The city’s commitment to upgrading or installing pedestrian sidewalk ramps at every street corner in the five boroughs — as required by federal disability law — has run into some roadblocks, records show.
The discovery of ramp-free locations that were not previously identified, along with pandemic-driven construction delays, officials say, have combined to push back the completion dates agreed to in a 2019 settlement. Two class-action lawsuits had charged the city with not making streets and sidewalks accessible to people with disabilities, a condition the city may not be able to fulfill for years.
The delays are spelled out in the Department of Transportation’s July “transition plan,” which details how the agency has completed a survey of 217,678 pedestrian ramps at approximately 134,000 corners in the city. There are approximately 185,000 corners citywide, according to an August progress report of the pedestrian ramp program.
A little more than 40,000 ramps have been revamped or installed.
“They have met some marks and not met other marks,” said Jelena Kolic, who represented the plaintiffs for the nonprofit Disability Rights Advocates. “The pandemic has affected things and they have had to play catch-up on certain issues.”
‘Hope for the Best’
Several disability rights organizations sued the city in 1994 and again in 2014 over sidewalk ramps that were missing, inaccessible or lacking tactile warning surfaces for people with visual impairments.
As part of the settlement just four years ago, the DOT says it used high definition, street-level imagery and mobile light-detection and ranging technology to survey every street corner and determine which ones need curb cuts installed or repaired.
A court-appointed outside monitor oversees the agreement, whose construction progress can be tracked online on a map with emojis of a shovel for planned work and a ramp for upgrades that have been completed.
A DOT spokesperson told THE CITY that, to date, 43,781 corners have had ramps upgraded or installed.
“NYC DOT is committed to building a safe and accessible city,” spokesperson Vin Barone said in a statement. “There are thousands of new pedestrian ramps installed and upgraded across the boroughs each year and NYC DOT has been working to increase pedestrian ramp upgrades and installations throughout the city.”
But DOT records show that the survey, completed in October 2019, also turned up additional locations that lacked ramps but were not on the agency’s list of known corners, highlighting the challenges and risks faced by people with disabilities who attempt to navigate city streets in wheelchairs.
“If I get to an intersection without a ramp, I have to end up backtracking, crossing over a block to the other side and then coming back,” said Dustin Jones, a wheelchair user and a plaintiff in the case. “Or if I’m really in a rush, I just close my eyes, and hope for the best.”
Lawyers for the city and the plaintiffs, which include wheelchair users and disability-rights advocates, are still in the process of figuring out an updated schedule, records show.
“Those pedestrian ramp construction completion dates have not been agreed to by the Plaintiffs or submitted to the Court for approval,” the July transition plan says. “As required by the 2019 Pedestrian Ramp Settlement, the City and the Plaintiffs have been negotiating to determine whether they can agree upon adjusted pedestrian ramp construction completion dates.”
Pedestrian ramps were supposed to be installed at corners without any cuts by 2021, according to the settlement, while upgrades to non-compliant ramps were scheduled to be completed by the end of 2032.
The onset of the pandemic shut down construction of pedestrian ramps from March to May of 2020, records show, with work then resuming “incrementally” under new health and safety measures.
“Other than the pandemic, which no one could have anticipated, it’s certainly our position that the city should be able to fulfill all the obligations,” Kolic said.
New York City’s commitments to accessibility upgrades are also lagging in other cases. THE CITY reported last month that the Taxi and Limousine Commission missed a June 30 deadline for making half of the 13,587 yellow taxis accessible to wheelchair users — after initially blowing a 2020 deadline set nearly a decade earlier.
“It’s annoying because you’re seeing a lot of stuff on the news about taking care of people when it comes to bicycles and making sure the infrastructure is there for pedestrians and cyclists,” Jones said. “And that’s pretty cool — but what about the rest of us?
“Accessibility is a civil right, I cannot emphasize that enough.”
Sharon McLennon-Wier, who is blind and works as executive director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled New York, likened moving through the city to an obstacle course for people with disabilities. She said she often walks with another person who can help guide her past potential
“If you walk the streets, it’s not as predictable as it used to be — there’s a lot of holes in the ground, the sidewalk is uneven,” said McLennon-Wier, whose organization is also among those that sued the city. “I don’t trust it.”