Los Angeles may be the land of the freeway, but it is notorious for its bad sidewalks — buckled, cracked and sometimes impassable. By the city's own estimate, 42% of its 10,750 miles of pedestrian paths are in disrepair.
Now a series of civil-rights lawsuits against Los Angeles and other California cities is for the first time focusing attention — and money — on a problem that decades of complaining, heated public hearings and letter-writing campaigns could not.
The lawsuits were filed by disabled people who say broken sidewalks make it impossible for them to get around and seek repairs or improvements. The plaintiffs contend that the conditions violate the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, a tool that has been used across the country to force better access at restaurants, department stores, movie theaters and the like.
The tactics are already paying off. In the biggest sidewalk-related settlement in California, the California Department of Transportation in 2009 agreed to spend $1.1 billion over 30 years to fix state-controlled sidewalks, crosswalks and park-and-ride facilities.
Sacramento settled a similar case by agreeing to allocate 20% of its annual transportation fund over the next 30 years to make repairs and install ramps.
In Los Angeles, the city has settled two cases for about $85 million. That money will be used over the next two decades to build thousands of sidewalk access ramps at curbs.
But there are four other cases pending that could leave the city on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars.
Fixing all of Los Angeles' sidewalks would be a daunting task: Officials estimate the cost of improving them all would top $1.5 billion. But advocates for the disabled hope they can make a measurable dent in the problem.
"The city has never developed a comprehensive plan to address this issue, even when economic times were good," said Surisa Rivers, an attorney with the L.A.-based Disability Rights Legal Center. "Such failure hasn't been a story about the city's inability to finance disability access, but the lack of political will to do so."
The campaign is being led by the disabled but is also winning support from advocates of alternative transportation. They argue the city spends far too much fixing roads and not enough making L.A. a more walkable place.
"We need to think of our streets as a place that we move people not just in their car, but on their feet, on a bike and on a bus," said Deborah Murphy, founder of L.A. Walks. "That's our public space…our streets are where we get together."
There is little dispute that the sidewalks are an embarrassment. But some officials question what the city can do when it already faces a $72-million budget shortfall.
"We got at this point because the city is not invested in its infrastructure," said Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who added that the problem is difficult to solve because "there is no money."
Disabled residents like 53-year-old Brent Pilgreen say bad sidewalks mean they are effectively unable to safely leave the block they live on. Pilgreen, who is quadriplegic and uses a motorized wheelchair, is a plaintiff in one of the cases.
"I can't make it north, south, east or west to any commercial business without having to go through some sort of gantlet or ride in the street and compete with cars," he said.
As a test, Pilgreen recently embarked on an arduous journey to the Denny's a few blocks from his home in Sherman Oaks. Even with a few recent improvements to the sidewalks, he couldn't make it because of a metal sign pole stuck in the middle of the path.
"If I want to go out of my house ... If I want to go up to the corner and buy an ice cream or anything, a soda pop, I can't go there," he said. "I have to have a secondary person with me to spot me and prevent me from falling."
City lawyers believe they can successfully defend against the lawsuits.
While repairing and maintaining roads has long been the duty of City Hall, the responsibility for sidewalks has a more murky history. Decades ago L.A. homeowners had to directly pay for their sidewalks through an assessment process.
That lasted until 1973, when residents complained and the City Council assumed responsibility for needed repairs because of damage from tree roots. Money for that work quickly ran out and officials have tried to reinstate the previous practices with little success, often maintaining that property owners already own the sidewalks and are responsible for repairs.
Nazario Sauceda, head of the Bureau of Street Services, said that for several years his department has received no funding for permanent sidewalk repair, which can cost $250,000 to $300,000 per mile.
Instead, city workers mostly rely on temporary measures: pothole-repair trucks dumping hot asphalt on cracks and breaks in the concrete pavement. But that can be an obstacle in itself because the asphalt creates protruding black bumps that are difficult to navigate in a wheelchair.
The sidewalks in Judy Griffin's West L.A. neighborhood are in such bad shape that she often rides her wheelchair in the street because she refuses to be sequestered in her home.
But it isn't easy. She has tipped over on Westwood Boulevard while trying to get to a physical therapy appointment, was struck by a motorist who didn't see her crossing an intersection, has powered through low-hanging branches and has fought seemingly endless battles with City Hall to improve the sidewalk on her own street.
Griffin said she often feels like a second-class citizen and is frustrated that city officials are not more empathetic to those with disabilities and have bigger projects in mind than fixing sidewalks and curbs.
"They're not sensitive to it and they have other priorities," said Griffin, who is a plaintiff along with Pilgreen in a class-action suit. "It's very easy to go for the big gold, to go for the stadium, rather than patch up the sidewalks for people you don't value."