Pedestrian advocate’s injury in Buckhead hospital zone is same old unsafe story
By John Ruch
I knew that one day I would be writing about Buckhead street safety advocate James Curtis being run down in his wheelchair on Peachtree Road. The relatively good news is that it’s a story of broken teeth and bones, and not an obituary – this time.
For years, I’ve visited Curtis on that stretch of Peachtree to see broken and blocked sidewalks, despite it being home to the Shepherd Center rehab hospital, Piedmont Atlanta Hospital and other medical facilities. So have other journalists, not to mention attorneys who at one point helped to file an Americans With Disabilities Act lawsuit. Yet the fundamentally stupid road infrastructure remains – even the lack of the no-brainer of a lower speed limit and flashing beacons at hospital crosswalks sprawling across five to seven lanes.
Two weeks ago, I dutifully met Curtis there to take a photo of the crosswalk where he was hit on Feb. 13, and he dutifully pointed out the usual street stupidity. Some of the sidewalks are in better shape these days, but the real difference is that Curtis was still feeling too unwell from the collision to take me on the usual tour of shame. He’d had front teeth replaced and was healing from a busted nose and ribs, while trying to get a new wheelchair.
“Shepherd Center is a world-class catastrophic [care] hospital,” said Curtis, as he has many times before. “There are people with mobility issues who use these sidewalks and we don’t need it to be a Formula One race track. We need to be a safe place for everybody to use.”
Curtis volunteers at the Shepherd Center, which for literally decades has advocated for better sidewalk and pedestrian safety conditions. “The speeds and levels of distraction at which people drive in both directions in front of Shepherd Center along Peachtree Road pose a significant risk to drivers and pedestrians, and especially to those who use wheelchairs and mobility aids to attend appointments at Shepherd Center and surrounding medical facilities,” says spokesperson Kerry Ludlam, adding that sidewalk disrepair is another big issue.
On the other hand, the Shepherd Center itself is blocking and destroying sidewalks at a residential tower construction site a few blocks south – the sort of head-spinning irony that abounds in the corridor.
Ludlam says that the construction is following “all regulations” and eventually will build better sidewalks than existed before. This raises the question of the sanity of regulation writers.
Josh Rowan, the former commissioner of the Atlanta Department of Transportation, was one of the few officials who took a deep interest in Curtis’ complaints and eventually befriended him. Rowan said it’s “insane” that Curtis has now been struck four times in the corridor – and in a prominent crosswalk.
“James was doing everything right and still got smacked,” Rowan said. “He played this one by the book and still got hit. So something’s missing or something’s not right. The book isn’t complete.”
The City and the Georgia Department of Transportation, which have traditionally pointed fingers at each other over sidewalk and street conditions in the corridor, did not respond to questions this time.
Indeed, the Shepherd Center was the only institutional or real estate authority in the area that would answer specific questions.
Directly across from the rehab hospital, Transwestern is building a medical office tower at 2021 Peachtree. The work has torn up a sidewalk on Brookwood Valley Circle, which remains blocked and under reconstruction. In mere minutes, I saw several pedestrians – two in wheelchairs – forced to travel in the road on their way to the hospital. The project also had a large spool of cable sitting on the Peachtree sidewalk for over a year, according to Curtis. It is still visible on a Google Street View image from January. Transwestern did not respond to a comment request.
Piedmont’s new-ish Marcus Tower at Peachtree and Collier roads includes one of the finest new sidewalks in the area. But a crosswalk across the main driveway was largely worn away. A new ER driveway is much better marked than the previous version, but also – like virtually every corner in the area – is built with a curve to allow vehicles to enter at speed and in pedestrians’ blind spots. As I watched the entrance, a woman – apparently a nurse – guided a group of pedestrians, one using a wheelchair, and told them to stop with extra caution because of that design.
A hospital spokesperson would not answer questions about those conditions or even if its nurses have been hit while crossing the street, as Curtis has heard. Instead, she emphasized the double-wide new sidewalk. “We gave special consideration in the design of our Marcus Tower to pedestrians, particularly those with mobility challenges,” she said.
Elsewhere, there are still plenty of broken and decaying sidewalks and other bizarre design choices. Across from the Marcus Tower’s fine new pathway is an old Chick-fil-A drive-thru lane that goes right through a strange dogleg in the sidewalk with no type of crosswalk. Across from Shepherd Center, there are still utility poles deep within the sidewalk – a GDOT move explained as preventing cars from hitting them. At the intersection where Curtis was hit, the Peachtree Valley crosswalk is paved over and the northern side of the Peachtree intersection doesn’t have one at all.
This is the part of the story where I note the City’s general concern for pedestrian safety. A new infrastructure bond will help sidewalk improvements around town, and the City just scored a federal grant for pedestrian safety devices – including crossing beacons – for bike infrastructure on Pryor Street and Central Avenue. And the City just launched a survey and public meetings for its “Vision Zero Action Plan,” intended to reduce or eliminate pedestrian deaths.
Nonetheless, the Peachtree hospital corridor has been in the news and lawsuits for years. I needed a 20-minute walk to see a bunch of obvious problems that could be fixed in under six months. An underlying problem is simply attitudinal – pedestrians are viewed as flexible, if not disposable, and drivers are not. Rowan says a classic engineering approach is that pedestrians can just go down the block to a functional sidewalk or crossing. As the disabled community has long known, it’s a second-class-citizen approach that is a safety issue only because first, it’s a civil rights issue.
“Considering that 8 percent of the population of Atlanta is a disabled person under the age of 65, the continued failure of the city to prioritize access and safety for disabled people is outrageous,” said Dom Kelly, founder of New Disabled South, when I told him about Curtis’s collision.
“Sidewalk and crosswalk accessibility is crucial to those of us with disabilities, but it also helps every single person regardless of disability status,” Kelly said, adding that priorities are clear in budgeting, suggesting that $30 million could go to pedestrian safety “rather than in a Cop City that nobody asked for.”
Other constituencies, including commercial property owners, have been far more politically effective in advocating a car-first approach – most notably in 2017, when their pressure killed a GDOT proposal for bike lanes on that stretch of Peachtree, as recalled by Rebecca Serna, executive director of the bike and pedestrian advocacy group Propel ATL. She said that plan was “anemic” but at least would have buffered the sidewalk from traffic.
“The best way to prevent deaths and injuries in all modes of transportation is to build safer street infrastructure,” Serna said. “… As development continues along Peachtree, our signature corridor, we have to make different choices to get different results.”
She suggests a slower speed zone and safety changes. Rowan agrees, as does Curtis himself.
“This is a hospital zone, and the hospital zone should be treated like a school zone,” Curtis said, suggesting a 20 mph speed limit and high-visibility lights and cones.
I think it’s more likely that I’ll be writing another injury story before that happens. A couple weeks after Curtis was struck, someone drove onto the Peachtree Valley sidewalk, uprooting a tree and a lamppost. This is the part where I’d usually say it will take someone dying for a major change, but I don’t believe even that is true. “Nope,” agrees Rowan.
There’s too much following of minimal regulations, whether they make sense or not. Too many good intentions overriding what you can see walking or rolling down the street. Too many governments listening to the wrong constituents.
Safety is as safety does, and right now there’s only one person with a solid plan for innovative infrastructure – the strobes Rowan will help wire onto Curtis’s motorized wheelchair once a replacement for the collision-totaled version arrives.
“I told James, we’re gonna light you up like a Christmas tree,” he said.
I thought Buckhead was just the City of Atlanta? Isn’t it the City of Atlanta’s fault for not enforcing codes and traffic laws or properly maintaing streets and sidewalks? Did you get a comment from Mayor Dickens’ office? Buckhead isn’t its own city, so it can’t fix the problems you cite.Report
I think that what needs to happen is routine acts of civil disobedience, legally done of course. Get a permit to block an intersection in that zone for what the city would say is the average amount of time that it takes to clean up the mess from an accident. Have wheelchairs, nurses, other hospital workers sit IN THE STREET (because these accidents happen in the street) because the accidents themselves block the thoroughfare. Have the mayor, news channels, other elected officials show up. Done routinely will show that stupid driving blocks intersections routinely. Drastic situations require drastic measures.Report
When a couple of mobility advocates organized “Roll A mile On Our Wheels” in October 2019, City Hall, City Council, public servants and others all left with a much needed and much deeper understanding of mobility.
Then came the promises from these elected officials and then-Commissioner Rowan who pledged to personally attend to getting these problems fixed on the Peachtree Street sidewalk corridor, particularly north from the I-85 overpass for about a mile.
Here we are in 2023 and nothing has been done.
Regretfully, there’s a long, long way to go across this field of broken promises.
Worse is the uncertain future for wheeldestrians and all able- and differently-abled pedestrians in the city of Atlanta.Report