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"I just don’t want to die trying to cross the street,” says one of the visually impaired plaintiffs in the case.
As a blind pedestrian navigating the streets of New York City, Michael Golfo says he’s had his share of close calls.
He recounted during a phone interview Tuesday one near miss that happened a few weeks ago. Walking from his doctor’s office to catch a bus on the Upper East Side around noontime, Golfo says that he went to cross the street at Lexington Avenue and 61st Street.
Because he heard a vehicle to his left start to sound like it was about to pull through the intersection, he believed it was safe to cross.
“I thought I had the light,” Golfo said.
“As I stepped off the curb, cars were still coming,” he said. “If not for my wonderfully trained service animal, who stopped dead in his tracks,” Golfo added, “I would have been roadkill.”
Golfo is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed last month that alleges New York City is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 because it has not adequately upgraded crosswalk signals to accommodate blind pedestrians.
Enacted in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act is designed to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities. The Rehabilitation Act is a related federal statute.
The people and groups that brought the case are not seeking financial damages.
What they want is for the city to step up its efforts to install Accessible Pedestrian Signals, or APS technology, at more street intersections.
The lawsuit claims that, of New York City’s roughly 13,000 intersections with pedestrian signals, only 317 are equipped with technology to provide information to people who are blind or visually impaired.
The city declined on Wednesday to verify whether those numbers and other facts and figures referenced in the lawsuit were accurate.
“We are reviewing the complaint,” Kimberly Joyce, a Law Department spokesperson said by email, responding to a request for comment.
Golfo says the intersection on Lexington Avenue where he had his recent close call does not have an accessible signal. “I really don’t think [people] realize how much of an issue of safety these devices are to the blind and visually impaired community in a city like New York,” said Golfo.
The lawsuit was filed on June 27 in a New York federal district court and names the city and its transportation department as defendants, along with Mayor Bill de Blasio and Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg as defendants in their official capacities.
Along with Golfo, the other plaintiffs include the American Council of the Blind of New York, and Christina Curry, a New York City resident who is deaf and visually impaired. They’re pursuing the case as a class action, and say about 200,000 city residents have visual disabilities.
On Wednesday, the city asked the court for a time extension until September 12 to respond to the suit.
APS technology is not new. It’s been around since the 1970s in various iterations.
Pedestrians in many American cities are likely familiar with the accessible signals, which nowadays often emit a soft sound to indicate where the signal push-button is located, and a different noise and vibration that indicates when it is safe for a person to cross the street.
During the last two decades, according to the lawsuit, New York City has replaced all or most of its pedestrian signals at least once, and many of them twice. But these upgrades have not led to the widespread adoption of APS.
The city does have a policy of equipping 75 intersections per year with the technology, according to the lawsuit. But the suit says, at this rate, it will take about 170 years to convert the signals citywide.
Prior to the lawsuit, groups including the American Council of the Blind of New York have urged the city since at least 2010 to increase its commitment to APS upgrades.
“They can do a lot better,” said Christina Brandt-Young, who was involved in the case as a lawyer at Disability Rights Advocates, until her final day with the organization last week.
Brandt-Young cited estimates indicating that the cost in 2011 to install APS at an intersection was about $3,600 more than a non-APS signal.
Other cities, the lawsuit points out, have taken proactive steps to install the advanced signals. Phoenix, for instance, has a policy requiring that all new pedestrian signals are APS-equipped. San Antonio, Seattle and Los Angeles, the legal complaint adds, have similar policies.
New York’s failure to move ahead with APS installations more quickly the suit says, “is particularly egregious” because people are so reliant there on traveling by foot. “There is no city where accessible pedestrian signals are more necessary,” the complaint says.
“I just don’t want to die trying to cross the street,” said Curry, the plaintiff who has low vision and is deaf. Curry, who is executive director of the Harlem Independent Living Center, says she travels in all five boroughs for her work and does not use a service dog.
“I don’t really see the street lights, the signals, to let people know they can cross the street,” she explained by phone this week.
“I can’t always tell when there’s a car or a truck that is coming up to me, so I have to use what’s around me, watching people as they cross the street. And if no one is crossing the street, it’s either guesswork or waiting until someone shows up.”
Crossing with tourists and parents with strollers, Curry said, is one strategy she uses to stay safe, because she believes they tend to be less likely to cross when a signal says “don’t walk.” While she’s never been hit by a car, she says she’s come close.
“I’ve jumped back, I’ve fallen trying to get out of the way,” she said. Curry recalls trying to cross an intersection at night, in the Bronx, at Lincoln Avenue and East 138th Street. A car turning right came so close to hitting her she said she could have touched the hood.
Lori Scharff, president of the American Council of the Blind of New York, notes that accessible signals don’t guarantee the safety of pedestrians with visual or hearing disabilities.
“It’s just giving you the same information that everybody else has,” said Scharff, who is blind and gets around using a guide dog. “If we walked around and put covers over the ‘walk’ and ‘don’t walk’ signs everybody would be mad at us. But that’s what’s been done to us.”
Brandt-Young, the lawyer, said there have been similar legal efforts in the past to push local governments toward installing APS equipment.
For example, the California Council of the Blind and other groups reached a 2007 settlement agreement with agencies in San Francisco to install the technology at no fewer than 80 intersections.
Similarly, Scharff was involved in a case in Nassau County, on Long Island, that ended with a 2015 consent decree with requirements for the county to install new APS equipment at certain intersections and called for the county to develop an “APS accessibility plan.”
Brandt-Young said that for localities looking to avoid these sorts of legal challenges, a public commitment to installing APS technology when upgrading crosswalk signals goes a long way.
She also said that those involved in the New York City case are under no illusions the city will be able to upgrade 13,000 intersections immediately, or even in a couple of years. But they do want to see a significant uptick in the rate of APS installations.
“Seventy-five a year,” Brandt-Young said, “is not going to cut it.”
Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.