New curb cuts to improve handicapped access on Falls Road near Mount Washington will get folks only so far.
Say, about 20 feet.
Light poles, street signs and hydrants obstruct the sidewalks, preventing anyone in a wheelchair or walker from continuing very far beyond the aprons of new concrete that blend the sidewalk down into the street.
"When I saw them putting in the curb cuts, I thought, 'Oh, good.' But when the work was done, I thought, 'What's the point? You can't go anywhere,'" said Ben Dubin, an accessibility advocate who lives in Baltimore County.
The Americans With Disabilities Act passed 22 years ago. Its guidelines set a minimum sidewalk width of 36 inches. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials urges 60-inch sidewalks.
But the concrete path beyond the curb cut at Appleby Avenue and Falls Road is squeezed by a light pole and measures just 18 inches wide. At Asbury Road, a street sign shaves the sidewalk down to 32 inches. A fire hydrant in the middle of the sidewalk at Washingtonville Drive reduces the walkway to 26 inches.
Traveling farther south on Falls Road, Smith Avenue lacks curb cuts, but a stone's throw away, Kelly Avenue has them.
"If you don't know the area — and we have clients like that — you might get to the end of a street and you're stuck," said Lauren Young, director of litigation for the Maryland Disability Law Center. "It's horrible. You had no way of knowing you were on a path to nowhere."
Lawsuits elsewhere by handicapped residents have led to settlements in the millions of dollars, from New York City to Los Angeles, and to improved accessibility.
"We're way past the time when you can act like you don't know that," she said. "They know better."
During the repaving of Falls Road after major water main construction, the city Department of Transportation threw in the curb cuts, about eight of them, at $2,000 a pop.
While the road was paved with good intentions, the sidewalks got kicked to the curb, city officials acknowledge.
Kirkland Gabriel, the city's engineer on the project, said the work wasn't intended to be a total reconstruction.
"Sidewalks were not in the scope of the project, and we didn't have the funding," Gabriel said. "If we are putting in sidewalks, we do make them ADA-compliant."
The problem, engineers and Dubin agree, is the road itself.
"Falls Road is very unique, a mixture of business and residential, with so many slopes and grades. We don't have the right-of-way to widen the sidewalks," Gabriel said. "There's almost nothing we can really do."
The curb cuts at least provide access to the side streets, he said.
But Young said that by installing curb cuts, the city altered the sidewalk and now has a legal obligation to upgrade the sidewalk.
"They've only done half the job," she said. "Why can't they expand the sidewalk out toward the street? Pouring a little more concrete isn't that expensive."
Cathy Raggio, secretary of the Maryland Department of Disabilities, said the situation is not unusual.