Closed sidewalks: The gap between requirements and reality is glaring.
Development is booming in Atlanta, which bodes well for people who walk. Nothing encourages walking more than having places worth walking to.
Meanwhile, a preventable side effect: People are encountering more and more closed sidewalks in construction zones.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Visit Chicago, for example, and you’ll see a city that provides safe, accessible routes for people who walk or use wheelchairs in construction zones. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. The City provides and enforces detailed rules and regulations for construction in the public right of way.
Likewise in New York City. Ordinances passed in the 1980s and 1990s became catalysts for a boom in “sidewalk sheds” and scaffolding that people in NYC have witnessed during the past 30 years
Atlanta’s policy on sidewalk closures is excellent. Compliance is not.
The epidemic of closed sidewalks in Atlanta takes city practices back nearly two decades.
Approved in 1998, Section 138-67 of the Atlanta Code of Ordinances allows full sidewalk closures only if a party seeking a permit has shown “due diligence” to either leave at least four feet of the right-of-way unobstructed, construct a covered, lighted walkway or use barricades and signage to convert a traffic or parking lane to an ADA-compliant pedestrian lane - and is unable to do so due to “structural necessities of the work to be completed.”
Yet all too often, Public Works has issued permits allowing contractors to close sidewalks simply because a sidewalk exists on the other side of
Of the 131 permits we received in 2016, only 4 included temporary access plans that go beyond installing closed sidewalk signs.
- Three mentioned providing overhead protection
- One confirmed provision of accessible curb ramps
- None referred to providing protected walkways in the road.
From what we can tell, Public Works consistently fails to comply with the law requiring it to show maximum consideration for pedestrian access when permitting sidewalk closures for construction or other purposes.
The gap between requirements and reality is glaring.
1. Public Works lacks an easily searchable database.
It took an Open Records Request and repeated phone calls, emails and nearly 4 months of waiting. But finally Public Works emailed us over 100 scanned, hand-written copies of sidewalk closure permits it had approved. Archaic at best. Public Works does not accept permit applications online, which helps explain the lack of organized records and transparency.
Many permits had expired months earlier, and few contained meaningful maps or sketches showing temporary traffic control plans.
2. Public Works fails to tell contractors about legal requirements.
The permits we received state that “construction barricades and other appropriate traffic control devices shall be placed to inform vehicular and pedestrian traffic of this closure per M.U.T.C.D guidelines and C.O.A. Codes.”
Give us a break. Does Public Works actually expect contractors to scour the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices and the Atlanta Code of Ordinances to determine what traffic control devices are required?
3. Public Works fails to inspect sites or enforce requirements.
Atlanta’s sidewalk ordinance requires permits to be posted at both ends of the closed sidewalk in locations where they are easy for inspectors and members of the public to see and learn when they can expect the sidewalk to reopen.
It also requires contractors to meet signage and barricade requirements and to provide alternate routes that are accessible to all pedestrians.
Signs and permits
In 2016 advocates audited six locations in Midtown where sidewalks are closed. None displayed permits.
Likewise for ADA-compliant signs. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires signs to be cane-detectable and extend across the full width of the sidewalk at both ends of the sidewalk closure.
Sandwich boards or signs on fences don’t cut it. Many locations lacked advance signs altogether. At others, signs had been knocked over and were lying on the ground. Others were posted on fences.
Alternate routes must be accessible to people with disabilities.
If the sidewalk on the other side of the street from the one that is being closed is not accessible to people with physical or visual disabilities, ADA requires barriers to be eliminated before a permit is issued. If doing so is impossible, ADA requires the party receiving the permit to provide free transit or personal assistance 24/7, including on weekends and holidays.
That isn’t happening. On West Peachtree, contractors received a permit to close the sidewalk on the east side between 13th and 14th streets. The sidewalk on the west side is broken, and an enormous tree stump makes it inaccessible to people with disabilities.
Issuing permits without first repairing the sidewalk and ramps or requiring free transit or personal assistance at all times violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.
4. Developers often want to do the right thing – but Public Works officials have refused to allow it.
While the development on the east side of the West Peachtree was still under construction, Balfour Beatty launched a project on the west side of the street.
A representative of Balfour Beatty told us the company had offered to repair the sidewalk at its own expense. It also asked Public Works to close a travel lane while the proposed new sidewalk was under construction. Public Works denied both requests.
5. The current fee structure is part of the problem.
Closing over 300 feet of sidewalk costs just $60 dollars per day. At that rate, closing a 300’ segment of sidewalk for six months costs less than installing scaffolding or building a covered walkway.
State law prevents sidewalk closure fees from exceeding the cost of administering street and sidewalk closures. That’s no excuse for low fees. With higher fees, Public Works could do a far better job administering the program.
Higher fees would enable Public Works to enter data into a management system, map sidewalk closures, increase transparency, routinely inspect conditions in construction zones and issue citations to violators.
The City of Atlanta can do better. It must do better.
Refusing to convert a travel lane to a protected walkway on a 4 or 5-lane one-way street is inexcusable. On a one-way street, a third lane adds little capacity. A fourth or fifth adds none.
Even if it were excusable, failing to require the contractor to repair the sidewalk, grind the tree stump and install curb ramps on the other side of the street is not.
Also inexcusable: putting parked cars, dumpsters, pavers and port-a potties before people.
At many locations, roads are plenty wide to convert a parking or travel lane to a protected walkway. Public Works officials typically refuse. Instead they allow – or at least ignore – that the space is instead filled with parked cars, dumpsters, piles of pavers and even port-a-potties. Need proof: check out Peachtree Place.
The Department of Public Work’ failure to provide safe and convenient facilities in construction zones is unacceptable.
Your voice matters. Demand transparency.
Many cities post information online. Atlanta needs to do the same. People deserve to know:
- Which locations have been authorized for sidewalk closures?
- What are the beginning and end dates for each sidewalk closure permit?
- In locations where a permit has been issued that authorizes closure of the entire sidewalk, why were none of the other options possible?
Please join us in asking Atlanta’s City Council members to take action. It’s past time for Public Works to stop neglecting its responsibilities, ignoring the needs of people who walk and discriminating against people with disabilities.