Does DOT’s Rule Allowing Drivers to Park in Front of Curb Ramps Violate Accessibility Laws?

Pandering to car owners, former City Council member Vincent Gentile prompted DOT to seize spaces in front of sidewalk ramps for parking. The rule may violate the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws.

In 2009 DOT made it legal to park in unmarked crosswalks, impeding sidewalk access for disabled New Yorkers at intersections citywide.
In 2009 DOT made it legal to park in unmarked crosswalks, impeding sidewalk access for disabled New Yorkers at intersections citywide.

A DOT rule allowing drivers to block curb ramps at unmarked crosswalks may conflict with laws that mandate access for people with disabilities, according to a local disability rights expert.

About 10 years ago, then-City Council member Vincent Gentile got the idea that unmarked crosswalks should be appropriated “to open up more parking spaces.” He introduced legislation to make it happen, but before the bill could come to a vote DOT went ahead with a rule change in 2009 that made it legal for drivers to park at T intersections.

“Dozens of new parking spaces are available in our neighborhood now that weren’t before,” Gentile told Brooklyn Community Board 10 in Bay Ridge, according to the Brooklyn Eagle.

Gentile framed the rule as “a smart way to provide more parking and, at the same time, encourage pedestrians to cross busy streets at safer locations.” But his contention that unmarked crossings are more dangerous than marked corner crosswalks was not supported by data. To the contrary, a 2013 NYU Langone study of Bellevue trauma patients found that more city pedestrians are injured in crosswalks during the “walk” signal phase than when crossing mid-block or against the signal.

Specious safety claims aside, it was obvious that Gentile was simply pandering to car-owning constituents, a City Council tradition that’s tapered off only in the last few years. (Gentile’s announcement drew applause from CB 10 members, the Eagle reported.) While the rule change did nothing to slake the insatiable appetite for free street parking, it did degrade sight lines for pedestrians and drivers and prevent disabled New Yorkers from using curb ramps at intersections across the city.

“People with disabilities, who might use wheelchairs or are low vision, need to be able to access curb cuts,” said Emily Seelenfreund, a legal fellow at Disability Rights Advocates, which is currently suing the city for failing to provide curb access under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The suit pertains to the installation and maintenance of curb ramps, not ramps blocked by cars, but a similar legal argument applies. “Obviously if people are parking on the curb then that is a barrier to accessing the pedestrian right of way,” said Seelenfreund.

Other laws and regulations could be relevant, too. The city’s Human Rights Law, for instance, “goes above and beyond the ADA,” said Seelenfreund, forbidding any discriminatory practices in any place of public accommodation.

“The ADA is kind of the floor of disability rights law,” she said. “It invites localities to go beyond that, and the New York City Humans Rights Law does.”

In addition, entities that receive federal funding are obligated to accommodate people with disabilities.

Scoring cheap political points by making it more dangerous to cross the street is an ethical failure, to be sure, but it remains to be seen if a court would strike down the 2009 DOT rule. “It certainly seems to violate the spirit of the ADA,” said Seelenfreund.

“I use a wheelchair,” she added. “I certainly get annoyed when curb ramps are blocked. So I wouldn’t discourage people from complaining about that or looking into their legal avenues.”

DOT did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

  • urbanresidue

    Technically, no, because DOT’s rule change redefined crosswalks such that these are no longer legal places for anybody to cross the street.
    http://urbanresidue.blogspot.com/2014/06/legally-blocking-crosswalk.html

  • Toddster

    ‘The suit pertains to the installation and maintenance of curb ramps, not ramps blocked by cars, but a similar legal argument applies. “Obviously if people are parking on the curb then that is a barrier to accessing the pedestrian right of way,” said Seelenfreund.’

    Could someone explain this? From this paragraph, it seems while blocking the crosswalks is a problem, the suit has to do with the maintenance of them and not actually access? I’m sure there’s some legal subtleties I’m not aware of, but any insight to the distinction/merits would be appreciated.

  • Brad Aaron

    Correct. The DRA lawsuit is not about the 2009 DOT rule, which I’m not sure DRA was aware of before I contacted them for this story.

    Ultimately, though, the issue is access.

  • William Farrell

    Meanwhile, DOT is continuing to demolish curb ramps at T-intersections, even when they align non-motorized streets. https://twitter.com/wjfarr/status/979364364565336064

  • ItsEasyBeingGreen

    These should be getting curb extensions with ramps, not ramp removals.

  • Joe R.

    This rule change is one of those things where you just scratch your head and wonder how any sane society could do something like this. They’re prioritizing storing private property on public streets over the safety/convenience of people walking. And the exemption NYC has from disallowing parking with 15 feet of a crosswalk falls into same category.

  • AnoNYC

    Is removing the ramp supposed to discourage people from crossing there? What a waste of money.

  • Andrew

    It is technically illegal to cross at a location like this. Specifically, it is illegal to cross the street at an intersection except in a marked or unmarked crosswalk, but the 2009 rule change redefined an unmarked crosswalk to exclude T-intersections.

    Although it is technically illegal to cross at the intersection itself (in what until 2009 was an unmarked crosswalk), it is still legal to cross mid-block. Go figure.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

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Eyes on the Street: Tactical Urbanism Reclaims Upper Manhattan Curb Ramp

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About a year ago, someone painted a yellow line on this curb ramp, on a mostly residential street that abuts a park. “It’s the only sidewalk ramp on that side of the street for a block in either direction,” says our reader, “so when someone blocks it, if you need a ramp to access the sidewalk (or the park), you have to go a block out of the way.” According to our tipster, who walks by the ramp twice a day on weekdays, drivers are now much less likely to block it.