Column: It’s Taking Too Long to Fix the City’s Curbs, and Vulnerable People Deserve Better

By Barbara Adler

I never gave curb cuts a thought until I fell off my bike several years ago, broke my leg and wound up in a wheelchair for a few months, pretty miserable and housebound.

I’m perfectly recovered, but the experience of not being able to get easily around made me into an advocate for those who are disabled. I find myself acutely aware of the safety concerns that exist on our city streets and sidewalks, whether for those with disabilities, our aging population, a parent pushing a stroller or shopping cart, or just your typical distracted New Yorker who’s not paying particular attention to the depression or sudden sidewalk slab sticking up an inch or so, causing a fall or sprained ankle — or in my case a trip to a plastic surgeon for stitching above my eye. Curb cuts are a pet-peeve, but surely just one of many safety issues on the streets and sidewalks of the Upper West Side and New York City as a whole.

No crosswalk here despite striping indicating it.

Although the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990, it’s shocking how many egregious violations still exist. A lawsuit regarding two class-actions and two individuals dealing mostly with curb cuts was finally settled in 2017, with the city agreeing to make repairs and upgrades on an agreed-upon schedule, along with a court-appointed monitor to ensure that the city fully complies. This is great, until you learn that this work is not scheduled to be completed until 2032! Really? That’s a long time to live with issues on many corners (162,000 corners in NYC) which prevent 13% of New Yorkers (or approximately 600,000) with mobility or visual-impairment issues to get around. This number doesn’t reflect all those New Yorkers you see walking around with a boot on one foot (did they trip on a sidewalk hazard too?) or others trying to walk with some other temporary impairment.

Typical flooding issues occur at numerous crosswalks.

A curb cut is the grading that slopes downwards from the sidewalk to the street at crosswalks, allowing the two to align, making it easier for someone with a disability to cross the street without impediment. They’re also required to have a tactile colored surface with texture that is discernible for those who are sight-impaired, in order to indicate that the sidewalk ends and the street (a potential danger zone) lies just beyond. Many of our curb cuts have scoring at the end of the sidewalk, often in the concrete sloped area, with no colored mat, or the adhered tactile paving mats with raised dots.

In the last two years, I’ve noticed that many of the curb cuts on the Upper West Side received some work, but often not enough, and that some of the tactile mats are falling apart, creating a hazard of their own. Many curb cut slopes dead-end directly into potholes or deep depressions, becoming lakes whenever it rains, and forcing most pedestrians to choose between detouring outside the crosswalk safety-zone or sloshing through the water to reach the sidewalk, creating yet more barriers.

Flooding is a consistent problem.

I’ve learned that when sewers are backed up and causing flooding, that’s a Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issue. When it’s pooling of water on the street, like a depression near the crosswalk or elsewhere that fills up causing a temporary lake when it’s raining, that’s a Department of Transportation (DOT) issue. For street flooding or any of the issues described above, instead of just being annoyed or inconvenienced, consider picking up the phone and calling 311 to report the problem. You’ll get a case number you can check online regarding progress. There are so many issues like this, though, one wonders why the city is willing to wait 14 years to fix such outstanding safety issues. That’s frankly outrageous. At the very least, one would think they’d consider undertaking some temporary measures, utilizing movable sloped mats or other devices at the crosswalks to make it easier for people to get across the street.

Editor’s Note: The city will be working to improve the following curbs in the coming week.

Please be advised, weather and field conditions permitting the following is the anticipated work schedule for the upcoming week, Monday, January 20, 2020, through Friday, January 24, 2019.

* Please note: During ADA ramp operations, Parking within intersections will be temporarily restricted. Please observe/adhere to all posted signage.
* Locations and operations will remain on the schedule until completed.

Impacted locations/Intersections:

Work Operations: pending Work Operations

Intersection of Broadway and W. 71st Street (NWC)
Manhattan Avenue and W. 107th Street (NEC/SWC)
Columbus Avenue and W. 108th Street (SEC/SWC)
West End Avenue and W. 104th Street (NWC/SWC)

Barbara Adler recently stepped down after 20 years as the founding executive director of the Columbus Avenue BID. She is currently a member of Community Board 7. The views expressed here are hers, and do not express the views of the board.

COLUMNS | 29 comments | permalink
    1. Bob Lamm says:

      Dear Ms. Adler: Many thanks for this extremely valuable piece. I’m so sorry about your fall and injury. I’m glad you have recovered well. We should all speak out strongly on issues of disability rights.

      In the early 1980s, in his last years, my father was losing his ability to walk. Outside his home, he needed to use a wheelchair. There were virtually no curb cuts near his home on the Upper East Side. I had no training in handling a wheelchair and without the curb cuts it wasn’t easy crossing streets. I still get upset when I think about it.

      Any of us who are currently nondisabled could be tomorrow. And surely most of us have family members, friends, or neighbors who have a disability. Curb cuts are essential for many people with disabilities–and also, as you’ve rightly suggested, for older people, for parents or child care workers pushing strollers, and many others. The city’s schedule for repairing and upgrading curb cuts is awful.

    2. Leon says:

      Thank you for sharing – very well put. As you noted, this is a huge quality of life issue that impacts countless people. The very easy first step is for someone to walk around on a very rainy day and find the curbs that have lakes in front of them, and tackle those first.

      I personally think this is a much bigger issue and deserves more resources allocated it than many of the other causes du jour that Helen Rosenthal and other representatives spend their time on.

    3. Burtnor says:

      Thank you for this! Nothing like personal impact to raise awareness of issues that affect others.

      NYC launched an “Age Friendly NYC” initiative in 2017, but has yet to do much to implement it. Curb cuts, bus delays, subway elevators are all problems for older and disabled people who want and need to use public transportation.

      I hope this prompts Community Boards and City officials to be more active re these issues.

    4. Pedestrian says:

      Barbara couldn’t be more on target with this column. The City allows developers to destroy the streets and sidewalks and rarely checks to see if handicapped ramps have been replaces properly. Drains don’t work at the corners so ramps go right into deep puddles and on to mini skating rinks when the water freezes. It’s a travesty. .

      Maintenance of streets is negligible…some look like streets in East Germany after WWII and feel that way on a cab ride and offer more obstacles to the disabled.

      When are our City “leaders” going to spend some time of these basic issues?

      Thank you, Barbara

    5. Karen says:

      The flooding (and icing when weather is cold) happens at the NW corner of W 98th Street and Broadway — and has for years. I’ve reported it in the past as per suggestions above, as well as to a neighbor on the community board. The answer is that there isn’t a nearby catch basin and therefore nothing can be done.

    6. Eleanor Seepes says:

      i AGREE, BARBARA. My complaints to the district office have resulted in nothing. Now I wrote to the main person in charge of this program. With photos!!!
      The work they do with taxpayer money is a disgrace.

      I would be pleased to work with you on this project.

    7. Florence Libin says:


    8. Grace L says:

      Thank you fro this. I don’t understand who almost every lowered crosswalk gets flooded.

    9. George Hannigan, Architect says:

      Meanwhile curb cuts are a death sentence for blind people. If you didn’t know that, ask a blind person.
      Can’t find one? That’s because they can’t leave their home because curb cuts have made it impossible to tell where the sidewalk ends and the road begins.
      And if you think those textured rectangles at curb cuts are enough to warn a blind person that they’re about to step into the street, close your eyes and try to find it.
      Good luck. (Thanks Peter Seymour for making me aware of this problem.)

      • Bob Lamm says:

        Wow. I have a close friend who’s blind. He’s lived in Manhattan for decades. He goes everywhere–with his cane–on his own. I’m delighted to say that he’s not dead. I can believe that curb cuts are a problem for some or even many people who are blind. I’ll ask my friend. But your “death sentence” language seems way off.

        • Bob Lamm says:

          Comment #2. I’ve now spoken to my friend who is blind. I read him Mr. Hannigan’s comment. My friend said curb cuts “can be helpful” and “can be challenging” for people who are blind. Sometimes they can be too smooth, so you don’t know where the sidewalk ends and the street begins. He said he knows “no one” who is housebound because of curb cuts. (He’s is involved with various groups and organizations for people who are blind or have visual impairments.) He added that curb cuts are definitely not a “death sentence” for people who are blind.

    10. UWS roller says:

      As the caretaker of a wheelchair-bound individual, I thank and applaud the writer of this excellent article, Barbara Adler.

      I would like to point out another problem, in this case with curb cuts in general, for those who require them to cross the street.

      The reason for their necessity is clearly accessibility for those who need it, yet just spend some time watching how people in general approach corners to cross the street. Able bodied (to the naked eye) individuals seem to directly funnel to the curb cuts and completely block access, leaving with those wheelchairs, strollers, walkers and crutches jockeying for position. Yet, steps away, there are wide swaths of regular curb empty.

      Seriously…..just watch almost any corner for a while. It must be human nature, an unconscious response to a silent visual clue suggesting that this is where you should go to cross the street. But really, no; it’s where people who have trouble negotiating a curb need to go.

      Please be aware. Thank you!

      • Carlos says:

        Great point. I will admit that I was an oblivious offender. Then I started pushing a stroller around and I became very aware of this issue as people would walk three across through the curb cuts while I stood in the street trying to get up on the sidewalk.

        My stroller days are now over (until I get grandkids in 20+ years!) but I have learned from this experience and steer clear of the curb cuts so that those who really need them can benefit from them.

        The people who do this only rival those who block sidewalks and subway platforms while slowing down to check the texts on their phones. There should be a law about texting while walking – if the MTA fined everyone who did this on a subway platform or the stairs out of a station $100, their budgetary woes would be over!

    11. Amy Lang says:

      Nice to know that by the time I am 83, the existing problems with curb cuts will be resolved; just in time, to begin again, unless the city actually deals with the curb cuts rather than simply dumping a bunch of asphalt in the curb pit–which, in my quite extensive experience living with a wheelchair, lasts about a year. Meantime, I guess we’re just expected to risk life and limb.

    12. Ben David says:

      Thank you, this is a VERY important issue that deserves coverage!

    13. Sandra says:

      Accurate description of curb overflow. Now I will call 311

    14. James says:

      I have always wondered why these curbs aren’t pre-fabricated so that they can be one solid piece that is less susceptible to deterioration as the roads and sidewalks around them shift. I do not see the value of a custom curb being created at every single cross-walk throughout the city.

      Secondly, I often wonder why the curb cuts only occur in a very narrow portion of the intersection. Just think how many times we undoubtedly step around the curb-cut / apron and simply step up onto the sidewalk when there is crowding or flooding. I don’t understand why the curb cut cannot track around the entire intersection. This is certainly not an ADA concern since you see other examples of this around the city and country, and also because striping and other materials can still be used regardless of how long the curb-cut is.

    15. Cato says:

      Fourteen years to make curb cuts is indeed outrageous. The problem is that the need is being presented as one for the benefit of pedestrians. Clearly the key is to convince the City that the curb cuts are needed for *bicyclists* — that way the curb cuts will appear virtually overnight, as the bicycle lanes did.

    16. Eleanor Seepes says:

      Everyone who sees a badly reconstructed corner crossing esulting from this work by the city should speak up: flooding, deep puddles not sa ge for elders, baby carriages, wheelchairs, canes and wheeled carts, citizens with braces and casts on feet and legs. Serious splashing by passing vehicles. Iced puddles that are slippery and dangerous. Puddles that spread to bike lanes.

      Let me know for my own report–or to Barbara Adler.

    17. AC says:

      The flooding and ponding water that develops at pretty much all crosswalks along Broadways results from DOT’s inability to oversee their re-paving operations.

      Every few years, you’ll see entire neighborhoods get their existing road pavement removed (milling machines are used at night). After removing the material, new asphalt material is installed and paved. The error is that survey/elevation shots are not being taken to allow proper asphalt thickness, while STILL allowing for proper drainage. Every time it rains, the same areas flood over and over (at least over the past 15 years).

      DOT uses a subcontractor to do the work, but they are not properly being supervised. Elevation shots should be taken along the curb to the nearest curb drain to ensure that water flows away from the street.

      Installing curb cuts without addressing the drainage issue will only compound the problem, as seen from the pics above.

    18. Scott says:

      I didn’t vote for the great progressive who paid only $7,100 in property taxes a couple years ago and puts his friends and cronies on the government payroll. But I bet a lot of the people complaining here did.

      • Parker says:

        Dude, you’re obviously in the wrong thread. HR 620. Thank god you boys lost that one.

        • Scott says:

          Oh we have a fan of the trial lawyers on the thread.

          I’m not generally a supporter of slip and fall lawsuits, but clearly you are. So if the Republicans are trying to rein in the trial lawyers, that’s probably a good thing. These vultures destroy businesses.

          Maybe you forgot that it was a Republican president who signed the ADA into law.

          • Parker says:

            Nah, that was a nonsense justification to gut the enforcement mechanisms of the ADA. Business owners and property developers have complained loud and often that ADA compliance undercuts their profits and adds regulatory burdens.

            The ADA already allows for a party to recover fees and costs for frivolous filings – so it was pretty clear what the intent of the legislation was. And who it meant to benefit. And it sure wasn’t the disabled.

            • Bob Lamm says:

              Yes, the ADA was signed into law by a Republican president, the late George H.W. Bush. And a crucial figure in the enactment of the ADA was a Republican senator, Bob Dole. That was a lifetime ago. Does anyone believe that the current, ultra-reactionary Republican Party would do anything for any person in the U.S. with a disability? No, they bow instead to a president who publicly mocked someone with a disability.

    19. MB/UWSer says:

      This is a great article! Thank you for sharing this information. When I moved here nine years ago, this stood out like the blaring sun – the magnitude of this vulnerability for residents (and visitors) in a city known as a major ‘walking city’.

      Finally…….conversation, acknowledgement.

    20. Peter says:

      Didn’t our local councilor,Ms Rosenthal publish a statement recently on how much money had been spent on improving the curbs.Something like 100 million dollars if memory serves.I agree with Ms Adler,the tarring done on the corners of Colombus Ave between W86th and W96th are still dangerous and recent rains result in pooling forcing pedestrians to leave the pedestrian crossing.So the socalled repair work is a farce.How can we spend so much money with such poor results?

    21. Andy says: