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After three administrations and 25 years of litigation, New York City’s sidewalks are finally on the path to complying with the ADA. Under terms of an historic settle­ment between disability-rights organizations and the administration of Mayor Bill De Blasio, the NYC Department of Transportation is spending $1.55 billion to sur­vey, install and repair curb ramps at every street corner in the city’s five boroughs.

It’s a huge investment requiring both manpower and new technologies. The initial survey of the city’s 162,000 street corners has been completed. The city used vehicle-mounted lasers that measured the key dimensions of each corner to tell if there was already a ramp there and whether it was compliant with current codes. According to the settle­ment, approved in July by Judge George B. Daniels of the Southern District of New York, the city is required to conduct similar surveys in 2033 and 2046. In addi­tion, NYC has added a Pedestrian Ramp Unit to its Department of Transportation and is hiring hundreds of workers to conduct the massive, decade-long project of bringing code-complaint ramps to all of the city’s corners.

“The De Blasio administration agrees with us that an aggressive approach to accessibility of streets and sidewalks would be the only remedy for decades of business-as-usual,” says James Weisman, CEO of United Spinal Association. “Judge Daniels facilitated a comprehensive settlement with disability groups, led by United Spinal Association, that recognizes that access is a civil right, and requires transpar­ency, significant expenditure and effort.”

Weisman and United Spinal Association have been fighting for full access to New York’s streets since 1994, when it became clear that the city would not meet the 1995 deadline for installing curb ramps that was set by the ADA. The resulting decades have been full of legal wrangling, false promises and slow progress. While there are now curb ramps on all but an estimated 3,100 of the city’s street corners, large numbers are not up to code or have fallen into disrepair, making them danger­ous and sometimes impossible for wheelchair users to navigate.

The new settlement requires the city to maintain its curb ramps and provides the funding to make sure they stay up to code. “I’m glad they put in the stipulation that they have to maintain them, because often trucks will damage ramps, and in the past, even if you filed a complaint, who knows when the city would get around to fixing it,” says José Hernandez, advocacy coordinator and president of United Spinal’s New York City chapter. Hernandez, a longtime resident of the Bronx, says that he can already see the effects of the settlement, as crews work to install new ramps. “Just the other night I went out to a restaurant in my neighborhood, and they were working on two corners at the same intersection. You can see the same thing all over the city.”

With all the construction, the city is putting up temporary ramps at corners that are being worked on. In addition, the whole curb ramp project will be overseen by a court-appointed monitor, tasked with making sure that the city is living up to the settlement’s demands. While there are still many significant barriers to access in America’s biggest city, this is a huge step forward for making New York’s sidewalks more accessible to users of all types.

— Seth McBride