by agreeing to upgrade sidewalk ramps at a cost of $113 million over the next 12 years. In 2015, Los Angeles agreed to spend $1.4 billion over the next three decades to fix its sidewalks in a lawsuit similar to the one against Atlanta. ADA-related sidewalk lawsuits have also happened in recent years in SeattleNew York City, and Long Beach, California.

Lawsuits like these are forcing cities to grapple with their responsibility to maintain safe sidewalks. And while the costs may seem steep to cash-strapped agencies, experts say it’s getting increasingly difficult for cities to use budgetary constraints as a defense.
For one thing, the ADA became law nearly three decades ago, in 1990. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which guarantees certain rights to people with disabilities, dates back to 1973.

“At this point, it’s hard to imagine that cities aren’t appropriately accessible,” says James Harrington, an adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Austin and founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project. He has worked on sidewalk-related cases in Texas. “The ultimate defense, of course, is they can’t afford it, but when you’re looking at 30 years of notice, then it’s hard for them to say they can’t afford it had they not structured it into their budget as they were supposed to from the beginning.”

Attorney James Radford, who is representing the plaintiffs in Atlanta, says he spent two to three years on research before filing the lawsuit. He met with people in wheelchairs and looked at sidewalks across the city to gauge whether maintenance was a systemic issue. He also found a 2010 report from Atlanta’s Department of Public Works saying 18 percent of the city’s sidewalk network was categorized as deteriorated.

“If you look at the budgets over time, they just decided not to fix it,” Radford says.

In 2009, Atlanta entered into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to address ADA deficiencies in facilities, including sidewalk repairs, according to an emailed statement from a city spokesperson.
“The city is committed to making its facilities, including streets and sidewalks, fully accessible and available for use by all its citizens and visitors,” the statement says. “The city is not in violation of the agreement, as it is ongoing. The city continues to address the identified needs and to cooperate with the DOJ by reporting its progress on an annual basis. This activity remains a priority for the city, as it will continue to make these improvements in the most fiscally responsible and prudent manner possible.”

In terms of finding a solution, advocates say it comes down to investment and a change in mindset.

Ideally, sidewalk conditions would get the same kind of attention as road conditions, says U. Sean Vance, University of Michigan assistant professor of architecture with expertise in equitable and inclusive design.

“I realize what I’m saying and encouraging, from the standpoint of the city, seems like it would cost more money,” Vance says. “But I think that the long-term investment of that as a thing—a safe, walkable condition—actually increases the value of the neighborhood itself overall, because people there feel more comfortable and confident to move around.”

Plus, sidewalk costs don’t come close to the expense of roads. In Los Angeles’s settlement, where it agreed to fix broken sidewalks, the city agreed to spend at least $31 million per year on sidewalk repairs. Compare that to the $150 million a year budgeted to fix roads.

“For the last 50 years, we have put millions, billions of dollars in terms of having good streets and highways and kind of privileging the automobile,” says Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, co-author of Sidewalks: Conflict and Negotiation over Public Space.
Sidewalks have been a little trickier for cities. In the 19th century, businesses and property owners often built and maintained their own sidewalks, while people often walked in the streets. “As we start seeing the proliferation of the automobile, where it becomes quite imperative that people walk on the sidewalks and not on the street, cities start moving and claiming the sidewalks in terms of regulations,” Loukaitou-Sideris says.

In many places, though, a patchwork of regulations arose. Depending on the city, abutting property owners might bear some responsibility for sidewalk maintenance. They may even be financially liable for repairs, potentially facing fines if they don’t comply.

Harrington says it’s up to residents to notify the city when sidewalks need maintenance, though cities still have a duty to pay attention to areas that clearly need it.

“That’s a general rule of the ADA,” he says. “If it’s clearly obvious that it needs to be done, then it has to be done, or otherwise then the person with disability needs to request the accommodation.”

Agreeing to mend sidewalks doesn’t immediately patch up a situation, either. Earlier this year, nearly three years after L.A.’s settlement, the city couldn’t keep up with public requests for repairs. When doing repairs, Harrington adds, it’s important to hire an ADA expert, especially one who has experience with curb cuts. (He recalled one case where a Texas city installed curb cuts that required a wheelchair user to go into the street, even with no intention of crossing it, in order to use that part of the sidewalk.)

And it’s important to remember that it isn’t just a matter of convenience.

“Cities should invest in sidewalks if they want to increase walkability, often for some of the most vulnerable parts of the population, but [also] for the general population as a whole,” Loukaitou-Sideris says. “Now that we have the back-to-the-city movement, we have more people walking or wanting to walk. As costly as it is, it is not as costly as paving highways.”