Wendy in a Wheelchair: Awakening to the State of LA’s Sidewalks

Wendy in her wheelchair. All pictures by Roger Rudick

Wendy, my girlfriend, is a skilled rock climber with eight years experience. Unfortunately, sometimes rocks just break.

On July 6, she was climbing Mount Emerson, near Bishop, when an anchor ripped free–she fell nearly 100 feet onto a granite ledge. She’s spent much of her recuperation at my home in downtown Los Angeles. And that’s meant months of pushing Wendy in a wheelchair.

I love living in the Arts District. And Wendy, who resides in Orange County, enjoys visiting. Every time we turn around, there’s a new cafe or art gallery. The people here are friendly, smart and eclectic. It’s one of LA’s pedestrian meccas.

That said, the broken sidewalks near my home were always an eyesore and an inconvenience, but, until her fall, I didn’t fully appreciate to what extent the elderly and the disabled are just cut off by them. To add insult to injury, around the time of Wendy’s accident, I received a newsletter from the Bureau of Street Services, boasting about repaving Alameda, the thoroughfare on which I live. No bike lanes were added and, for the most part, its sidewalks are still in shambles.

Sidewalk on Alameda–impassable for wheelchairs

““You can’t fix the street and ignore the sidewalks. Sidewalk access is required by the Americans with Disabilities Act,” said Paula Pearlman, Executive Director of the Disability Rights Legal Center, based at Loyola Law School. “The city is not doing what it’s supposed to do.” Last year the City of Los Angeles settled lawsuits worth some $85 million to force it to add wheelchair ramps in various locations. LA’s Bureau of Street Services refused to comment, citing “ongoing litigation,” but reports are that 42 percent of LA’s 10,750 miles of walkways need repairs, to the tune of over $1 billion.

KCET did a great story on the history and politics of LA’s sidewalk situation. The takeaway: where city trees damage the sidewalk, the city has to repair it. However, it doesn’t allot enough money to do it. In most other cases, the adjacent property owners have to do the repairs. But there’s no enforcement mechanism and the city assumes liability if someone trips and sues. In other words, the city has created a surreal financial and legal situation that guarantees sidewalks are rarely fixed.

When the sidewalk borders a government facility, such as in front of City Hall, there’s little ambiguity about who is supposed to maintain it. Bruce Gillman, a spokesman for LADOT, said these sidewalks and crosswalks are in in good shape and comply with federal regulations. And in cities which accept blanket responsibility for maintaining the sidewalks and procuring funds to do it–Santa Monica and Glendale are two examples–the walkways are in better condition.

Several proposals have come up to fix LA’s sidewalks, but lawmakers back off as soon as anti-tax activists start grousing. Pearlman, the ADA-lawyer, took StreetsBlog itself to task for not focusing enough on the disabled. I don’t think that’s entirely fair: StreetsBlog has done several stories about ADA compliance.

Broken Sidewalk on Alameda

But perhaps advocates for a walkable and bikeable environment could work harder to give politicians incentive to fix LA’s basic sidewalk woes.

Meanwhile, Wendy’s bones have mended and we can again fully enjoy downtown Los Angeles. She’s even started leaving her cane behind. But for the elderly and permanently disabled, LA’s broken pathways continue to rob their mobility; progressive advocacy should start with those most in need.

Because it shouldn’t take mountain-climbing skills just to use the sidewalk.