But getting around the city isn’t easy for everyone. For people with disabilities, barriers abound, from cracked sidewalks and rampless curbs to countdown timers that are too short for the amount of time it takes them to cross. Even something as prevalent as construction noise can be problematic, as many pedestrians with vision impairments rely on traffic sounds to stay safe.
Fortunately, things are getting better. In 2018, the City was sued for failing to make its crosswalk signals accessible, and in 2021, a federal judge ruled that this violated the civil rights of people with disabilities. As part of the ruling, the transportation department is required to upgrade 10,000 of its pedestrian signals to accessible pedestrian signals (APS) by 2031–a move that will “remake the streetscape of New York City and improve safety and accessibility for all New Yorkers.” [source]
The problem with conventional signals
At last count, NYC had more than 13,000 intersections with roughly 120,000 pedestrian signals. These signals are the type that can be found in cities and towns across the U.S., featuring the white walking man that tells pedestrians when to cross and the ‘Portland Orange’ hand that tells them when to stop or clear the crossing. In the early 2000s, many were upgraded to countdown timers, which are believed to improve the safety of both drivers and pedestrians.
The problem with these devices is they provide communication in a single format–visual–and therefore aren’t usable by the more than 200,000 New Yorkers with vision impairments. Lacking this information, these pedestrians are forced to rely solely on traffic cues, or other sighted pedestrians, to tell them when it’s safe to cross–both of which can be hard to decipher in an environment with high levels of ambient noise.
An accessible alternative
At the time the lawsuit was filed in 2018, NYCDOT had already begun implementing APS, devices that communicate information about the “walk” and “don’t walk” phases at intersections in non-visual formats, such as audible tones, speech messages, and vibrating surfaces. Unlike the overhead cuckoo-chirp signals found at many American crosswalks, APS feature an integrated speaker and pushbutton, and are installed adjacent to the crosswalk they signal. They have been shown to significantly improve the crossing performance of blind and low-vision pedestrians, as well as those with hearing impairments.
Despite this–and the large number of New Yorkers they would benefit–the pace of installation has been slow. In 2012, NYCDOT had installed just 48 units citywide, with a local law requiring them to upgrade 25 intersections with APS each year. At that pace, one source estimated it would take the city 170 years to achieve full accessibility.
A legal challenge
For Lori Schaff, the president of the American Council of the Blind of New York (ACBNY), it wasn’t good enough. “The longer they take to do the installations, the harder it is for us to navigate the streets independently with access to the same information,” she told the New York Times. “It’s like we’re second-class citizens. It’s an afterthought.”
And so, in 2018, ACBNY, along with two visually impaired NYC residents, took the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration to court. They alleged the dearth of accessible signals violated state and federal laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires agencies to make public facilities accessible–including pedestrian facilities like sidewalks and crosswalks.
A ‘wake-up’ call to cities
Judge Paul A. Engelmayer agreed. In December 2021, he released an opinion stating that the city had violated the law hundreds of times by failing to equip the city’s intersections with accessible signals so visually impaired pedestrians could enjoy the same level of mobility and safety as sighted pedestrians.
While lagging technology may have been a justification in the past, the judge noted this was no longer an issue. “Today, there is widespread technical know-how as to the design and installation of APS and their integration into traffic design,” he wrote. “APS are an acknowledged solution to [the] problem of inaccessibility… They are essential safety features.”
The opinion set out a detailed action plan to improve accessibility–by installing APS at 10,000 signalized intersections over the next 10 years. By 2036, all signals in the city should be accessible. (Less than 1,000 intersections had APS at the end of 2021, according to an annual NYCDOT report).
Torie Atkinson, an attorney at Disablity Rights Advocates, which represented the plaintiffs, characterized the ruling as monumental. “There has never been a case like this. We can finally look forward to a day, not long from now, when all pedestrians will have safe access to city streets. We hope this decision is a wake-up call not just to New York City, but for every other transit agency in the country that’s been ignoring the needs of people with vision disabilities.”
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