Fix Atlanta’s sidewalks!
If you live, work or play in Atlanta, you’ve probably tripped or fallen on a broken sidewalk. Not surprising, since the estimated cost of repairing broken sidewalks and curb ramps exceeds $1 billion.
Atlanta’s elected officials express strong support for sidewalk maintenance. Yet they’ve done little to back their words with the necessary funding, policies, and accountability.
Indeed, the problem is so bad – and the solutions so slow in coming – that people who use wheelchairs are suing the city for violating their right to equal access to the city’s sidewalks.
Atlanta’s sidewalk maintenance policy is as busted as its sidewalks.
A big part of the problem is Atlanta’s sidewalk policy, which makes individual property owners responsible for repairing sidewalks.
The law is unfair, politically unpopular and nearly impossible to enforce – so much so that the Department of Public Works no longer tries. The policy serves primarily as an excuse for doing nothing.
In early 2018, District 2 City Councilmember Amir Farokhi introduced an ordinance that will require Atlanta to pay for sidewalk repairs the same way it does for potholes: with tax dollars.
Excellent first step, but the City Council is unlikely to vote on the bill until after the city determines a funding resource.
Show sidewalks the money!
Atlanta’s annual budget allocates less than $500,000 to routine sidewalk maintenance, which doesn’t come close to meeting the cost of annual disintegration, which Public Works estimates at $20 million.
Even the Renew Atlanta program – which focuses on infrastructure maintenance – allocates little to sidewalk repairs.
In 2014 the proposed project list earmarked $40 million to sidewalk maintenance and $35 million to curb ramps. But by the time the referendum went to voters in 2015, those sidewalk dollars had vanished; allocation for curb ramps was cut to just $5 million.
And in 2017, Renew Atlanta reneged on repeated promises to make sidewalk maintenance a part of all road resurfacing projects.
Transparency matters, especially when it comes to money
How much is Atlanta investing to address the backlog of broken sidewalks? And what is it investing in? No one knows, and officials at the city’s DPW have done little to find out.
In a 2009 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, the City of Atlanta agreed to install curb ramps on all streets than had been resurfaced since the Americans with Disabilities Act went into effect in 1992.
Eight years have passed since the 2012 deadline, but the city has accomplished little to date.
“Atlanta is not violation of the  agreement, as it is ongoing,” a city spokesperson said. “The City continues to cooperate with DOJ by reporting its progress on an annual basis.” Really? Show us the data.
Atlanta’s sidewalk closure policy is excellent. Compliance isn’t.
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. To address this problem, Public Works must:
- Create an easily searchable database
- Provide educational materials that inform contractors about legal requirements
- Increase permit fees and dedicate the funds to site inspection
- Inspect construction sites and enforce requirements
Road work signs belong in the street, not on sidewalks.
Road work signs that block sidewalks or put people at risk of whacking their heads are common in Atlanta. Adding insult to injury, many signs are located in places where no road work is happening.
The signs violate federal guidelines and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices states that neither portable nor permanent sign supports should be located on sidewalks or bicycle facilities.
Public Works officials encourage people to call 311 to report signs that block sidewalks. The problem is systemic, so relying on residents to play whac-a-mole is not a solution.
Please take photos and ask your City Council representatives to require Public Works to educate city crews and contractors, monitor signs, enforce regulations, and fine violators.
City of Atlanta faces class-action lawsuit
Wheelchair users recently sued the City of Atlanta for its systemic failure to maintain sidewalks that are equally accessible to people with disabilities. The city’s violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act are flagrant, and the lawsuit has been a long time coming.
Increasingly, courts have become the primary venue for forcing cities to make sidewalks accessible to all users.
- Los Angeles settled an ADA class-action lawsuit in 2015 by agreeing to invest $1.4 billion over 30 years to build curb ramps and fix dilapidated sidewalks.
- A decade earlier, Sacramento settled an ADA lawsuit by assigning 20 percent of all transportation spending to improving sidewalks, crosswalks and curb ramps for the next 30 years.
- During 2017 and 2018, Portland and Seattle reached settlements for $113 million and $194 million respectively.
- New York City currently faces a similar lawsuit.
PEDS is not a plaintiff. Yet we’re grateful to those with disabilities who have the courage and tenacity to move Atlanta toward a future where sidewalks and curb ramps will get some long-overdue attention.
The lawsuit doesn’t seek compensation for plaintiffs. Instead, it aims to force Atlanta to modify its practices, install curb ramps and fix broken sidewalks. That’s the kind of concrete action steps we need.
The lawsuit also seeks to compel Atlanta to comply with ADA requirements for safe pedestrian access in construction zones.
The likely outcomes will benefit everyone, not only people with disabilities. If you’ve ever tripped on a broken sidewalk or seen a parent lifting a baby stroll over a curb, a child learning to ride a bicycle, or someone struggling with heavy luggage, you know that.
A settlement may take years of negotiation, but we’re optimistic the outcome will resolve what might otherwise remain an intractable problem.
Onward and upward.