In four years the city will be required to be in compliance with the settlement provisions of a lawsuit brought by The Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Organization, disabled advocates who sued in sheer frustration at the City’s 25 year failure to first comply with Federal Aid To Highways Act and then The American with Disabilities Act (ADA)—legislation which gives the blind, people in wheelchairs and others with disabilities the right to move around our city. Seems crazy like you need laws, let alone lawsuits to ensure that our most at risk and vulnerable residents can use our streets, but you do.
While the ADA passed in 1990, NYC lack of compliance with its transportation provisions starts in the early 1970’s when state and federal law mandated the installation of curb cuts during all street construction. The lack of progress towards this legal requirement makes the construction of the Olympic venues in Athens seem like a model for how to get things done by comparison.
James Wiesman General Counsel the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association said the settlement process was started at the end of the Dinkins administrations and lasted through both terms of the Giulinai administration. When asked why it would take 8 years to settle something that can help so many people he replied. “Gillian has a reputation with the public for being tough on criminals, the public has no idea how tough he was on people in wheelchairs as well.” The settlement was reached 2 months into the Bloomburg administration and requires compliance by 2008.
The city agency that is responsible for ensuring that this settlement is adhered to is the DOT. Agency spokesperson Tom Cocilo did not know the answers to any questions about the City’s efforts towards compliance and said he would get back to me. He never did. After numerous calls to his office went unreturned it seems that DOT’s spokesperson has nothing to say.
That’s when I decided to survey a small section of the city and see first hand what kind of condition the city was in to find out if there is any way that that the City will be in compliance by 2008. The area I surveyed was 5th avenue between 14th and 23rd streets. As the City is required to put in curb cuts during construction and as this area had a water main break 5 years ago, which required months of constructionand as this is 5th avenue after allthis area would likely represent the best of the City’s efforts to date.
To find out what difficulties people in wheelchairs face I went for a walk with Ethan Ruby (29) the Head Pedestrian Advocate of Citystreets, a pedestrian advocacy organization. Ethan became an expert on ADA issues on the evening of November 29th 2000 when he was hit by a car while walking towards a glowing “walk” sign. Ethan is one of the hundreds of thousands people that city is asking to wait another 4 years to fully use its sidewalks.
Once you start looking down on New York, you really start looking down on New York. In the 10-block area, 100% of the intersections had curb cuts that were not easily navigable by a person with a wheelchair. 20% of the intersections had curb cuts that were not navigable by a person in a wheel chair. And 50% of all the intersections surveyed had corners with missing curb cuts.
This contradicts a message from DOT commissioner Iris Weinshall on her agency’s website that incorrectly states that “approximately 80% of all intersections in Manhattan have already had pedestrian ramps installed” As the DOT does not employ a grading system for its curb cuts, failures are accounted for in the same way as successes. There’s another term for this. It’s called cooking the books.
Further observations showed that 100% of the crosswalks had gouges or other surface imperfections that would make travel potentially dangerous. In fact during the course of the survey I witnessed an elderly resident fall in a crosswalk because of surface imperfections.
100% of the intersections had obstructions in the sidewalks. As many of these obstructions were caused by street lamps, its relevant to note that DOT is currently in the final phases of a design contest for a new street lamp design in a secretive process that has excluded both input and feedback from the public. One can only hope that the new design will solve this problem and one can only wonder in what universe is this agency qualified to run a design competition?
None of the intersections had clearly marked streets signs on all corners. And while 100% of the intersection had pedestrian signals none of the intersections had a pedestrian phase (Barne’s Dance) or a phase in (Leading Pedestrian Interval) to protect pedestrian from turning cars when they crossed streets. Meaning that not only are these streets difficult to cross for the disabled they are also unsafe for everyone else as well.
Now you might say this is interesting but how does this affect me? Well for starters cars crash into and injure about 15,000 people every year in New York City. If you make curb cuts and crosswalks safe for our most vulnerable pedestrians you also make them safer for everyone else. Some fiscally concerned New Yorkers might have some other concerns like how much would compliance cost.
According to Paul Sinelli of Pro Concrete Contracting, “it would cost $2500 to put in one curb cut and take about two days.” Not cheap when you consider the amount of intersections. However, The cost for not making our intersections safe is significantly higher. The city is currently being sued for 90 million dollars by the parents of Victor Flores (11) and Juan Estrada (10) who were killed on February 9th, 2004, while walking home from school. Juan and victor were crossing with the light and were killed in the crosswalk by a turning truck. Their avoidable deaths were the result of the design failure of our current infrastructure as designed planned and maintained by the DOT to provide for safe use of our streets by all residents. The parents of Juan and Victor will deserve every million they get. And this is only one of many lawsuits caused by DOT inability to provide safe intersections for NY residents and visitors to cross.
Seen through this lens ruined lives and destroyed families, the cost of quicker compliance seems not only like the best investment the city could ever make, It also seems inherently more humane.
The Bloomberg administrations has accomplished so much—under the most difficult and challenging conditions. They are clearly open to new ideas, and sensible approaches to problem solving. Why they put up with such acephalous leadership and unprofessional management from the DOT is unclear. It’s time for the Mayor to discuss the urgent need to solve a problem that quite frankly this agency doesn’t even recognize. I suggest the mayor and his commissioner go for a walk. This would be a good time to explain to her that importance that his constituents place on having safe intersections. I would be happy to supply some blank survey forms that they can use as talking points.