History of U.S Crosswalk Accessibility Laws, 1968-2023

This article explores the history of U.S federal accessibility laws and regulations related to the public right-of-way, to give the context in which PROWAG was developed. Read our guide to PROWAG’s requirements for pedestrian pushbuttons here >>>

The Architectural Barriers Act, 1968

The Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) was one of the first federal laws addressing public accessibility. The ABA requires facilities designed, built, altered, or leased with federal funds to be accessible to people with disabilities. Read the ABA text here >>>

Chapter 2, section F247, and chapter 10, section 1017, address accessible routes in trails and other federally developed outdoor areas.

Chapter 4, particularly sections 402, 403, and 406, provide minimum requirements for accessible routes within affected sites, including provisions for sidewalk width and curb ramps – but the Act does not specify public pedestrian facilities like sidewalks and crosswalks among the sites required to comply.

The Rehabilitation Act, 1973

Spurred by limited compliance with the ABA, the Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in federally funded programs and provides an enforcement agency. Read the Rehabilitation Act’s text here >>>

The Rehabilitation Act established the United States Access Board (Section 502), added accessibility requirements for federal information technology (Section 508), and established accessibility requirements for medical diagnostic equipment (Section 510).

Among the functions assigned to the Access Board are to “(5) investigate and examine alternative approaches to the architectural, transportation, communication, and attitudinal barriers confronting individuals with disabilities, particularly with respect to telecommunications devices, public buildings and monuments, parks and parklands, public transportation (including air, water, and surface transportation, whether interstate, foreign, intrastate, or local), and residential and institutional housing;” and “(6) determine what measures are being taken by Federal, State, and local governments and by other public or nonprofit agencies to eliminate the barriers described in paragraph (5)”. (U.S. Congress, 1973; emphasis added.)

This provision expanded the reach of accessibility regulations into state and local government facilities but did not yet require universal compliance.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, 1990

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the broadest and most well-known American accessibility law. The ADA requires equal access to programs and services, facilities, transportation, employment, and communication, in both the public and private sectors.

Learn more about the ADA’s crosswalk accessibility requirements in our article >>>
Or read the ADA’s text here >>>

By recognizing equal access to participation in public life as a civil right, the ADA finally held all levels of society to the same accessibility standard: the overarching mandate that public services, programs, and activities must be accessible to people with disabilities. However, the ADA’s application to pedestrian facilities was not clearly spelled out until PROWAG was published.

As a civil rights law, the enforcement mechanism built into the ADA is litigation; and the courts have recognized its application to a wide range of public infrastructure, including pedestrian pushbuttons.

Notable ADA cases

In 2007, San Francisco entered structured negotiations with the California Council of the Blind, LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired of San Francisco, the Independent Living Resource Center San Francisco, and blind advocate Damien Pickering.

The resulting agreement allocated a minimum of $1.6 million to install accessible pedestrian signals (APS) in at least 80 intersections, in exchange for release from “any Claims arising directly or indirectly out of or otherwise connected with: (a) the Americans with Disabilities Act; and (b) any other federal, state, or local statute or regulation involving the rights of persons with disabilities.” (Law Office of Lainey Feingold, 2007)

In another case, on December 21st, 2021, the United States District Court, S.D. New York, ruled New York City had violated the ADA by failing to install accessible pedestrian signals (APS) at thousands of signalized intersections, and ordered the city to install APS at every signalized intersection by 2036 (Am. Council of Blind of N.Y. Inc. v. City of New York, 2021).

Read our case study on the NYC ADA lawsuit here >>>

And on March 4th, 2022, the United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois ruled that Chicago had violated the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act by failing to provide APS at over 2,600 signalized intersections. (Am. Council of the Blind of Metro. Chi. v. The City of Chicago, 19 C 6322, 2022)

It is clear that cities have a positive legal obligation to provide equal access to public facilities, including pedestrian signals. The argument that the ADA does not specifically mention this responsibility has not worked for two of the largest cities in the US – and now, PROWAG negates that argument completely.

The ADA Accessibility Guidelines, 1991

The ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) are a series of technical guidelines developed and revised by the US Access Board and adopted by the DOJ that contain detailed design requirements for accessibility in new construction and alterations.

At first glance, ADAAG appears to apply only to specific types of buildings; but in 2017, the 9th Circuit Court distinguished between facility-specific standards and feature-specific standards, ruling the feature-specific standards applied even at facilities not mentioned in ADAAG.

“Properly interpreted, ADAAG’s standards apply to public rights-of-way, parks, and playgrounds.” (Kirola v. City and County of San Francisco, No. 14-17521, 2017, pg 29)

As a result, ADAAG is the current legally-enforceable accessibility standard for the public right-of-way, and will be until USDOT and DOJ adopt PROWAG.

Chapter 4 of ADAAG has standards for Accessible Routes, covering (among other things) walking surfaces 403 and curb ramps 406. Detectable Warnings are covered in 705. Pedestrian buttons are not specifically covered in ADAAG, but as operable parts would be controlled by 309, within the reach ranges specified in 308, and having clear space conforming to 305.

The Public Right-Of-Way Accessibility Guidelines, 2023

Building on ADAAG’s example, the Public Right-of-Way Accessibility Guidelines (PROWAG) took the far-reaching mandates from the ABA, the Rehabilitation Act, and the ADA, and gave them concrete standards and requirements for use in infrastructure. Read our guide to PROWAG here >>>

PROWAG is a set of technical guidelines developed by the US Access Board to help transportation professionals create accessible routes along public streets. Among other things, it mandates push buttons with specific accessibility features anywhere a pedestrian signal or pedestrian-activated warning device is provided.

The U.S. Access Board began developing what would become PROWAG in 1999, releasing Proposed Draft Accessibility Guidelines for the Public Right-of-Way in 2013. This draft was similar in many respects to the final rule, and many agencies used the draft as recommended guidelines.

The process of adoption began when the U.S. Access Board published PROWAG in the Federal Register. The DOJ and USDOT are expected to publish their own versions, with or without modifications. When these department-specific versions of PROWAG go into effect, they will have the force of law.

 

References

U.S. Congress, 1973. 29 U.S.C. §792 Rehabilitation Act of 1973. [Online] Available at: https://www.access-board.gov/law/ra.html
[Accessed 21 September 2023].

Law Office of Lainey Feingold, 2007. San Francisco APS Agreement. [Online] Available at: https://www.lflegal.com/2007/05/sf-aps-agreement/
[Accessed 9 October 2023].

Am. Council of Blind of N.Y. Inc. v. City of New York (2021) United States District Court, S.D. New York.

Kirola v. City and County of San Francisco, No. 14-17521 (2017) 9th Circuit.

United States Access Board, 2023. Public Right-of-Way Accessibility Guidelines. [Online] Available at: https://www.access-board.gov/prowag/
[Accessed 20 September 2023].

 

Want to learn more about PROWAG?

> Watch our “Changes under PROWAG” webinar

> Read the full text of the final rule from the US Access Board

> Read our news post summarizing the changes

> Learn more about Polara’s PROWAG-compliant APS products