Franklin Sidewalk at Park

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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