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Disability advocates and experts agree the city needs safe, accessible sidewalks | The Homepage

Updated: Aug 31, 2022

By Juliet Martinez

Gerrod Harris uses a motorized wheelchair to get around Hazelwood, and the sidewalks are a problem. I spoke with him in April on the corner of Glen Caladh and Second avenues.

“A lot of the sidewalks are bad,” Mr. Harris said. He plans his routes around them. “I know where most of the bad sidewalks are, and I stay away from them,” he added.

Mr. Harris in front of Hazelwood Towers, where abandoned construction signs and sandbags have blocked the sidewalk for months. Photo by Juliet Martinez

Greater Hazelwood sidewalks are often in poor condition, but the problem is city-wide. According to Pittsburghers for Public Transit’s February report, “Mobility for who? State of Mobility Access in Pittsburgh,” the city has 1,300 miles of sidewalks. The report’s section on sidewalks says 60% of sidewalk-related complaints to 311 are about ones that are broken and blocked.

Private homeowners are responsible to maintain their own sidewalks per municipal ordinance, but enforcement by the City is weak. Poorly maintained sidewalks make life difficult for people with mobility and vision disabilities. Is the City doing enough to ensure everyone can safely use them?

The burden of enforcement

The transit advocacy group’s report says only one or two 311 calls per sidewalk mile per year have come from Greater Hazelwood. It cites research showing people in less affluent neighborhoods are less likely to report bad sidewalk conditions.

“Sidewalks are kind of like the arteries of social life,” longtime local disability advocate Paul O’Hanlon told me over the phone in June. “They take you home, to public transportation, to businesses, to your work. If those sidewalks don’t work, then nothing works.”

If the City wants to improve sidewalk quality, he said, it must do better at enforcing its sidewalk code.

Hazelwood Initiative recently paid $950 to replace about 20 feet of sidewalk on Gertrude Street, according to project manager Raymond Bowman. The median household income in Greater Hazelwood, according to 2020 census data, is $20,702. A new sidewalk costs more than two weeks’ income for half of the neighborhood.

The Greater Hazelwood Neighborhood Plan acknowledges this reality when it discusses the need for well-maintained sidewalks. It specifically considers that sidewalk repair is both vital for pedestrians of all abilities, and cost-prohibitive for many moderate- and low-income homeowners.

Calls for a better approach to sidewalk maintenance are getting louder. Pittsburghers for Public Transit encouraged newly elected Mayor Gainey to create a sidewalk fund in their “First 100 Days” transit platform. And Mayor Gainey’s transition team formally recommended the City use grants or loans to help “complete the infrastructure needed for safe and accessible passage to critical amenities and services.”

“Sidewalks are kind of like the arteries of social life. They take you home, to public transportation, to businesses, to your work. If those sidewalks don’t work, then nothing works.” Paul O'Hanlon, disability advocate

However Mayor Gainey’s office did not respond to repeated requests for specific policy initiatives. His administration’s response to these recommendations remains to be seen.

Legal obligation and ADA

From a legal standpoint, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires municipalities to make sure they are accessible, but the law is subject to interpretation.

I asked Rocco Iacullo, a lawyer for Disability Rights Pennsylvania, when we spoke on the phone in June. He said the ADA requires cities to ensure access to services, programs and activities. The city can do that in any of several ways including code enforcement, but whichever way they choose must work.

He said in court cases regarding the question of sidewalk maintenance, some municipalities have argued that sidewalks are facilities that provide access to a city’s services, programs and activities.

Under this view, for example, if someone can’t walk or take transit to a public meeting at City Hall because of bad sidewalks, the municipality can provide a ride in an accessible vehicle. If sidewalks are facilities, the ride is a reasonable accommodation. In this framework, the City is not required to fix sidewalks.

Mr. Iacullo disagrees, saying the availability of sidewalks is as much a program as a public meeting.

“And the only way you can achieve program access to the program of sidewalks is by actually fixing them,” he said.

The courts have not landed decisively on one side of the issue. Flexibility in the ADA gives municipalities a pass if creating access lays an undue burden on them; hence some cities opt for the ride, in this example.

But, Mr. Iacullo said, “That’s not the point. The point is not just that [the person] wants to go to the... meeting, but he also wants to be able to travel throughout his community like all non-disabled people. And you can only ensure that access by fixing the sidewalk.”

Juliet Martinez is the managing editor of The Homepage.

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