The overwhelming inaccessibility of traffic signals in New York City violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to a new ruling by the Southern District of New York. Federal judge Paul A. Engelmayer wrote in his decision that “the near-total absence at the City’s signalized intersections of crossing information accessible to blind and low vision pedestrians denies such persons meaningful access to these intersections.” This poses a significant safety concern to blind persons, the court found.
An ABC News report on the ruling noted that 96.6% of New York City’s pedestrian control signals “communicate crossing information exclusively in a visual format.” Specifically, that’s all but 443 of the city’s 120,000 signals “at about 13,200 of [it’s] 45,000 intersections,” ABC reported. The court found that visual-exclusive signals, which use a white stick figure for a “walk” signal and an orange hand figure for “don’t walk,” are not accessible to blind pedestrians.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit were “led by the American Council of the Blind,” according to ABC. They alleged that New York City has “failed to provide non-visual crossing information” at most of its intersections with signals. New York City is home to “205,000 blind or low vision people,” one of whom, Christina Curry, stated in the complaint that “during her frequent pedestrian travel throughout New York City, she risks being hit by vehicles, fears for her life, is often grabbed by well-meaning pedestrians, and uses circuitous, sometimes costly, alternatives to walking to avoid such incidents—all because she cannot use the visual traffic signals that are available to sighted pedestrians.”
Another plaintiff, Michael Golfo of Tarrytown, New York, “relies on his hearing and guide dog to navigate the New York City streets,” and “has almost been hit by cars on many occasions while crossing the street,” according to the lawsuit. It goes on to state that Golfo “often must rely on sighted persons to help him make such crossings” and “often relies on expensive taxis or car services to navigate the City, or takes elongated routes to avoid difficult intersections.”
In Judge Engelmayer’s opinion, he notes that New York City “has the highest population density of any major American city” and that walking is a major form of transportation for the city’s residents and visitors. Under current conditions, he writes, blind persons walking in the city “will stop when he or she encounters a curb or other detectable warning surface, and will assume that a crossing point is located there.” Without assistance, though, they start walking from outside a crosswalk almost “30% of the time,” according to the opinion, and when they do locate crosswalks, they are unable to receive visual signals available to sighted pedestrians. They can rely on cues such as the movement of their fellow pedestrians or traffic sounds surrounding the crosswalk, but the opinion notes that it can be challenging to discern audible cues, and “That difficulty is often compounded, especially in the City, by idiosyncratic crosswalk architecture and quiet traffic such as hybrid cars and bicycles.” The opinion also notes that blind persons taking cues from other pedestrians “might not realize that those pedestrians were in fact jaywalking until they hear onrushing traffic.”
Ultimately, Judge Engelmayer found that the plaintiffs did not have “meaningful access to the city’s signalized crossings and the pedestrian grid,” and granted summary judgment. According to ABC News, it is now working with New York City as well as the plaintiffs to identify remedies.