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L.A.'s $1.5 Billion Sidewalk Problem

Sidewalk disrepair and inaccessibility are the subject of new lawsuits against the city.


Los Angeles without a car is one thing, but what if you couldn’t even walk? That is the reality for thousands of paralyzed and paraplegic people in the city. It’s not just the built form of the city that makes life extra difficult. The city is also greatly lacking in pedestrian infrastructure – sidewalks, curb cuts, even crosswalks.

Many wheelchair users in the city are fed up, and have been filing lawsuits against the city to fill in the gaps.

The suits call on the cities in question to fix their dilapidated sidewalks and add access ramps where none exist. The suits, filed by disabled people and civil rights groups, call on L.A. to comply with the federal Americans With Disabilities Act. As the Los Angeles Times reports, four cases such are pending currently, and they could end up costing the city hundreds of millions of dollars in sidewalk repairs.

Los Angeles has 10,750 miles of pedestrian paths and an estimated 42 percent of them are in disrepair. Bringing them all up to date and adding the curb cuts to make them accessible will cost an estimated $1.5 billion.

But for those filing suit, it’s more a matter of principle than cost.

"The city has never developed a comprehensive plan to address this issue, even when economic times were good," said Surisa Rivers, an attorney with the L.A.-based Disability Rights Legal Center. "Such failure hasn't been a story about the city's inability to finance disability access, but the lack of political will to do so."

The campaign is being led by the disabled but is also winning support from advocates of alternative transportation. They argue the city spends far too much fixing roads and not enough making L.A. a more walkable place.

With a current $72 million budget shortfall, the city naturally hopes it can fend off the suits and avoid going even deeper into the hole.

Accessibility advocates argue that the costs are the city’s responsibility, and that dodging them will only make the problems worse. And it’s not just the disabled who are affected; pedestrian safety is also a major issue. More than 2,500 Los Angeles pedestrians were killed in traffic accidents between 2000 and 2009, according to a report from Transportation for America. Improving the city’s crumbling sidewalks would help cut those numbers down.

The city has already settled two sidewalk-related cases, which will require about $85 million in sidewalk spending over the next 20 years. That will help, but for those disabled residents most reliant on the city’s sidewalks and curb cuts, it’s only a small step toward solving the $1.5 billion problem.

Photo credit: Jonathan Alcorn / Reuters

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.