The City of Chicago’s efforts to make intersections accessible to blind pedestrians are moving at a snail’s pace, according to city records.
Last March, the Chicago Department of Transportation said it plans to install about 150 accessible pedestrian signals in 2022 and 2023. So far, only nine of those signals are actually up and running, and only eight are new, as one of these installations it was an update to an earlier signal.
Only 33 of the 2,846 signs the city maintains have an accessible pedestrian sign, or APS. That’s why Chicago is still coping a class action lawsuit for its failure to make intersections accessible to Chicago’s approximately 65,000 visually impaired residents.
“I want to go places. I want to be independent. I don’t want to depend on other people,” said Ann Brash, a lead plaintiff in that lawsuit.
“I am afraid to cross the streets. The pandemic has actually heightened that feeling because I, for one, have lost a lot of the blinding abilities that I had before the pandemic,” Brash said. “You have to do them every day to keep up to date.”
Brash and other advocates say accessible pedestrian signs are the answer.
When a blind pedestrian reaches an accessible intersection, they press a button. An audio prompt tells you to wait until it’s safe to cross the street, and an arrow helps pedestrians find their way around. An audio alert is triggered when it’s time to cross.
In the absence of APS, blind pedestrians instead listen for traffic parallel to them to start moving, indicating a green light and a pass signal.
But in a noisy environment like Chicago, listening for parallel traffic isn’t a safe bet.
“There are so many other things going on,” Brash said. “You have musicians on the street, you have ‘L’ trains and you have people talking, so it’s very difficult.”
WTTW News first spoke to Ann Brash in March of last yearwhen a judge allowed the accessible signals lawsuit to go forward as a class action.
At the time, the Chicago Department of Transportation said it planned to install about 150 accessible pedestrian signals in 2022 and 2023. Since then, CDOT says it has added only nine, one of which was an upgrade to an existing signal. He says there are more than 150 crossings where APS is in development.
The city declined to comment on the ongoing litigation, but in a statement regarding the pace of APS installations, a CDOT spokesperson told WTTW News, “The City of Chicago fully recognizes the importance of accessible pedestrian signals. The pace of APS installation is affected by the current intersection configuration, complexity and conditions, as well as long material lead times and supply chain challenges.”
“The city didn’t have time to invest in accessible pedestrian signs,” said attorney Jelena Kolic of Disability Rights Advocates, which represents the plaintiffs. They filed a motion asking the judge to rule without trial.
“We are very confident that the court will rule in our favor and once it does, we hope to be able to negotiate a proper corrective plan with the city,” Kolic said.
The city also asked the judge to rule without trial. In a court filing, city attorneys argue that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires only “meaningful” access for blind pedestrians, not universally available accessible signs.
“The city seems to have taken a stand that if a blind person can cross the street in any way, then it’s okay,” Kolic said. “And that’s something we disagree with.”
Even the Justice Department disagrees. She filed a lawsuit in support of the plaintiffs. In a court filing, federal attorneys call Chicago’s complement of accessible signals “appallingly small.” They also detail the city’s 15-year history of announcing big plans to install APS that failed to materialize – a failure Brash calls “extremely disappointing.”
The city’s fight against the cause hasn’t been cheap either.
Records obtained by WTTW News show Chicago has spent more than $1.6 million on outside attorneys to date. Based on the Department of Transportation’s cost estimates, that money could have paid for up to 32 new accessible signals.
“It just seems like this is the right thing to do, and other cities are doing it,” Brash said.
These cities include New York, where Kolic’s colleagues won a similar fight in 2020.
“The result of that lawsuit was a remedial plan committing New York City to upgrade approximately 75 percent of its reported intersections to include ODA within the next decade, with the remainder to be completed over time,” Kolic said. “Hopefully we have a remediation plan here too that commits the city to doing the right thing.”
The battle is deeply personal for Brash, who was almost hit by a bus several years ago when she started crossing a street at the wrong time.
“I don’t know a sighted person who would gladly cross a street without a traffic light,” Brash said. “This will give us an equal footing with sighted people in this respect. And that’s what we want.”
Note: This story will be updated with the video.