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If we have no money and a million potholes, why are we putting "non-slip corners" on sidewalks?
September 17, 2009

Dear Cecil:

In a time of budget shortfalls and crumbling streets, why is the city putting in plastic non-slips pads on the sidewalks at intersections around town? It wouldn't surprise me if they're legally mandated, but you'd think they could just do a concrete version and save money.

— W.M., via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil replies:

This may sound like a workaday topic. On the contrary — it's a first-rate Chicago tale. For a proper appreciation, however, we'd better start off slow:

(1) The city is rebuilding the sidewalks, as you suspect, because it's legally required to. Specifically, it agreed to a settlement before a federal judge.

(2) What you're seeing aren't non-slip corners. The technical term is "detectable warning surfaces." They're a key element in what lawyers, architects and such refer to as ADA ramps.

(3) ADA = Americans with Disabilities Act, from which we deduce that ADA ramps are intended to benefit the disabled. The detectable warning surfaces are meant to help pedestrians with impaired vision. The bumps underfoot let them know when they're approaching a street.

Sounds pretty cut and dried, no? Wait till you hear the whole story. Here's a little teaser: Those plastic pads are part of an ingenious plan to help the city be virtuous, and the Teeming Millions can pitch in. 

 The tale begins in 2005, when a group of disabled Chicagoans sued the city for failing to comply with ADA accessibility guidelines, which among other things require sidewalk ramps when streets are rebuilt. The suit contended that the city built cruddy ramps — too steep or otherwise noncompliant with the guidelines.

Do not, said the city. And even if, hypothetically, we ever did, we'll never build a cruddy ramp again, and we don't need federal oversight to hold us to it.

Federal district court judge Wayne Andersen said fine, let's see how you manage during 2006. Two major projects that year were the rebuilding of stretches of Chicago and Fullerton avenues. In July the judge toured Chicago Avenue with a squad of city lawyers and technical experts. Number of newly built ADA ramps: oodles. Number compliant with the guidelines: zero. (Too steep, mostly.)

Huh, said the city. Tell you what. From here on out we'll honest to God comply with the guidelines and we mean it.

In August the lawyers and experts went out to look at another ADA ramp on Fullerton. It looked too steep. Indeed — well, I get different stories on this. To hear the plaintiffs tell it, it looked like something you'd hesitate to perch at the top of with helmet and skis. The city was of the view that it wasn't so bad. City engineers produced a level previously used by the M.C. Escher Construction Company to build the Leaning Tower of Pisa. See? said the city, placing the level on the ramp, where it indicated a modest slope. No problem!

The plaintiffs got out their own level. This showed the ramp was not, in fact, compliant, but rather was considerably steeper than ADA guidelines allowed. 

The city's architect was then observed to have yet another level. When placed on the ramp, it confirmed the slope was too steep.

The city at this point had the choice of (a) arguing that Fullerton Avenue was one of those anomalous localities, like the Mystery Spot of St. Ignace, where the laws of physics only erratically applied, or (b) throwing in the towel. Here we need to give these guys some credit.  The administration of Richard J. Daley conceivably might have held out for (a). The administration of Richard M., however, decided the time had come to get right with God. In 2007 the parties agreed to a settlement in which the city promised to:

  • Spend $18 million annually on ADA-compliant sidewalk ramps for the next five years;

  • Spend an additional $10 million annually to redo noncompliant ramps built previously, for a total of $140 million ($10 million + $18 million Χ 5).

The five years will be up in 2012. Till then, judging from the results to date, we're going to see such prodigies of ramp building as haven't been witnessed since construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza. The city installed 8,600 ramps in 2007, 10,100 in 2008, and in 2009 … well, just 886 so far. However, I'm assured thousands more ramps are in progress and the annual total will be comparable to those of earlier years. (If you're wondering how many rampworthy sidewalks there are in Chicago, the best guess is well over 100,000.)

The ramps I've inspected personally have been masterpieces of the sidewalk finisher's art, built under a regimen that's intricate even by city standards, involving numerous steps and many days. That can't be said of all the ramps, some of which are falling to pieces. (The plastic-mat version of a detectable warning surface supposedly holds up better than the poured-in-place kind, but as you can see, this is another of those technologies where much remains to be learned. I'm told the contractors are on the hook to fix the ramps that break.) Knowing the public spiritedness of this column's readers, Ted Woerthwein, attorney for the plaintiffs, asks that the Teeming Millions do two things if they see a messed-up ADA ramp. First, call the city at 311 to report it. Second, if that produces no results, e-mail him at ted@wamlaw.com. The city says it wants to do right by the disabled, and we ordinary folk must do our best to help. 

 — Cecil Adams
 

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