Navigating broken sidewalks is an annoyance to pedestrians in cities across the South and the nation. But for folks who navigate the world from their wheelchairs, bad sidewalks mean the choice between risking a flipped wheelchair or playing a game of chicken with oncoming cars in the street.
By Emma Sarappo | Photographs by Audra Melton
Beth Beckley just wanted to enjoy New Year’s Eve.
Beckley is 30 and married. She’s a huge sports fan. She loves her three dogs, and walks them around the neighborhood when she’s not busy with chores in her house. She’s a customer service representative for Amazon. She’s blonde and has a loud, passionate voice with a bit of a twang. She was not much different from many other women who decided to spend December 31, 2015, in downtown Atlanta. All she expected was the same experience they had.
Instead, Beckley spent her night terrified and humiliated, rolling her wheelchair in the lane of traffic on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Centennial Olympic Boulevard as her able-bodied husband walked beside her and attempted to direct traffic around her. The Beckleys were trying to get back to their car, but they couldn’t use the sidewalks or crosswalks that led directly to it. There were no curb ramps that would have allowed Beth to steer her wheelchair on or off the raised paths.
“I literally cried,” Beckley says. "It was humiliating. I'm mad. I'm really upset that this is an issue I had to deal with in this day and age. And the fact that right here where the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium is, Georgia Dome stadium, Philips Arena, CNN Center, all like prime-time, major things that – I'm 30 years old, I want to enjoy all this fun stuff, too!
It took about three months for Beckley’s anger to crystallize into action.
"Right after it happened, my husband was like, 'All right, you've said this kind of stuff before,'” she says. “So when it came to this, I was not backing down. I let my anger over what I felt that day convince me get someone to help me.” By March 2016, she was looking for a lawyer to take on her case. Finding one was a problem: Beckley estimates she called over 100 attorneys to find someone willing to take her case. But after she came across James Radford of the Decatur-based firm Radford & Keebaugh, the ball was officially rolling. And on May 2, 2016, Beth Beckley filed suit against the City of Atlanta.
- The Beckleys exited the Dome at Northside Avenue and traveled along the sidewalks south down Northside Avenue, en route to their vehicle at the CNN/Phillips Arena parking deck.
- Hopeful to find a ramp on the opposite side of Centennial, the Beckleys went south down Centennial.
- They found a ramp at the intersection of Centennial and Chapel Street, and crossed Centennial at Chapel, then traveled north along the sidewalk, along Centennial, back towards the intersection with MLK.
- On this side of the intersection as well, there was no wheelchair ramp or other accommodation that would allow Mrs. Beckley to safely exit the sidewalk, so the Beckleys then traveled back south down Centennial.
- They crossed to the other side at the ramp at Chapel Street, went back up Centennial towards MLK.
- The Beckleys then went back south-east down MLK, hoping to find a ramp at the intersection of MLK and Richard B. Russell Plaza that would allow them to cross MLK
- At Richard B. Russell and MLK, there was a ramp that would allow them to exit the sidewalk onto the crosswalk across Richard B. Russell, but no ramp that would allow them to access the sidewalk on the opposite side of MLK, which is where they needed to go. Having run out of options, Mrs. Beckley exited the sidewalk and began to travel north-west in the street
- Mrs. Beckley continued her trek on the road, amidst the traffic, north on Centennial, until she finally found a ramp that would allow her to access the sidewalk on Centennial.
Beckley has been a paraplegic for nine years. When she was 21, her car hydroplaned and hit a tree. The accident crushed her spinal cord, paralyzing her from the chest down. The power wheelchair she uses lets her get around with ease and convenience – except when she faces something the chair can’t get over, like a curb with no ramp.
“My wheelchair, it's a heavy-duty one. They can do a lot, but they can't do a lot as well,” she says. “When we lived in Orlando, there was a little lip on the door to get into our apartment – and I'm talking like a little bit of a lip, just the threshold – it literally cracked my front tire in half. If there's a crack, or a branch, I could literally be toppled out of my wheelchair. And I've fallen and I literally cannot get up.” For Beckley and her husband, trying to push her weight combined with the weight of her $30,000 wheelchair over a sidewalk curb downtown was unthinkable. Their only option was to roll down the streets until they found a ramp that would let Beckley get onto the sidewalk near her car.
Risking the wheelchair – or her own safety – was not a possibility.
“It's my legs! You know? Like, this is what I have to get around,” she says. “It's my only way of mobility. It's my life. Without my wheelchair, I'm literally crippled. So if there are any obstacles, like lack of ramps, cracks..."
For most people, sidewalk maintenance and accessibility compliance is a non-issue. First of all, most people in Atlanta aren’t doing much walking to get around; the heat and hills provide natural disincentives, plus only 16.9 percent of Atlanta households have no vehicle, according to the Census Bureau's 2010-2013 American Community Survey. Even those who walk tend to treat the decay of Atlanta's characteristic century-old sidewalks — most laid with hexagonal concrete pavers — as a fact of life. For most, the jagged, broken, pothole-ridden cement is just a nuisance. But for others – people like Beth Beckley – broken sidewalks are a matter of life or death.
Atlanta’s sidewalk policy and lack of enforcement and repair has created an incomplete, shoddy sidewalk system, which depends on the benevolence of developers and landlords and often does not exist at all. This makes the city nigh-impossible to navigate on foot for everyone, especially people with disabilities. One obstacle is that Atlanta puts the burden of sidewalk repair on the owners of homes or businesses. The Atlanta Municipal Code states, “When the sidewalk abutting the right-of-way is damaged, it is the obligation of the abutting property owner to repair such sidewalk upon notice from the department of public works.”
The city is supposed to enforce that policy by giving notice, but generally doesn’t do so. And when it does, it’s often a surprising financial burden on residents, many of whom don’t know the sidewalk is their responsibility until a notice appears at their door. If they don’t repair the sidewalks, the code authorizes Public Works to make the repairs, then bill property owners to cover the cost.
The state of sidewalk disrepair across Atlanta, especially in its historic neighborhoods, has a long history. The characteristic concrete hexagonal pavers outside homes in neighborhoods like Home Park and Inman Park date back almost a century, to when homes were first built and sidewalks first installed. Many of the worst sidewalks haven’t been repaired in almost that long. Repair and decay often sit side-by-side, as some homeowners cough up the cash and others don’t – or can’t.
The same principle applies to neighborhoods. Some community improvement districts, like Midtown Alliance, have invested significantly in improving walkability; the American Planning Association named Midtown Atlanta one of five great neighborhoods in 2016. Midtown is continuing its work on walkability: Dr. Randall Guensler, a professor of transportation-systems engineering, and his team of civil-engineering researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology will provide Midtown Alliance with data about sidewalk quality to help them make decisions about repair priorities. But while that’s beneficial for an individual neighborhood, other parts of the city with fewer funds or less business interest remain hard to navigate.
The last years have seen many fights over the sidewalk section of the municipal code inside Atlanta City Hall. In 2014, a majority of the city council supported an ordinance that would have the city pay for sidewalk repairs, but Mayor Kasim Reed objected to the creation of an unfunded mandate.
He suggested a substitute ordinance, which was approved in August 2015. The municipal code now has the same language as before – with the addition of a clause that states “provided however that where funding is identified, applicable and available for implementation of repairs by the city, such repairs not required due to damage directly attributable to action(s) of the abutting property owner or agents, contractors, or employees of the abutting property owner, shall be undertaken by the city upon a prioritized basis until the funding is exhausted. The absence of city funding shall not excuse the abutting property owner from the requirements of this section.”
But Sally Flocks, founder of PEDS, an Atlanta-based pedestrian safety organization, says the amended ordinance is not a real fix – homeowners are still on the hook.
“I commented at a council meeting that we already had an unfunded mandate, the Americans with Disabilities Act,” she says. Beth Beckley and her attorney would agree.
Most crucially, the amended ordinance doesn’t require that any money has to be allocated at all. Some money from the city’s general fund has been directed towards infrastructure repair – increasing by 0.5 percent each year and set to cap out at 3.5 percent – but that fund is small. In 2011, the city council passed legislation to create a sidewalk trust fund, but in late 2012, the fund only had $1.5 million. In 2010, the city estimated the sidewalk repair backlog was about $152 million in damage. The cost of that damage increases exponentially when left to decay, says Guensler. In 2012, a team of researchers from Georgia Tech estimated that “if the City of Atlanta were to keep repairing the sidewalk in a piece-by-piece manner,” repair costs could reach almost $400 million.
As for the financial policy currently in place, “it’s an excuse to do nothing,” Flocks says. “They don’t want to enforce the law. They don’t want to pay for it.” And when they try to, like the city did in 2013, when it sent out about 90 notices to homeowners, it creates uproar.
“Somebody who’s in poverty is not going to be able to pay for sidewalk repairs,” Flocks says, especially considering that notified property owners only have 15 days to pay Public Works or hire their own contractor. Studies consistently show that over half of Americans don’t have even $500 in savings to cover unexpected expenses.
“If they’re not going to enforce that, they’re completely shirking their responsibilities to people with disabilities,” Flocks says. “Sidewalks are a program of government – that’s been determined by the courts – and if they’re not either fixing them themselves or following through and getting others to fix them, then it’s discriminating against all pedestrians, but especially people with disabilities who therefore cannot use the sidewalks.”
The U.S. Department of Justice agreed. In 2009, the department’s Disability Rights Section of its Civil Rights Division performed an ADA compliance audit of Atlanta’s public spaces and found numerous issues. In response, the DOJ and the city agreed to a settlement, which stipulated that over the next three years, the city would identify and fix all sidewalks resurfaced since 1992, when the ADA went into effect, that lacked ADA-compliant curb ramps.
The deadline came and went. By 2014, the city issued a policy statement and itemized list of public facilities that weren’t ADA-compliant, including sidewalks and curb ramps. Still, almost seven years after that initial agreement, Beth Beckley found herself stranded downtown, unable to get on or off of the sidewalk.
Atlanta isn’t the only city with sidewalk problems – they’re common across the region and the nation. What is unusual is the lack of repair, even after public acknowledgement of the problem.
In 2004, the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held the city of Sacramento, California, responsible for installing ADA-compliant curb ramps. When responsibility was established, the city settled with the plaintiffs, earmarked 20 percent of transportation funds to sidewalk and crosswalk maintenance, and over a decade later the results are tangible. Similarly, Chicago settled an ADA sidewalk lawsuit in 2007 for $50 million and spent $140 million in five years repairing sidewalks and pedestrian rights of way. In 2010, Birmingham, Alabama, settled a federal lawsuit and entered its second ADA consent decree in two decades, stipulating that the city identify and fix broken sidewalks. But despite its federal audit and the DOJ consent decree, Atlanta has yet to fix its broken system.
New York City deals with sidewalk decay by maintaining sidewalks on city property and alerting homeowners to violations. In Boston, sidewalks are considered part of the city’s streets and are maintained by its public works department. In San Diego, California, property owners split the costs of sidewalk repairs with the city 50-50. In Portland, Oregon, property owners are financially responsible for maintaining the sidewalks – but they’re also liable for any injuries that occur on those sidewalks.
Atlanta’s code makes property owners responsible for sidewalk funding, but the city is potentially liable for their decay. Atlanta has already settled multiple personal-injury lawsuits for millions of dollars. In its 2012 report, the Georgia Tech team concluded, “if the City of Atlanta continues with its current program, the backlog of maintenance projects will continue to grow and result in escalating costs due to piecemeal reconstruction and personal-injury lawsuits.” In 2017, not much has changed.
Beckley lives in Conyers, in Rockdale County, outside of the city, but she faces sidewalk problems near her home, too.
"In my neighborhood – this neighborhood was built in the mid-'80s, maybe? – there are no sidewalks at all,” she says. “I walk my three dogs, and there's a couple of residents at the beginning of my neighborhood who park their cars in the way – and there aren't sidewalks. Someone can't see me and my dogs past the vehicle that just parks in the street. I almost got hit by a car the other day because they couldn't see me."
Beckley isn’t the only one hindered by a lack of sidewalks. Teresa Coleman, a member of the disability rights self-advocacy group People First of Georgia, lives in Decatur and uses a power wheelchair for mobility. She relies MARTA trains and buses to get around the greater Atlanta area – but her biggest problem is getting from her home to her bus stop.
“They finally made a sidewalk with a curb cut, and I had to fight to get that curb cut,” she says. “But now, when I get off the bus, I have to go across the street again to my complex – and we don’t have no crosswalk. And I’ve been fighting to get a crosswalk.”
Coleman’s complex on Friendly Hill Drive sits right in the path of the 111 bus, which seems convenient at first. She can get onto the bus easily, but it’s getting off that poses a challenge.
“When I come home, I have to call my brother to meet me at the bus stop – and sometimes, when he ain’t home, I have to ride all the way around and come back around,” Coleman says. “It takes me an hour, an hour and a half. I have to go all the way out to Stonecrest Mall and loop back.” Jaywalking isn’t exactly an option for Coleman – in her chair, she can’t speed up to get out of the way of a vehicle, and she can’t dive into a shoulder or just any point on the opposite sidewalk. Her brother has to do much of the same thing Beckley’s husband did: Alert traffic to her presence and hope no one hits her. When he can’t guarantee that protection, Coleman drives her wheelchair a mile back to the nearest crosswalk, crosses the street, and then drives that same mile back home.
Cheri Mitchell, a longtime member of People First of Georgia – a self-advocacy network for people with disabilities – has a similar story. When she and her late husband were first married, they lived outside of Atlanta in Clayton County, off Tara Boulevard – where there were no sidewalks.
“I lived right off of Tara Boulevard, and if I wanted to go to the Applebee’s up the street or catch the bus, I had to hit the street!” she says. But worse was the time her husband, Sam, was ending a hospital stay. Both he and Mitchell used wheelchairs and relied on the county paratransit to get around – but to take paratransit, they had to schedule the ride 24 hours in advance, and doctors couldn’t give him a 24-hour discharge notice. So when he got out, the couple navigated standard MARTA buses back home to their stop on Tara Boulevard. Then they hit the shoulder and rolled home together.
“This was a man that just got out of the hospital,” Mitchell says insistently.
People First focuses on self-advocacy over direct action to create positive changes.
“When we’re in our chapter meeting, we talk about ‘What is it that we don’t like? What is it that we’re having a problem with?’ Then we ask, what kind of self-advocacy project can we develop?” Mitchell says. Coleman’s project has been getting accessible sidewalks and now crosswalks installed near her home; Mitchell is her mentor. But the themes of the projects remain the same.
“Sidewalks have always been an issue for People First of Atlanta,” Mitchell says. “In Atlanta, it’s always been about sidewalks.”
The group pushes local government to make life better for all its citizens. Mitchell and the People First of Georgia chapter are especially concerned with the 1999 Supreme Court case Olmstead v. L.C., which affirmed the right of people with disabilities to live in their communities in the most integrated setting possible instead of in facilities or nursing homes. The case concerned two women with mental disabilities, but Mitchell is adamant that Olmstead applies to everyone.
“Olmstead is not just about people with mental illness, it’s not just about people with developmental disabilities. It’s about all people with disabilities. The key phrase is ‘most integrated setting.’ Olmstead is about services in the most integrated setting.”
Mitchell and others with People First started Long Road Home, a project to spread awareness about Olmstead compliance for all people with disabilities. “It was done strictly because people understood how important Olmstead is, that it is one of people with disabilities’ most important civil rights, and their passion that it should be implemented,” she says. “After 18, 19 years not being implemented … it is just a slap in the face for people with disabilities, particularly on Georgia’s part. Because it happened in Georgia.”
Olmstead comes into play for people like Coleman, who are medically able to live and work in their communities but are stymied and hassled by a lack of accessibility. Someone like Beckley, Coleman, or Mitchell could not live in one of Atlanta’s older neighborhoods like Home Park or Inman Park – not only are the houses inaccessible, the sidewalks connecting those houses with the rest of the city are crumbling, cracked, and decayed. According to Mitchell, when you encounter a crack in a wheelchair, “you turn around and go back to the closest crosswalk, and you gotta make a decision: Do I cross the street and go up? If there’s no sidewalk or no curb cut on that side, then it’s get in the street and hope you don’t get hit. You get to play chicken with cars. I’ve played chicken a lot of times.”
"With all the handicapped people who are here, there's got to be tons of people who have dealt with this same type of issue all over Atlanta,” Beckley says. That’s part of why she’s suing – to raise awareness for the mundane issues she deals with and to make things equal for all of Atlanta’s disabled citizens. "I want an apology, I want them to say they were wrong, and I want nobody else to ever have to go through what I did that day,” she says.
When Beckley and her husband went on their honeymoon, they road-tripped across the country. In Boston, where the city treats sidewalks as part of its road system and pays to repair and maintain them, Beckley experienced what it’s like to be in the “most integrated setting.”
"Every restaurant has a [automatic-door] button,” she says. “All of the hotel rooms, when we were there, they had a tiny little peephole down below in the middle of the door where I could look out. All the doors had buttons. Hotel doors. Every pool had a pool lift where I could go swimming, too. I don't know what they did in Massachusetts, but I want to do that in Georgia.”
Other places they’ve visited, such as Charleston and Philadelphia, were not as kind.
“We went to Charleston for a little vacation over Memorial Day, and I would have to truck it, like, miles, like, I don't know, forever, just to get around where they put a mailbox. Even on sidewalks,” Beckley says. “Like, why would they put something, deadbolt it in the ground right there in the middle of the sidewalk knowing that there's somebody who might not be able to get past that? There’s no way of me getting around that besides getting on the street, going around here, finding a ramp to get back on the sidewalk, and then going that way.” In downtown Philadelphia, the Beckleys were unable to find a restaurant Beth could enter while it rained on them both.
Sometimes, Beckley gets wistful for her Boston experience.
“I felt so accepted,” she says. “I felt so able-bodied. I felt like I was able to enjoy the same things as everybody else!” Living in Atlanta and its suburbs – especially within Rockdale County, which offers no public transportation, let alone wheelchair-accessible public transportation – hasn’t been as kind. Beckley never expected Atlanta — home of Shepherd Center, one of the best spinal cord-injury hospitals in the world — to be hard for her to navigate.
But she remains hopeful that her lawsuit will bring change.
"My attorney says what they're going to probably try to do is lowball a little settlement and just brush me away. I don't think so," she says. "I'm not a patient person. I'm not a patient person at all. But when it comes to something this important, I'm willing to make a stand as long as I have to. I'll wait."