Does ADA Even Apply to Sidewalks?

I live just off Franklin, and have regularly bussed and biked along it for decades. One day many years ago, I was surprised to see someone rolling down the east-bound traffic lane in a wheelchair. It was on that particularly harrowing section of Franklin between Portland and Chicago.

I immediately wondered what was so wrong with the sidewalk that someone felt compelled to take such a risk. A quick glance at the sidewalk and it was obvious.

Franklin Sidewalk at Park

Franklin Sidewalk west of Park

And as I checked out the sidewalks from the bus windows over the years, I saw examples like this along much of Franklin Avenue, although most don’t have the dirt desire-line path to broadcast just how inadequate the sidewalk is.

I’ve wondered how it is that, with the (federal) Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990 and effective in 1992, we can still have these glaring, impassable, ADA non-compliant sidewalks in our city. (There’s a handy ADA timeline here.)

I’m pulling together an ADA guide for Our Streets, who added walking and rolling to their work last year, so I’ve been digging into what ADA requires of our sidewalks. I’m trying to understand how we can not only meet the letter of the law, but achieve the spirit of ensuring our communities are designed for older adults and people with mobility challenges. 

A little ADA history

Passed in 1990, “the ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life. … The purpose of the law is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.” There’s lots more background at the ADA National Network, here.

Learning about ADA requires navigating some federal policy speak. Title II is the part of the law that applies to streets and sidewalks. “Title II of the ADA prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities in all programs, activities, and services of public entities.” I’m thankful for Peter at the ADA National Network’s Great Lakes TA office. He helped me through the federal policy speak and confirmed that “programs, activities, and services” includes sidewalks.

Federal guidance on requirements for streets and sidewalks was completed much more recently than 1990. For that reason, updates to these “programs” is lagging far behind ADA updates to public buildings.

So, what’s required?

The ADA requires each government entity (Hennepin County, City of Minneapolis, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, etc.) to do a self-assessment. This assessment identifies things that are not accessible according to ADA standards. These standards mandate installing compliant curb ramps and APS (accessible pedestrian signals). The assessment should also include obstructions or barriers on sidewalks.

Tangent: Hennepin County has an amazing interactive map of every barrier identified in their self-assessment. Click through and check it out! I shared more detail about the map in this Map Monday post.

After completing the self-assessment, municipalities must develop a “Sidewalk Transition Plan” that maps out the details of how they’ll address non compliant barriers. The County’s plan is here. It details Hennepin County’s policies as well as the timeline and budget. The County is systematically updating every curb ramp and light to ADA standards (the City of Minneapolis is too), although the timeline stretches beyond 2050 at the current pace. The County also includes specifics to address sidewalk barriers in most cities outside of the City of Minneapolis. Currently, there is no specific plan or budget to addresses barriers on sidewalks on Hennepin County streets in Minneapolis.

The City of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board have similar Transition Plans, both of which are in the process of being updated. (The City plan is here, and MPRB plan is here). It is likely details on addressing sidewalk barriers like the utility pole pictured above will be included in the City’s updated Transition Plan, with the draft expected out by the end of the year.

So What.

As with so many transportation investments that aren’t about expanding car capacity, the question immediately pops up. (This was in response to a tweet of the Our Streets post.)

random tweet asking, "but how will we pay for it?"

I’m going to point right back at our priorities. We spend money on transportation all the time. And we find money for things some people think are important. Like, say, a stadium every two or three years. Or massive highway expansions.

But we can’t seem to prioritize the most basic parts of our infrastructure, like sidewalks. Nor do we ever prioritize the most vulnerable in our communities. That’s why we had to pass the ADA 28 years ago. I hope to see the day when we live up to the purpose of that law, “to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.”

This is cross-posted from the Our Streets Minneapolis blog.

About Janne Flisrand

Janne Flisrand spends her time thinking about how people interact with the space around them. Why do they (or don't they) walk or bike or shop somewhere? How do spaces feel? Why do people sit here and not there? Why bus instead of bike, bike instead of drive? What sorts of spaces build community, and what sorts kill it? Can spaces build civic trust and engagement?

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18 thoughts on “Does ADA Even Apply to Sidewalks?

  1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    A related topic: Does Minneapolis not have an actual plan to bury utility poles over time? Sure they’re generally fine down the alley of the average Minneapolis residential block. But they are ridiculously unsightly at best and a mobility impediment at worst along many of our corridors. This seems especially common on east-west streets without boulevard space such as Franklin, 38th St, 46th St, etc.

    We need to work with the utilities to get these lines underground.

  2. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    Also, interesting to note the recent push for state funding to start a $300 million rebuild of a single freeway interchange (35W and 494 in Richfield/Bloomington). $300,000,000 for a single interchange! The current interchange is a diamond with a single bridge, which would probably take just tens of millions of dollars to rebuild or refurbish for decades to come. So most of the cost of this project is going towards congestion reduction for people who have the privilege to move themselves around by car. And meanwhile we have woefully inadequate capabilities for the most basic of human conveyance, walking.

    1. Monte Castleman

      Or else people that have the necessity of commuting by car since they don’t have the privilege of being so picky about housing and so picky about jobs that they get the luxury of picking a job that’s transit or bicycle accessible from their housing.

      I know driving is technically a privilege granted by the state, but anyone that watches LivePD on weekend nights will know how many people are driving without one, some, or all of a valid license, insurance, registration, and legal equipment.

  3. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    It’s a wonder that the ADA lawsuit rackets haven’t picked on city and county infrastructure like these now decades old examples, and instead targets small mom and pop shops occupying naturally occurring affordable commercial spaces.

    While there are arguments against burying lines, a major bonus it that it clears obstructions out of sidewalks and makes them passable for the disadvantaged like children in strollers and adults in scooters and wheelchairs.

    1. Gene Craig Mattera

      May you never the access that is only garnered through the ADA rackets you mock.

    2. Monte Castleman

      I think that
      1) Cities have a lot more resources than struggling small businesses to defend against vexatious litigation so they’re not likely to be forced to settle.

      2) Municipal agencies have an approved ADA plan, no matter how far drawn out. Mn/DOT was originally going to modify all it’s signals for APS within a couple of years due to an out of court settlement with with disability rights groups (who unlike the ADA lawsuit mills targeting small businesses just wanted accessible signals, not money) but has now acknowledged it could be several decades before every last signal is converted. For now they’re doing them for all new signals, when related roadway work is done, or high pedestrian locations like the current project on University and Central.

      1. Janne

        I can confirm that addressing this sidewalk is not currently included in any County or City ADA transition plan. So, the plan may or may not be approved, but the issue of sidewalks being passable is not adequately addressed.

      2. Gene Craig Mattera

        You could not be more wrong! Congress made private enforcement (Lawsuits) the primary and under Trump the ONLY way to garner access by intent. Only the self righteous corporate owned legislators of this poisonous decade seek to eliminate protections not only for the disabled, but also minorities, education and environment. It is truly a disgrace, but their ability to convince regular people to rally against their own interest is mind boggling. Regardless of your political beliefs it should not be forgotten that while you are born a woman or person of color, anyone at anytime can become the newest member of the disabled community.

        1. Monte Castleman

          I’m not sure what all this business about “rallying people against their own interests” is, unless it’s that some people think others people are so dumb they have to be told what their interests actually are.

          If I became a “newest member of the disabled community” I’d use one of the 19 tables that were ADA compliant rather than the 20th that isn’t, or I’d just fit my wheelchair through the door without measuring it to make sure it’s not a quarter of an inch to narrow rather than to be so greedy and vindictive as to want to do something that would drive the owner out of business.

          1. gene mattera

            I sincerely hope you never have to try to live in a wheelchair.. My 25 years of experience with ADA litigation and proactive compliance programs have made it clear to me that without the ADA and it’s REASONABLE enforcement, those with any number of disabilities are unable to do what we expect to be able to do in America today. Progress means better for all not the privileged alone.

  4. David MarkleDavid Markle

    I’ll bet that the unfortunate dirt surface bypass around that telephone pole wasn’t shoveled!

    The mounds of snow that resulted from the recent heavy snowfall ought to arouse empathy for the handicapped, seeing as how going has also been difficult for the able-bodied.

    1. Janne

      Absolutely! I just assisted am older person over a snow mound at a curb cut.

      I see people rolling wheelchairs down Franklin mostly in snow seasons. It’s a last ditch option, obviously. Passable dirt is bad, but less terrible than taking the lane in a wheelchair on Franklin.

  5. Gene Craig Mattera

    As a national expert on the ADA I work with public and private entities to assess and remove barriers. Unfortunately, in the case of sidewalks, the expense is very high and modifications are best performed in conjunction with street resurfacing or expansion. As a result this process takes many years even after starting an implementation plan. However, a plan that is never started can never be finished. Hence, lawsuits ensue.

  6. Niki

    The ADA is meant to help and it has. It has helped so much! However, the government approves things like ERISA law, which basically allows big companies and their 3rd party administrators to bully people out of company paid disability insurance. I was out of work for 3 months from PTSD after seeing my 9 month old sons father dying/dead after being shot a night club. It was a bar argument broken up and the other party decided they should take his life outside. There is a current bill waiting to be approved by the Senate; hb 601, that would require disabled people to fill out a legal form for an accommodation (and you can bet it will be the same bs run around as erisa) and then wait 6 months for whoever to determine if they will make said accommodations requested. (Like the local mall in my town that is not accessible:/ ) basically, threatening the civil Rights of disabled aMericans to protect businesses from the few fraudulent claims and make them spend the time and effort required to (maybe) get access to a place.
    Please email your senator and tell them to vote no on HB 601.

    1. gene mattera

      If HB 601 is a state law it can only affect damages claims under any state based protections. The ADA would be unaffected and Federal Courts would still grant injunctive relief. I have not worked in Minnesota and am unfamiliar with the state disability discrimination laws but I thank you for opening my eyes and will take a look at them. If by chance you’re referring to the federal law HR 620 that was recently passed by the house, you will be pleased to know that Senator Tammy Duckworth and 43 others have pledged to filibuster any attempt to bring it up for a Senate vote effectively making it DOA.

  7. David Boyne

    Full disclosure: I own a small business providing ADA compliant signs, parking signs and truncated domes. So my position on improving access for all is obvious.

    What I want to say is this: I am heartened by the vigorous yet courteous conversation in the comments this article has generated. The Americans with Disabilities Act is a national law, and there are many state and often municipal level access regulations.

    But really it all comes down to the local level, to citizens/neighbors having concerns for what is fair, equitable, and just for everyone involved, from persons with disabilities being able to access the public space, to small business owners and property owners being able to provide services and make a living.

    Thank you to the author of this article for raising excellent questions and concerns, and to all those who commented, adding to the discussion.

Comments are closed.