By Maggie Lee
Up on Peachtree Road on a sticky July morning, the sign at the Darlington Apartments already read 87 degrees a little after 10:30. James Curtis was on the sidewalk about a block up, alongside northbound traffic, eyeballing a work crew off the side of the road up ahead.
He pointed to a broken-up patch of sidewalk at his feet that had filled with sandy dirt.
That could stop an electric wheelchair, said Curtis.
On just a few blocks to the north of the Shepherd Center where he volunteers in several departments, Curtis pointed out a half-dozen other obstacles that make it hard or dangerous to get by for folks who use mobility aids. There are cracks that could catch a wheelchair’s small front wheel, tip it over, throw out its user. There’s broken pavement and commercial driveways that plow slopes through unmarked crosswalks.
Karen DeVault, a peer liaison and research assistant at the center, pointed out more hinderances in the other direction. A ramp that angles away from the crosswalk and toward oncoming traffic. A construction sign blocking the sidewalk, more wide cracks, steep curb cuts. And an open metal hole that looked like it probably holds a water meter. It had a cone over it, though all that was visible inside was trash and remnants of its broken cover.
Both DeVault and Curtis rely on wheelchairs, as do many of the patients at Shepherd, which specializes in spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation as well as medical research.
As unfitting as it is to run into barriers right outside Shepherd and its neighbor Piedmont Atlanta Hospital, Curtis, DeVault and others say it’s similar elsewhere.
Curtis, who lives just above Peachtree Battle, said that if you can’t walk, you get left behind.
“I have to a lot of times be creative, think of alternative ways,” Curtis said, back in the cool lobby of Shepherd, after he peeled off the black gloves he wore to wheel his chair out on the dusty sidewalk.
“It’s not just getting from A to B in the shortest way possible, it’s getting from A to B in the safest way possible and a lot of times it’s very time-consuming and very exhausting,” said Curtis.
DeVault drank down her to-go coffee some and put a lid on it before going out, rather than have her drink slosh out over the sidewalk bumps.
The sidewalk around there is typical, said DeVault, who lives in Midtown.
“I have to be alert all the time because it only takes a second of me moving at a relatively fast pace … what you would consider speed walking, for my front caster [wheel] to drop off into something and for it to throw me forward in my chair and with that everything in my lap, including my cell phone — so my ability to call for help or anything like that,” she said.
They and others say the city where they pay taxes should do a better job at making sure sidewalks are accessible. But it seems a long way off.
A few years ago, Georgia Tech researchers and volunteers pushed wheelchairs rigged with tablet computers over 1,352 miles of Atlanta sidewalks — more than half the total. They collected video as well as location, vibration and other data to test and calibrate an app that can help public works departments score sidewalk quality, including compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The quality is “not so good,” said professor Randall Guensler, who leads a sidewalk research team at the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, which published a paper on the app and research in 2015.
“But a lot of cities are that way, so you don’t want to just point the finger at Atlanta,” he said.
One of the most common problems in Atlanta is driveways cut through sidewalks so that the sidewalk slope is not even; it angles wheelchairs towards the street. Another big one? Tree roots buckling and breaking those hexagonal pavers that line a lot of older residential streets.
Sidewalks have about a 40-year lifespan, Guensler said, and Atlanta has never actively inspected and managed sidewalks or had a sustainable program for maintaining them.
Guensler’s team also has dozens and dozens of photos of sidewalk problems collected via Sidewalk Scout, an app they created for reporting crowd-sourced complaints of broken sidewalks, unmarked crosswalks, lack of curb cuts, ramps that aren’t flush with the road and other obstructions. Not all the complaints shown in the app are recent, but many are.
Guensler said there are some standout cities like Portland, Oregon and Seattle that look at sidewalks as being integral to their whole transportation program.
In Atlanta, he said, “instead we’ve just kind of kicked the can down the road and said, ‘Well, the property owners can take care of it.’”
In Atlanta, abutting property owners are kind of responsible for sidewalks. If the city budgets money for sidewalk repair, it will do sidewalk repair on a prioritized basis until money is exhausted. Once the city’s money is spent, responsibility reverts to the property owner.
That’s a failure in a couple of ways, according to Sally Flocks. She’s leader of PEDS, or Pedestrians Educating Drivers on Safety, which advocates for safe, accessible, inviting sidewalks and crossings.
“It’s a tremendously unfair [ordinance]; but because they’re not enforcing it, the big losers are people who walk or use wheelchairs or walkers,” she said.
She said some neighborhoods like Virginia Highlands and Brookwood Hills are repairing their sidewalks.
“The wealthy neighborhoods are doing what Public Works should do,” said Flocks. “What they’re doing though, is based on a really flawed concept that the individual … is responsible for sidewalks. But of course not for potholes.”
That is, Atlanta wouldn’t send you a notice to fix a pothole on your street. But technically you could get one for a broken sidewalk in front of your house.
Flocks thinks that sidewalks ought to be considered like streets — a common public space, a common public asset.
She also thinks that few folks are going to pay to repair their own sidewalks if they know that other sidewalks are repaired on the city’s dime.
The city is “going to have trouble if they knock on the house next door and say, ‘Hey we don’t have any money your [sidewalk] is bad, pay up.’ I mean it just totally shows how unfair the whole thing is,” she said.
But it’s unclear how long it will take to clear up the backlog of accessibility works, how many doors the city is knocking on, or how many property owners are being asked to fix their sidewalks.
References to sidewalk spending are scattered throughout budgets and bond project lists. The city acknowledged a request to set up an interview or send comments about spending data, notices to homeowners or its side of the story on sidewalk accessibility. But given more than a week, the city did not provide any comment or arrange an interview.
Atlanta did poorly enough on a federal ADA audit that in 2009 the city and the U.S. Department of Justice signed a settlement agreement that saw the city agree to put good curb cuts along all streets, roads and highways that had been constructed or altered since 1992.
The next year, the city estimated that some 30,000 places needed ADA ramps or work on existing ramps; and that the cost to do that on high-, medium- and low-priority intersections would come to about $52 million.
The same report estimated that clearing the backlog of deteriorated sidewalks would cost $152,603,000. That report recommened putting $15 million in sidewalk maintenance annually.
Guensler said he thinks things are better now than five years ago.
In March 2015, city voters approved the Renew Atlanta bond program. It promised $38 million for high-priority ADA ramp works as required by the DOJ agreement. The project list also includes sidewalk works and so-called “complete streets:” redos of roadways to add wide sidewalks, good transit access and bike lanes.
Then last year, city voters approved a 40-year transportation sales tax. Of that, some $69.6 million is recommended for “sidewalks and streetscapes,” as well as cash for complete street works.
A court document also suggests the city has been spending some sidewalk money, but perhaps not sending out notices.
In November last year, a senior engineer with the Department of Public Works was asked in a court deposition if it sometimes happens that people call and complain about broken sidewalks in front of their homes, only to be told that they have to pay to repair it.
“Here lately, [it happens] zero percent of the time because the city has provided funding over the last few years to complete sidewalk repairs,” said Lawrence Jeter in his deposition in a lawsuit over lack of curb cuts at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Centennial Olympic Park Drive.
As for the DOJ settlement, an agency spokesperson said that the agreement remained open for compliance monitoring until December 2016 and that DOJ closed the matter on Dec. 12, 2016. The spokesperson declined further comment.
(Back up on Peachtree Street, Atlanta has reportedly said that the state must do sidewalk repairs there because it’s a state route. The state, citing Georgia law, says cities are responsible for routine sidewalk maintenance even on state routes.)
But whatever the count or estimate is of backlogged work, it doesn’t take long to find faulty sidewalks in Atlanta. The Shepherd Center prepares people to expect them.
DeVault said the classes teach people how to use wheelchairs, how to understand when a slope is too steep, how to maneuver over broken sidewalks.
“They go out they navigate the sidewalks, they learn how to go up and down the curb cuts, get around areas or ‘hop’ onto the grass because the sidewalk is obstructed, learning how to navigate all of the issues that most wheelchair users run into daily as a result of sidewalks,” she said.
Sooner or later, that might mean rolling in the street too, as dangerous as that is. In fact, Shepherd itself has just set up more offices on a side street near the main center.
The sidewalk on Peachtree Park Drive is wide, smooth, clear — for about a block until it abruptly ends well short of the new center, Curtis pointed out on that hot July morning. The sidewalk on the other side isn’t complete either. Curtis has praise for that one block, but it’s only one.
“Atlanta’s an international city and Peachtree Road is the main artery. Why can I find beautiful sidewalks on side streets and not on Peachtree Road?,” he said.