City and state officials have heard a lot of complaints from wheelchair users about the sidewalks on Buckhead’s Peachtree Road. On Oct. 18, a group of those officials – including Atlanta City Council members and state traffic engineers – got to experience it for themselves in a mile-long wheelchair tour several called “eye-opening.”
City Councilmember Howard Shook of Buckhead’s District 7, was among those joining in the event, which was organized by pedestrian and wheelchair advocates. After navigating the sometimes ragged sidewalks in a motorized chair, he likened talking about wheelchair safety without firsthand experience to trying to “learn to swim by watching a YouTube video.”
“There’s no substitute for doing this,” said Shook. “Everyone who does this is going to have a whole new perspective.”
City Council President Felicia Moore got her chair stuck in mud and scraped her foot on a brick planter. “My foot will remember,” she told the group in a post-tour gathering, adding that she quickly learned how much concentration it takes to stay safe on the narrow, busy street. “…I took my mind one minute off of what I was doing, and next thing I know, I was in a ditch.”
Another chair-rider was Josh Rowan, general manager of the city’s Renew Atlanta and TSPLOST programs, which is building such infrastructure as sidewalks. “I really felt exposed and vulnerable,” he told the group, adding that there will be “more to come from this.”
About two-dozen officials rode with residents in the tour, which ran from Collier Road near Piedmont Hospital to a coworking space on Terrace Drive. That section of Peachtree includes the Shepherd Center rehabilitation hospital, where many patients and visitors use wheelchairs. The center has previously called for sidewalk repairs and improvements.
The tour was organized by a group of residents, some of whom have become familiar figures at City Hall for their pedestrian and wheelchair safety advocacy: Jules Murphy, Cheryl Bivins, Jennifer Brooks and Ellis Dean. Murphy said one inspiration was a recent string of accidents involving motorized scooters and concerns about how they conflict with wheelchair users on sidewalks. But simply raising awareness was a goal.
“We’ve given a voice to an otherwise voiceless cohort,” said Brooks.
The tour let officials spot specific issues, such as dead, bag-covered pedestrian signals at Peachtree Hills Avenue. Kim Harrison, a resident and disability rights advocate, showed officials how a minor-looking gap in the sidewalk swallowed the front wheels of her chair, trapping her in a dangerous position.
“I am literally at the mercy of someone walking down the street [for help,” she said.
Shook spoke with Rowan afterward, and said future bond issuances should include money for maintenance. “This underscores the need to repair and maintain what we already have in addition to expanding our sidewalks…,” Shook said in an interview.
Officials said they were struck by smaller details of the experience as well, such as how the bump-covered yellow pads on sidewalk wheelchair ramps can be more hinderance than help. Several were astonished to hear that motorized chairs can cost more than $20,000 and remarked on the level of concentration needed to move safely among the many obstacles and hazards.
Other riders in the City Council contingent included District 3 Councilmember Antonio Brown, District 2 Councilmember Amir Farokhi, at-large Councilmember Matt Westmoreland, and Jim Elgar from the office of Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit, who represents Buckhead’s District 8.
“Today was dangerous in a lot of ways,” said Brown to the group afterward. He called for a similar tour in his district, which advocates say they are ready to arrange. “We need to have that experience on the Westside,” he said.
Westmoreland, who tried both motorized and arm-powered wheelchairs, said in an interview that is was “a really eye-opening experience.” He told the group he was struck by “the level to which our sidewalks are not safe.”
“It’s one thing to drive by or walk it, but being in a chair, it’s just…,” said Elgar, trailing off. He piloted a motorized chair.
State Rep. Betsy Holland (D-Buckhead) rode a motorized chair. “This has forever altered the way I think about accessibility,” she said, describing her surprise at how low to the ground she was in the chair and how close Peachtree Road traffic is to the sidewalk. She said she was glad to go “literally a mile in their shoes.”
Several Georgia Department of Transportation engineers joined the group, including Kathy Zahul, who heads GDOT’s metro Atlanta engineering division and often works with pedestrian advocates on Peachtree Road concerns. Tara Jackson, a GDOT engineer on Americans With Disabilities Act compliance, said the tour was useful for “seeing through their eyes.”
Several residents joined in as well. Among them was James Curtis, who has pointed out such issues as power poles installed within sidewalks and who is a plaintiff in a lawsuit alleging the city’s backlog of sidewalk repairs violated an accessibility agreement with the federal government. A year ago, after that lawsuit was filed, the city announced a new infrastructure repair campaign.
Cathy Tyler, president and CEO of the pedestrian advocacy group PEDS, said the tour highlighted many issues with the road. “There’s some work that needs to be done,” she said.