The ADA is a broad civil rights statute that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all aspects of everyday life. While it doesn’t offer standards or guidance on APS specifically, it does require agencies to make public facilities, including the pedestrian environment, accessible.
Enacted by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) is a landmark equal opportunity law for people with disabilities. It provides people of all ages and abilities with equal access to employment, education, transportation, and public space, including pedestrian facilities like sidewalks and crosswalks. Government agencies are required to produce and maintain ADA transition plans to remove structural barriers and improve access. Entities that fail to do so have and continue to be sued in federal court, or taken to task by the federal government.
Here’s what you should know about the ADA as it relates to Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APS).
ADA Accessibility Standards
To start, it’s important to note that the ADA is a public law in the U.S. code. Title II requires governments to provide people with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from their programs, services, and activities. It also requires them to “take appropriate steps to ensure that communications with members of the public with disabilities are as effective as communications with others.”
What the law does not include, however, are specific requirements for crosswalks, curb ramps, signals, or anything else. For that, you need to look to the ADA Accessibility Standards (2010), which are issued by the Department of Transportation and based on minimum guidelines set by the U.S. Access Board. These are not building codes or recommendations, but capital-S “Standards” that are enforceable by the Department of Justice.
The problem is, even the ADA Accessibility Standards contain very few specifics on pedestrian infrastructure generally or APS specifically (Sections 406: Curb ramps and 309: Operable Parts do contain some relevant info). If you’re endeavoring to build a fully accessible crosswalk, you’re going to need to know things like where to locate your push button, what features it needs to have, what the crossing time should be, and more. The ADA doesn’t cover this, but PROWAG and the MUTCD do.
ADA transition plans
Another key feature of Title II of the act is ADA transition plans, which are required of all state and local government agencies with 50 or more employees. These plans are intended to address the identification and removal of structural barriers, including communication barriers, and provide improved access to public facilities. At a minimum, an organization’s transition plan should:
- Identify physical obstacles that limit accessibility to individuals with disabilities.
- Describe the methods that will be used to make the facilities accessible.
- Specify the schedule for taking the steps to achieve compliance.
- Indicate the official responsible for implementation of the plan.
ADA transition plans were originally required to be produced by July 1992, but 30 years later, it’s clear that many still haven’t done so. A national survey completed in 2020 investigated the issue, finding that only a small percentage (13%) had an ADA transition plan readily available, and an even smaller percentage (>2%) met the criteria listed above.
The risks of non-compliance
While numbers like these might lead you to conclude that there’s a lack of interest or will when it comes to increasing pedestrian accessibility in the U.S., the number of class-action lawsuits filed against cities in recent years tells a different story.
The ADA’s clause prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities in “the services, programs, or activities of a public entity” has been established in court to apply to pedestrian signals, particularly in Scharff vs. County of Nassau (2014).
In 2018, the City of Atlanta was sued over the condition of its sidewalks and intersections, which plaintiffs described navigating as “a dangerous enterprise”. The following year, Philadelphia was sued for similar issues.
In Am. Council of the Blind of New York, Inc. v. City of New York (2020), New York City was sued because less than 3% of the city’s pedestrian signals included APS. The court found NYC “failed to provide [pedestrians with vision disabilities] with meaningful access to its signalized intersections and the pedestrian grid, within the meaning of the ADA and Rehabilitation Act” The city was ordered to equip 9,050 intersections with APS by 2031 and install APS at all remaining signalized intersections by 2036.
And in Council of the Blind of Metro. Chicago v. City of Chicago (2023) a judge found that, by providing APS at less than 1% of its signalized crosswalks, Chicago failed to “provide ‘meaningful access’ to its network of existing facilities and to ensure that newly constructed signals are designed and constructed in such a manner as to be ‘readily accessible’ by blind individuals.”
But ignoring the ADA doesn’t just leave agencies open to legal risk. With ever more funding opportunities emphasizing ‘complete streets’ and requiring provisions for equitable access, it also means leaving money on the table. More than that, it represents a huge missed opportunity to build healthier, more inclusive communities that support safe and independent transport, not just for people with disabilities, but for everyone.