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DC Faces Disability Suit Over Bike Lanes

Protected bike lanes are presented as a way to increase safety and mobility across the District. The city has thus far built 24 miles of protected bike lanes. Earlier this year, Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) announced plans to build an additional 10 miles annually.

But what expands street space for one user can prevent access for others, according to a new lawsuit filed in federal court.

A Nov. 28 lawsuit charges that District street redesigns are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Plaintiffs, including two residents and two organizations—the DC Center for Independent Living (DCCIL) and the Dupont East Civic Action Association (DECAA)—say that protected bike lanes “create serious barriers for individuals with disabilities.”

The lawsuit calls for the DC to alter bike lane designs to be in compliance with ADA, pointing to problems caused by the design of bike lanes on Fourth Street SW and 17th Street NW. Both streets, the suit says, lack accessible or curbside parking and mid-block curb cuts. That makes it difficult for people in wheelchairs or walkers to get safely from vehicles to the sidewalk.

A plan for ADA accessible parking as depicted in the federal Highway Administration Separated Bike Lane Planning and Design Guide (2015).

“We aim to remedy this systemic discrimination by the District against residents as well as visitors with mobility disabilities who are prohibited from moving about this beautiful city with the same freedom and ease as those without disabilities,” says Richard A. Simms, Executive Director of DCCIL. DCCIL is a private non-profit organization that assists DC residents with significant disabilities with living independently.

According to the CDC, about 22 percent of adults in the District have a disability. That’s about 115,000 people in DC.

DECAA attorney Ed Hanlon said everyone in the city should have the right to access sidewalks, which are a public facility. But there are now barriers between the space where vehicles park and the sidewalk. Even if a person in a wheelchair manages to exit the vehicle, he said, they often exit into the bike lane, forcing them to travel to a curb cut or negotiate the curb. “That 4” curb might as well be a 10-foot wall for somebody who is in a wheelchair or a walker,” Hanlon said. “There is no ready access to the sidewalk.”

Hanlon said that parties have been asking DDOT to consider the needs of disabled residents for years. The group is not opposed to bike lanes themselves, Hanlon said. “Bike lanes and accessibility [are] not mutually exclusive. There is a way to properly build bike lanes to guarantee accessibility to the sidewalk for people with disabilities,” Hanlon said, referencing Federal Highway Administration guidance. “DDOT has chosen not to do so, but DDOT knows how to do so and the law requires DDOT to do so.”

A representative for the District Department of Transportation (DDOT), the agency responsible for roadway redesign, said the agency does not comment on ongoing litigation. The 2019 DDOT Design and Engineering Manual advises that “bicycle and pedestrian facilities, including sidewalks, crosswalks, over/underpasses, traffic control features, curb cuts and access ramps for persons with disabilities, should adhere to the latest design standards and Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.”

The DC Protected Bike Lane Plan Fiscal Years 20 through 24. Courtesy DC Dept. of Transportation.

Two women are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Theodosia Robinson and Dana Bolles. According to the filing, Bolles uses a power wheelchair and drives a van equipped with a side ramp that can be deployed onto a curb as long as there are no obstacles. However, the lawsuit states that many sidewalks are obstructed by trash cans and planters. In commonly used designs, the bicycle lane is located between the sidewalk and the parking spaces. There is not enough space for the ramp on Bolles’ van to deploy with clearance for her to exit her vehicle.

DC isn’t the only city facing accessibility concerns with bike lanes. In London, activists have expressed concern about bike lane design, pointing to concerns that bus passengers at “floating” bus stops have to cross a bike lane to reach the sidewalk. In 2020, a California court held that Los Angeles violated ADA law when it redesigned its streets to add protected bike lanes. Parking was moved from curbside to the middle of the street without designating accessible spaces.  Like Bolles, the plaintiff in that case, Ron Sarfaty, used a side-loading wheelchair lift to get out directly onto the sidewalk. After the redesign, he had to travel in bike lanes to reach a curb cut and access the street. The court held that this inaccessible alteration to a public program—parking—was a violation of the act. The judge in Los Angeles rejected the city’s argument that it complied with the law by following the ADA Standards for Accessible Design (the 2010 standards do not mention curbside parking or bike lanes), noting that ADA act requires alterations to public facilities be “readily accessible” to people with disabilities.

“Access is a critical component to equity for people with disabilities,” said Maia Goodell of Vladeck, Raskin & Clark, co-counsel for the plaintiff. “Like everyone, they deserve streets designed to allow them to participate fully and equally in life in the District without putting their safety at risk.”

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