Where the Sidewalk (too often) Ends in Atlanta

The guest post comes from David Emory, a civic technology consultant and longtime sustainable transportation activist who currently serves as chair of the Georgia Sierra Club and as a board member of Citizens for Progressive Transit.

About a week ago, on one of those crisp autumn nights perfect for walking around the city, I was greeted by the following scene on my way home from work:

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Peachtree Street in Midtown between 4th and 5th Streets, as seen on a recent Wednesday evening.

If it’s not clear from the picture, that’s both sides of our city’s signature urban thoroughfare, Peachtree Street, completely closed to pedestrians — with four out of four vehicular traffic lanes open for cars. These conditions persisted for much of that week, including during the busy lunch hour.

While the above double closure is a particularly egregious case, long-term sidewalk closures have become rampant throughout the city, with the problem most acute in our most walkable urban districts, Downtown and Midtown. The “Sidewalk Closed” sign could serve as an unofficial mascot for this latest wave of development:

It doesn’t have to be this way. Accommodating pedestrians in construction areas is an eminently well-understood problem, and in any city where pedestrian accessibility is truly valued, it is a non-issue. Pedestrians can be routinely accommodated even in very complex construction sites, either with scaffolding over the sidewalk, or a temporary walkway created within the adjacent roadway.

As it happens, Atlanta has a policy on sidewalk closures, unearthed by the advocacy group PEDS as part of its “Unblock the Walk” campaign. The policy is strikingly specific, outlining in detail the sequence of options that are to be pursued before a closure can even be considered. They are, in order, providing (1) a “safe, passable thoroughfare” at least four feet wide; (2) a “temporary covered, lighted walkway”; or (3) a “temporary pedestrian route” using the “adjacent travel lane.” Only when all three options are deemed impossible is an outright closure allowable. The policy also addresses the duration of sidewalk closures, indicating that closure permits are not to exceed 90 days, with developers able to apply for a “conditional extension” if more time is needed.

You could be forgiven for not knowing the policy even exists. Although covered walkways and/or in-street walkways are achievable in nearly all cases, only very rarely do we see those approaches applied here. And closures routinely last a year or more, suggesting that developers are asking for, and being granted, “conditional” extensions five or six times for a single project. It’s not clear if this is actually happening, or if the policy is just being ignored entirely. Either way, there appears to be a lack of interest or willingness to meaningfully follow through on pedestrian accommodation at all levels of project implementation and oversight.

There is, of course, an inescapable irony here, which that the developments responsible for the bulk of these sidewalk closures invariably tout “walkability” as central to their appeal. “You’ll connect to all of Atlanta by simply walking out the door,” boasts the website for Alta Midtown, which blocked sidewalks on four different streets over the last two years. Live “steps from Piedmont Park” at Azure on the Park, responsible for recent long-term closures on Piedmont Avenue and 11th Street. And at at Trace Midtown, the culprit behind the above long-term closure on Peachtree Street itself, you’ll “enjoy being walking distance from endless trendy restaurants, eclectic shopping and energetic nightlife venues” — which is true, as long as you don’t mind walking to those endless trendy restaurants in the street. Even neighborhood-level branding puts walkability front and center:

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“Wonderful, walkable” Midtown — with a long-term sidewalk closure straight ahead. (Bonus points for car parked on sidewalk.)

Later this year, I will celebrate a personal milestone of sorts — December will mark ten years since I sold my trusty Nissan and joined the small but dedicated ranks of intentionally carfree Atlantans. For those of us that embrace the urban lifestyle, “walkability” is not a marketing buzzword. Walking is a core part of our everyday experience, and when the ability to walk is impeded, our ability to experience the city is affected in a very fundamental way.

I do my two-mile commute between Midtown and Downtown entirely on foot probably half the time. It’s a straight shot up Peachtree, and since the trip both begins and ends on the west side of the street, the aforementioned sidewalk closure at Fifth St. forced me to needlessly cross the four-lane street twice — an additional eight lanes crossed per trip. In total, I estimate that the Trace Midtown closure forced about two-thousand unnecessary lane crossings over the year-plus it was in effect. What may seem like a minor inconvenience to those who only think of the walking lifestyle as an abstract concept (i.e. many developers and officials) has a very real impact on those of us who live that lifestyle.

A year or so ago, the following illustration, by Swedish artist Karl Jilg, went quasiviral in urban planning circles:

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(Karl Jilg / Swedish Road Administration)

Jilg’s graphic captures perfectly the essence of the pedestrian experience in any city where, like Atlanta, the car is king. There was a time, of course, when people on foot were peers to all other roadway users — a condition evident in “A Trip Down Market Street,” the famous 1906 footage of pre-earthquake San Francisco. Over the course of the 20th century, we systematically transformed the street from a true shared space to one dominated by cars, with pedestrians relegated to the margins of the public realm. And now, in 21st-century Atlanta, people on foot are increasingly being told that they are not even entitled to that tiny margin.

In just over a year, we Atlantans head to the polls to choose our next generation of elected city leaders. One of my favorite things about the Jilg image is that, contrary to my initial assumptions, it is not the product of an advocacy group or an artist acting independently — it was in fact commissioned by a public highway agency, the Swedish Road Administration. That agency also pioneered the “Vision Zero” policy, which seeks the total elimination of all roadway-related deaths and serious injuries.

Around the globe, transportation bureaucracies are adopting more progressive policies about pedestrian accessibility — Sweden’s Vision Zero concept has since been adopted by New York and San Francisco, for example. And while Atlanta is not there yet, there’s no reason we can’t be. More enlightened thinking about how we create a truly walkable city, including an end to widespread long-term sidewalk closures, is possible. It’s up to us to make it happen.