Atlanta officials participating in the wheelchair tour of sidewalks along Buckhead’s Peachtree Road got quite an education, said those interviewed by the Neighbor.
Organized by advocates for pedestrians and the disabled, especially those who are wheelchair-bound, the Roll a Mile on Our Wheels tour took place Oct. 18 on a one-mile stretch of sidewalks along Peachtree between Collier Road and Terrace Drive. It was organized to raise awareness of the issue of e-scooter use on sidewalks and the lack of infrastructure on city and state streets and sidewalks.
Atlanta City Council members Howard Shook, Felicia Moore, Antonio Brown, Amir Farokhi and Matt Westmoreland participated.
Jim Elgar, the senior policy advisor and community affairs liaison for District 8 Councilman J.P. Matzigkeit’s office, took part on behalf of Matzigkeit, who represents part of Buckhead and was out of town that day. District 54 State Rep. Betsy Holland, D-Atlanta, who represents the part of Buckhead that includes the tour site, also participated.
Josh Rowan, general manager of Renew Atlanta, the city’s the bond program that funds sidewalk repairs, also rode in a wheelchair.
“I had been in a wheelchair before to experiencing going across (a) specific intersection (Sidney Marcus Boulevard at Buford Highway), but this was the first time I was in a chair for a longer (period of) time,” said Shook, who represents the part of Buckhead where the tour took place. “It was just extremely educational. I’m grateful for the opportunity. You learn that even the smallest problem with a sidewalk delivers a big jolt to someone in a wheelchair.”
Moore, the council president, hurt her foot on a brick planter and got stuck in a “ditch” while using a motorized wheelchair on the tour.
“First of all, it was eye-opening and an excellent exercise,” she said. “You can imagine what it’s like, but to actually be in a wheelchair, it’s a whole other story. I found it heartbreaking for those using the manual chairs because a fourth of an inch or a half of an inch in the sidewalk crack made it difficult for them to get over. I was in a motorized chair, and something that small was easy to navigate.
“Even if you’re going over a hole or a depression in the concrete, you want to make sure you don’t tip yourself over. It’s easy to see from driving, it looks so easy, but actually it’s not. You’ve got to be very focused. You’ve got pedestrians, wires hanging from poles and cracks in the sidewalk. My mind wandered off to something else, and I went right into a (gap) in the sidewalk.”
Moore said if a Good Samaritan wasn’t there to help her get out of the hole, she would have had to call 911 to get a first responder to pull her out and then her wheelchair out.
“I found (the experience) to be very dangerous and very daunting,” she said, adding though this part of Atlanta had sidewalks up and down Peachtree, there are some parts of the city that don’t have any.
James Curtis, who is wheelchair-bound and one of three disabled residents who filed a lawsuit against the city in June 2018, claiming its backlog of sidewalk repairs violated an ease-of-access agreement with the federal government, also participated in the tour. He thanked the city officials for participating.
“As far as the event went, it, the people who organized it should be very proud of themselves,” Curtis said. “It was a real eye-opener and I think we gave the city council, especially Felicia, an understanding of just how hard it is to maneuver a wheelchair through the Atlanta sidewalks.
“I don’t know the rankings of cities in this country, but I have traveled extensively and seen firsthand that other cities do have an aging infrastructure like Atlanta. Atlanta’s not alone in (this), and it’s a critical matter, fixing the infrastructure. I just hope it becomes a top priority. How can Atlanta be an international city if you can’t even navigate the city?”
Shook and Moore said while fixing sidewalks is important and the tour raised more awareness of the issue, the city has little funds to pay for the repairs. After an audit late last year determined the Renew Atlanta infrastructure bond and TSPLOST (transportation special-purpose local-option sales tax) had a combined $400 million funding shortfall, the city was forced to prioritize its planned projects and pushed off the table some that could include new or repaired sidewalks.
So the only other option, the two council members said, is to have residents approve a third voter referendum for another bond just to pay for sidewalks.
“Here’s the issue: what is the cost of all this?” Moore said. “The last I knew is we had $3 billion infrastructure backlog. It’s probably higher now. If you took the sidewalks out of it, that would be a large part of it. Then the questions becomes how do you pay for it?”
She added the city’s decision to prioritize its Renew Atlanta/TSPLOST projects, causing some plans to go on the back burner, “injured the trust level of the people” with the city.
“We also have federal investigations and all those things going on that hamper the public’s trust,” Moore said. “I think we first need to deliver on the revamped Renew Atlanta and TSPLOST projects we’ve already (planned and prioritized) and then have a good, honest discussion on what the city’s priorities are to see what we can fund.”