Biking down Jackson Avenue in Atlanta recently I came face to face with a gentleman with one wheel of his manual wheelchair wedged in the streetcar tracks. He was stuck in the middle of the road. I stopped and asked if I could lend a hand, and when we were both safely on the sidewalk, I noticed why he was out in the road to begin with. There was a giant pothole in the sidewalk and gravel strewn across the pedestrian right of way.
No wonder he chose to go around on the newly paved street instead of risking the uneven sidewalk.
The Americans with Disabilities Act guarantees the right for all citizens to be able to walk down the street, be it walking on two feet, using a wheelchair, or pushing a child in a stroller. All too often, unsafe streets, a lack of sidewalks and poorly maintained infrastructure denies this right to citizens, especially to those with disabilities.
Addressing the needs of all transportation system users — including streetcar riders, people in cars, pedestrians and bicyclists — ensures the mobility of all Atlanta residents. The new streetcar lines in the Historic Old Fourth Ward neighborhood do a great job connecting tourists to the historic King site from downtown. However, spending millions of dollars building a new system when the sidewalks remain impassable for many in the neighborhood — especially who use mobility aids such as wheelchairs — creates a stark juxtaposition of who can and who cannot travel safely through the neighborhood.
This experience was not the first time I have noticed the lack of accessible sidewalks in Atlanta. As a graduate student at Georgia Tech, with a focus on sustainable transportation, I have spent the last three years researching sidewalk assessment. I spent many hours pushing a manual wheelchair along the streets of Atlanta collecting data and experiencing the poor quality sidewalks in all areas of the city.
Atlanta is one of the many American cities with a history of under-budgeting for sidewalk maintenance, but our city also has the opportunity right now to rise above the norm and improve pedestrian accessibility. The 2015 infrastructure bond provides potential funding for sidewalk and curb ramp projects that could help make Atlanta streets more inclusive.
There is an inherent inequity in our transportation system that needs to be addressed. Fixing our pedestrian infrastructure, and prioritizing areas with a high volume of pedestrians who use mobility aids, would be one step in creating a safer environment for everyone.
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Alice Grossman is a graduate student at Georgia Tech in Civil Engineering. Her research and passion focus around transportation policy and sustainable transportation.