Skip to main content

Pedestrian Infrastructure Is Key to Mobility for Everyone

In 2020, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a landmark civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all aspects of public life. The ADA requires equal access to employment, education, transportation, and public space, and has become model legislation emulated by countries around the world. Substantial progress has been made in the three decades since its passage, but the unfortunate reality is that many requirements of the ADA, especially at the local level, have not been fully implemented. Nowhere is this truer than on the streets and sidewalks of the Chicago region.

The ADA requires that all pathways in the public right-of-way, such as sidewalks, be accessible to all people, regardless of age or disability. Think about the last time you walked or rolled through your community. Did you come across any access barriers? Maybe a sidewalk that had fallen into disrepair or a missing curb ramp? If you aren’t personally experiencing a disability, you may not even notice the barriers existing all around us.

Pedestrian infrastructure is the bedrock of the transportation system

Virtually every trip begins or ends on foot. If those first or last few steps of a journey are inaccessible, the whole trip becomes difficult or impossible. In Toward Universal Mobility, we included recommendations for improving the pedestrian environment from many perspectives: better sidewalks, pedestrian-friendly land uses, more accessible housing near transit, and better information on where barriers exist.

What’s a transition plan, and why should we care?

The ADA also recognizes the importance of the pedestrian environment, which is why Title II of the act requires that all units of government with 50 or more employees develop a plan to remove physical barriers in their built environment. This is called an ADA transition plan. At a minimum, a transition plan must include five elements:

  1. A designation of the official(s) responsible for the implementation of the transition plan
  2. An inventory of barriers (i.e., identification of physical obstacles to access)
  3. A prioritized schedule of when barriers will be eliminated and deficiencies corrected
  4. A description of the methods that will be used to make facilities accessible
  5. Provision of an opportunity to interested persons, including individuals with disabilities or organizations representing individuals with disabilities, to participate in the development of the transition plan by submitting comments

All of us will experience disability at some point in our lives, either personally or as a caregiver.

Aside from being a legal requirement, communities have a lot to gain by creating and implementing a transition plan, and leave themselves open to considerable risk by failing to do so. As our region ages, the number of people with disabilities will grow. All of us will experience disability at some point in our lives, either personally or as a caregiver. When streets and sidewalks are safe, inviting, and universally accessible, people of all ages and abilities can stay mobile, and actively participate in their communities. A community that enables safe mobility for everyone will improve economic and health outcomes for its residents. Going through the ADA transition planning process with purpose and intention can also be a way to infuse inclusion into a local government’s culture.

The risks of inaction

While the federal government has mostly taken a hands-off approach to enforcement of ADA transition planning, noncompliance is still a gamble. Cities small and large in Illinois have been sued in federal court for not providing accessible infrastructure. Local governments that don’t act risk losing out on future funding opportunities, or worse: losing control of their own capital improvement plans.

A national study that reviewed 401 government entities found that only 13% had transition plans readily available.

The original implementing legislation of the ADA gave governments three years to create and implement a transition plan. That means by 1993, virtually all barriers to access in the public right-of-way should’ve disappeared. Yet, 30 years later, we know that’s not the case. A national study that reviewed 401 government entities found that only 13% had transition plans readily available. We were curious to know what that number would look like for our region. How many communities in Chicagoland have transition plans? And how inclusive and successful are they? Next time, we’ll share the details of our analysis. In short: we’ve got our work cut out for us.

This is the first in a three-part series to share the findings from MPC’s upcoming report titled “Where the sidewalk ends: The state of municipal ADA transition planning for the public right-of-way in the Chicago region.” In Part 1, we talk about the Americans with Disabilities Act, what an ADA transition plan is, and why such a plan is important. In Part 2, we’ll discuss the status of transition planning in our region, what we do well, and where we need to improve. In Part 3, we’ll share resources and recommendations for local governments and community stakeholders who want to begin their ADA transition planning process.