Metro Atlanta isn’t exactly lauded for its transportation infrastructure, but perhaps the most embarrassing facet is the city’s crumbling system of sidewalks.
Cracked and broken, many of the city’s walkways have been lambasted as virtually unnavigable for people on foot, those restricted to wheelchairs, and, in many cases, city dwellers who choose to use them (illegally) on rentable dockless vehicles such as e-scooters.
Some districts, such as Midtown, are making strides with sidewalk upkeep, replacement, and improvement. But the problem is blatant elsewhere, in city neighborhoods both lower-income and not, from Inman Park to Southwest Atlanta and especially the Westside, where efforts to repair and maintain transportation infrastructure often fall by the wayside.
A handful of local leaders, including Atlanta City Councilmember Amir Farokhi, have taken it upon themselves to preserve and create intown walkways that cater to folks who opt to traverse the city without using the streets.
Making the city a haven for pedestrians, however, won’t be easy—or even feasible—without significant changes at the municipal level.
Farokhi recently reintroduced legislation that would make it the City of Atlanta’s responsibility to repair and maintain sidewalks.
That’s right; the onus is currently on the adjacent property owners to ensure the walkways are up to snuff.
The City of Atlanta’s Department of Public Works, however, hasn’t traditionally enforced that mandate, Farokhi has said.
Public Works commissioner James Jackson told Curbed Atlanta in an email the city’s new Department of Transportation is now charged with oversight of such matters, and the new DOT commissioner, Josh Rowan, said only that he would “be working with Councilman Farokhi to better understand his legislation.”
A few local funding mechanisms—the TSPLOST and Renew Atlanta bond programs—support some sidewalk upgrades, but the problem is larger than those funding sources can handle, Farokhi insists.
The councilman said he’s awaiting a report from the city that should take stock of where sidewalks need replaced, repaired, or otherwise. It’s expected to be published in March, he said.
“I expect it to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars—toward a billion dollars, or around there,” Farokhi said. “So the question becomes... how do we identify a dedicated funding source that could be applied to fix sidewalks over the next five, 10, 15 years?”
For the time being, Farokhi wants to table his legislation in the council’s transportation committee, at least until the city’s report on sidewalks is published, and following planned work sessions dedicated to identifying funding channels for potential upgrades, he said.
“This will not be a fast process, unfortunately,” Farokhi said. “Ultimately, we need to find the dollars to do this before we can push it through.”
Atlanta City Councilman Antonio Brown, who represents Council District 3, which covers Westside neighborhoods such as Vine City and English Avenue, told Curbed he’s backing Farokhi’s legislation.
“Sidewalks play a critical role when creating healthy communities,” Brown said in an emailed statement. “Every community should have access to safe sidewalks, regardless of income level... I fully support the legislation.”
So does pedestrian advocacy group PEDS, naturally.
“We can’t keep kicking the can down the sidewalk when our sidewalks are broken and getting worse,” said the organization’s president and CEO, Cathy Clark Tyler.
PEDS officials, Tyler said, plan to meet with Farokhi to start building a plan of action next month.
Neighborhood leaders in more affluent communities, such as Brookhaven, Virginia Highland, Inman Park, and Ansley Park, she said, have in the past banded together to address concerns of lagging pedestrian infrastructure.
“Sidewalk maintenance is not an issue that only impacts affluent residents,” she said. “In low-income areas, even ones that are gentrifying, this kind of effort would not be possible. Contractors won’t work on projects unless they cover frontage along about a dozen lots or more.”
Even leaders in Midtown, which boasts some of Atlanta’s most impressive pedestrian-friendly spaces, know there’s plenty of room for improvement.
The subdistrict has seen $1 million in investment in sidewalk improvements since 2014. But there’s more work to be done to continue the community’s shift from its car-centric ways, says Midtown Alliance CEO Kevin Green, who’s also on board with Farokhi’s push for reform.
“Sidewalks are vital public spaces,” Green told Curbed in an email. “The city’s longstanding policy that adjacent property owners are responsible for sidewalk repairs has never worked and isn’t enforced.”
Acknowledging the city’s responsibility to repair public sidewalks is overdue, Green insists.
“As we all know, it’s going to take money and commitment to repair the backlog and maintain public sidewalks at the level we need to,” said Green. “As a city, I think we can do better, and it’s time.”