New York City

Where the sidewalk ends for disabled New Yorkers

Why it has taken New York City 30 years to even make a plan for accessible sidewalks.

A young woman pushes a man in a wheelchair across the street.

A young woman pushes a man in a wheelchair across the street. J2R/Shutterstock

Nearly three decades after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and a quarter-century after a class action lawsuit was filed by the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association against New York City, a New York judge approved a plan July 23 to make all of the city’s sidewalk curbs accessible to wheelchair users within the next 15 years. This was necessary because, as The New York Times wrote in 2017, a federally mandated report “found that the majority of the city’s curb ramps are still not in compliance with federal requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and that the city lacks even a comprehensive survey of all its corners or an adequate plan of action.” 

New Yorkers might be wondering why a supposedly progressive city has stood in violation of federal civil rights law for decades – and why it must take another 15 years to retrofit a few feet of concrete at each street corner. An estimated 550,000 city residents have difficulty walking.

The new agreement requires a citywide survey of the city’s roughly 162,000 sidewalk curbs in need of accessibility or upgrading and a schedule to ensure that every corner in the city becomes accessible. According to the deal, a court-appointed monitor will be assigned to ensure the city complies with the plan. 

Susan Dooha, the executive director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled and the lead plaintiff in the most recent case, which began in 2014, sued the city after a survey conducted by her organization found that more than 75 percent of the curbs in Lower Manhattan were not ADA-compliant. Dooha said the city wasted years of resources with no real plan under its belt to address accessibility issues. “When it comes to accessibility for people with disabilities, the attitude has pretty much been deny, deny, deny for years and then force the community into court to try to achieve compliance,” Dooha told City & State. 

In 2002 then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration settled the earlier lawsuit that was filed in 1994, agreeing to complete curb cuts by 2010. 

So why didn’t that happen? According to Dooha, the city’s 2002 plan lacked structure. “The agreement was that they would spend a certain amount of money each year, but it didn’t contain a plan for compliance, for installing curb cuts, for fixing the ones that don’t comply with the law and for maintaining the ones that don’t become broken,” Dooha said. “Therefore, it was not really, in our eyes, a plan.”

Victor Calise, current commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, said the city has been working on increasing accessibility for years and accessibility features to its streetscape are continuous and have never been halted. “The city has already spent over $125 million on ramp upgrades during the last three complete fiscal years,” Calise said in an email. “Prior to this settlement, DOT, working jointly with the Department of Design and Construction, spent as much as $20 million per year for 17 years (FY02-FY18) installing new pedestrian ramps.” 

In comparison with the ramp upgrades, the city spends more than 10 times as much annually on Thrive NYC, the mental health initiative headed by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray – which has been criticized by the City Council and City Comptroller Scott Stringer for lack of demonstrated results. New York City’s fiscal year 2020 budget is $92.8 billion

According to Dooha, the pace of these upgrades and installations has slowed since 2002 and with no plan in place for maintenance, the city was out of compliance with the law despite the $243 million in public funds it used to build curb cuts over the past 15 years. 

As for the latest plan, the city will take another 15 years to ensure full sidewalk accessibility. When asked about the lengthy timeline, the city Department of Transportation said pedestrian ramp upgrade work will be performed when streets are resurfaced, complaints are received by the public, or other construction occurs, and will be in part prioritized based on the survey and condition scores the streets receive once they are reviewed. 

“It is no small matter to undertake installing repairing and bringing to standard every corner, especially when you consider the amount of construction in the city and just the sheer numbers that we’re talking about,” Dooha said, referring to the plan as “frontloaded” for its early commitment to progress in the first two years. 

Impassable curbs are not the only mobility impediment disabled New Yorkers face: Only a quarter of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s 472 subway stations are accessible to disabled riders. An ongoing lawsuit alleged that the MTA and the city violate the New York City Human Rights Law by discriminating against people with disabilities. 

The MTA, which plans to install 50 new elevators over the next five years, missed its self-imposed June 2019 deadline detailing the list of the 50 stations expecting installation. The MTA did not respond to requests for comment. 

Calise said the city is doing everything it can and noted the MTA is run by the state. “The bus fleet is fully accessible to individuals with mobility disabilities and we are working with our state partners at MTA New York City Transit to increase the accessibility and reliability of the mass transit and paratransit systems by working closely with President Byford and the NYCT Systemwide Accessibility team,” Calise said in an email.

Dooha said when it comes to transit accessibility, there’s enough blame to go around for both the governor and the mayor’s office.

“Before (de Blasio’s) election, I looked at his promises of Vision Zero but I found out there’s really nothing behind that plan and what they were doing was really minimal in my view,” Dooha said, referring to de Blasio’s plan to eliminate traffic deaths. “I am very disappointed that the mayor is not the mayor of all of the people of the city and has been willing to leave people behind.”

She added that a binding agreement between the city and the MTA would be necessary to make the subway system fully accessible. “For curb accessibility, the city is planning to do a meticulous and accurate survey of every single corner in the city so that it can discuss in a much more finite way, the priorities and what to take on first,” Dooha said. “There is no reason why they could not evaluate MTA stations in the same way.”