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Settlement of Lawsuits Brought by People with Disabilities Helps Ensure Safe and Usable Public Walkways

Settlement of lawsuits in federal and state court brought by people with mobility and vision disabilities provides that the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) will make their roadways and sidewalks safer and usable by all people — drivers and pedestrians. Caltrans will allocate more than $1.1 billion of dedicated transportation funding over 30 years to remove access barriers on crosswalks and sidewalks that often force people who use wheelchairs to travel in the street.

AARP strongly supports making roadways safe and useable by everyone, not just people who drive. After all, every trip begins and ends with a sidewalk. Communities with poorly maintained or unusable sidewalks can discourage social and economic interaction of people with mobility and vision disabilities, including many older people, who may find it too difficult to navigate the dangers of the sidewalks to meet friends at a restaurant or community center, shop, or even to seek needed health care. Such barriers may even limit employment opportunities for some people. Well-designed and maintained sidewalks are essential to make a community livable and encourage successful aging.

The Underlying Dispute

Ben Rockwell uses a wheelchair and Dmitri Belser is vision-impaired and uses a cane. Both live in California, where they have difficulty getting to and from work and public accommodations (such as restaurants, stores and medical facilities) because of barriers on sidewalks. Sidewalks along roadways owned by California, that become "Main Street" as they pass through the numerous cities and towns, are riddled with barriers which make it impossible for people with vision and mobility disabilities safely to use them. These include more than 10,000 missing curb ramps, excessive slopes, broken or uneven pavement, protruding objects, a lack of detectible warnings, and inadequate temporary pathways around construction.  

Rockwell frequently has been required to ride in the street in his wheelchair, just inches from speeding vehicular traffic, because of inadequate or absent curb cuts, ramps or sidewalks. And because so many curb cuts and sidewalk ramp slopes do not comply with the law, he is often in danger of tipping over on dangerously slanted rights of way. Mr. Belser, unable to detect protruding objects with his cane, is often injured by trees and signs that extend into the path of travel. At intersections that lack detectible warnings to alert him that he is about to enter a travel lane, Mr. Belser has been bumped by cars that cut close to the curb when turning.

Belser, Rockwell and two disability rights membership groups — Californians for Disability Rights and California Council of the Blind — sought to negotiate with Caltrans to improve its sidewalks by removing barriers. It is estimated that tens of thousands of barriers on state owned sidewalks make them unsafe or unusable for people with mobility and vision disabilities. Caltrans refused to make improvements, so the plaintiffs filed class-action lawsuits in federal and later in state court (both named Californians for Disability Rights, Inc. v. California Department of Transportation), invoking protections guaranteed by federal and state disability rights law.

Curb ramps at intersections with sidewalks have long been required as a condition of receiving federal financing for roadways. Additionally, both the federal Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) require public entities, including states, to provide people with disabilities access to public services, programs and activities, including sidewalks. Previous court decisions (in which AARP filed "friend of the court" briefs) make it clear that these disability discrimination laws compel public agencies to maintain usable and impediment-free sidewalks where they are provided to the general public.

The lawsuits alleged that Caltrans violates federal and state law in several significant respects: by failing to conduct a legally mandated assessment and evaluation of pedestrian rights of way; by limiting the funding for accessibility upgrades under the state budget; by categorically excluding sidewalk improvements when they resurface roadways; by causing wheelchair users to be trapped in the crosswalk because of pavement defects that prevent them entering the sidewalk; by installing sidewalks that are too narrow or have barriers (such as light poles) or that lack curb ramps, have slopes so steep that wheelchair users tip over, or lack detectible warnings; by installing "park and ride" facilities inaccessible to people with disabilities; and by failing to provide accessible alternative routes during construction projects.

The Settlement

AARP Foundation Litigation attorneys, along with attorneys from Disability Rights Advocates and Skadden, Arps, Meagher & Flom LLP, represented the plaintiffs over the last four years. After three days of trial in 2009, the court postponed the proceedings to permit settlement discussions.

Under the settlement now approved by the court, Caltrans will commit $1.1 billion over the next 30 years from dedicated federal and state transportation funding to be used solely to remove access barriers along sidewalks and Park and Ride facilities. Priority will be given to remove barriers that are subject to complaints from members of the public.

In addition, when Caltrans resurfaces its roadways, it will install or upgrade curb ramps, and will follow federal and state accessibility guidelines when undertaking new construction. If Caltrans provides a temporary route around a construction zone, it will ensure the temporary route is useable by people with disabilities.

Laura Williams, president of Californians for Disability Rights Inc., said this settlement not only helps millions of Californians, but it will also "serve as a model for other public entities across the state and the nation."