Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
Los Angeles isn't the only jurisdiction that's been forced to confront its sidewalk problems by disability-rights advocates, and it won't be the last.
In the city where “everybody drives,” sidewalks and other accommodations for people who aren’t in cars have often seemed an afterthought. But with a landmark settlement to fix its badly broken sidewalks announced last week, Los Angeles is moving toward a future in which its infrastructure for non-drivers will get some long-needed attention.
The settlement comes in response to a class-action lawsuit filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which alleged the city did not maintain its sidewalks “in a condition that is useable by class members who rely on wheelchairs, scooters, and other assistive devices to get around.” The agreement (still pending a judge’s approval) means L.A. could commit a stunning $1.4 billion over the next 30 years to repairing and upgrading sidewalks, installing curb cuts, and ensuring access to crosswalks.
According to Linda Dardarian, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs, the settlement comes after five years of sometimes bruising litigation. She says that the city’s attitude toward the suit changed abruptly when the pedestrian-friendly administration of Mayor Eric Garcetti, elected in 2013, came into office.
“Before that, it had been a scorched-earth battle,” says Dardarian. “[Members of the previous administration] weren’t seeing this as an opportunity to resolve a chronic, systemic, intractable problem that had been weighing on the city for decades. It took the new administration—with more of an attitude of positivity and what can be done instead of what can’t be done—to resolve an issue that affects the whole city.”
The change in tone and practice, says Dardarian, reflects the city’s evolving attitude toward its streets as something more than just conduits for personal motor vehicles. “As we shift our focus as a society from cars and onto pedestrians and transit and bikes,” she says, “that’s when the people at the top realize our sidewalks need attention.”
Los Angeles has a particularly fraught legal relationship with its sidewalks, Dardarian explains. At one time, property owners were responsible for maintaining sidewalks adjacent to their homes and businesses, as is the case in many other cities. But back in the 1970s, L.A. took control of sidewalk maintenance in order to qualify for a federal grant program aimed at assisting cities with street repairs. That federal money quickly ran out, however, leading the city to fall behind on even routine repairs. A decision to plant thousands of ficus trees, which have shallow root systems that can destroy concrete as they grow, made the situation even worse. One survey estimated that some 40 percent of L.A. sidewalks need repair.
Broken sidewalks are an inconvenience for many residents, but for those with mobility disabilities, they can be a life-altering barrier. “A lot of our people are already isolated socially,” says Lillibeth Navarro of Communities Actively Living Independent and Free (CALIF), one of the plaintiffs in the suit. “On the one hand there’s the ADA, promising opportunities to jobs and all the facilities that society has, and you want so much to be a part of that. But of course the first step into the world is the street outside your door. So we have been struggling in traversing the miles and miles of sidewalks. People have gotten hurt tipping over in their wheelchairs.”
Welcome to L.A. where the river is paved but the sidewalks aren't. From Sunday's LA Daily News: http://t.co/wBs6lT7yl1— Doug & Terri-Rae (@DougAndTRae) April 5, 2015
The settlement will not only commit about $30 million per year to repairs in areas prioritized under the ADA—government buildings, transit hubs, medical facilities, and the like—but it will also allow L.A. residents to request specific repairs to trouble spots. Dardarian says that means residential neighborhoods, which are at the bottom of the ADA priority list, will get targeted help as well.
Los Angeles isn’t the only jurisdiction that has been compelled to face its sidewalk problems because of lawsuits filed by disability-rights advocates, and the ADA has forced street enhancements for non-car users that might never have happened otherwise. In 2010, California transportation agency Caltrans agreed to a $1.1 billion settlement to repair or upgrade 2,500 miles of sidewalks, curb cuts, wheelchair ramps, and other accommodations at that agency’s facilities around the state. In Jackson, Mississippi, advocates who were struggling to use public transportation filed an ADA suit that resulted in a 2009 consent decree requiring the city to provide access to bus stops and other accommodations. Improvements there are ongoing. Suits are pending in New York City and Long Beach, California, as well.
Advocates say that ADA-compliant infrastructure isn’t only good for those with mobility issues. “It’s beneficial to not only people with disabilities but to the whole human family,” says CALIF’s Navarro. “Seniors, mothers with strollers, even the young people on their skateboards.”
“Another implication of any big systemic disability case is that it benefits the whole community,” says Dardarian. “It brings everyone into the public sphere.”