Philly’s dangerous sidewalks violate federal law protecting people with disabilities, lawsuit alleges

Philadelphia’s sidewalks are so bad that a group of people with disabilities are suing the city to get a plan for repair.

Cars park on the sidewalk on Coral Street

Cars park on the sidewalk on Coral Street in Philadelphia’s rapidly developing East Kensington neighborhood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Four Philadelphians with disabilities and three advocacy groups are suing the city in federal court for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and a 1977 law requiring streets be accessible to all.

The plaintiffs, which includes Liberty Resources, Disabled in Action of Pennsylvania, Inc., and Philadelphia ADAPT, claim city walkways are “dilapidated, disintegrating, and teeming with obstructions, making everyday travel difficult and dangerous for the estimated 186,000 people with disabilities that call Philadelphia home.”

“For folks without a mobility issue, it’s a simple thing to cross the street,” said David Ferleger, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs. “We don’t even think about it, we don’t even notice it. For somebody who’s in a wheelchair, for someone who’s blind, Philadelphia streets are a danger.”

The suit lists obstructions such as curb ramps in poor condition — if a sidewalk even has a curb ramp to begin with — and cars parked on the sidewalk blocking the right of way. Such “barriers” hinder those with impaired vision and leave wheelchair-bound residents with no other option than to travel in the street with traffic, say the plaintiffs.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The case, filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, also lays out incidents where individual plaintiffs sustained injuries due to poor walkway conditions.

Plaintiffs aren’t seeking money. They want the sidewalks fixed.

Fran Fulton a 47-year resident who is blind and lives in Center City, uses a cane to walk. She “struggles with uneven and broken sidewalks throughout Philadelphia,” according to the suit. She has fallen “countless times” and has “suffered sprained ankles, skinned knees, and multiple scars.”

Philadelphia’s disregard for Fulton and other residents with disabilities hold the city back as a whole, said Ferleger.

“The loss of effective travel for people with disabilities hurts not only them, but all the rest of us,” said Ferleger. “People who can’t travel across the city are not shopping. They’re not going to entertainment. They’re not going to jobs.“

City officials declined to comment at this time, but right-of-way complaints are nothing new to local government. A federal court ordered the city to install ADA-compliant curb ramps on every city street in 1993, after a lawsuit filed by a group of plaintiffs including Philly ADAPT and Disabled in Action of Pennsylvania, two of the groups named in the current suit. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the suit alleges that the Streets Department, in 2014, told the two groups that “it would upgrade curb ramps to be ADA-compliant only upon request, rather than automatically doing the work during repaving.”

Cars are parked on the sidewalk on Fletcher Street in Philadelphia’s rapidly developing East Kensington neighborhood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The city received 3,100 complaints about sidewalks in 2018. More than 50% resulted in notices of defect. Property owners are responsible for the right-of-way in front of their property. Poorly maintained sidewalks, those with cracks or uneven sections that hinder passage can warrant a notice from the Streets Department demanding the owner to make repairs.

However, currently, there are only 13 inspectors, and their duties extend beyond sidewalks. Following up on a notice of repair can be difficult. So they often remain in the same condition as they were when cited.

While the city’s 2019 budget includes a boost for the Streets Department, there are no plans to dedicate any new funding to sidewalks.

“Other than the funds set aside for maintenance and repairs of public property, we don’t have funding for sidewalks. It’s the responsibility of property owners,” Kelly Cofrancisco, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jim Kenney told PlanPhilly in April. “We have to prioritize our limited resources and not everything can be funded to the optimal level.

As for parking on sidewalks and in crosswalks, both the Philadelphia Police Department and the Philadelphia Parking Authority focus their attention elsewhere.

Of the 178,000 parking tickets the police department gave out last year, about 14,000 were for parking on crosswalks, curb ramps, or street corners. PPA officials admit the tickets go to a small fraction of offenders — reports of blocked crosswalks are typically relayed to district police where they then fall to the bottom of the priority list, PPA and PPD officials told PlanPhilly in February.

“Illegal parking complaints are assigned a lower priority code, and therefore can remain in ‘pending’ status before they are dispatched, especially in busier police districts,” Sgt. Eric Gripp, a spokesman for the police department, said in an email.

The plaintiffs aren’t looking for money from the suit, but they want to “change the system,” Ferleger said. The lawsuit seeks to force the city complete a comprehensive evaluation of its sidewalks and create a plan to bring the network up to ADA compliance.

“What the city needs to do is evaluate all the curbs and intersections and sidewalks in the city,” he said, “to decide what needs to be done, to fix what needs to be fixed, to add what needs to be added, to maintain what needs maintenance. And then to do it.”

Editor’s note: The headline on this story has been changed.  In the desire to put a pun in the original one, it was inaccurate and unfairly categorized the litigants in this case. We appreciate those who called our attention to the problem with the original headline.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal