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Legal Battle Over Crumbling Sidewalks Unfolds In Atlanta


Crumbling sidewalks are common in cities across the country. That can make getting around difficult for people who use wheelchairs. Trying to get sidewalks fixed isn't straightforward and often ends up in the courts. Stephannie Stokes reports from member station WABE in Atlanta where the latest legal battle over sidewalks is unfolding.

STEPHANNIE STOKES, BYLINE: James Curtis' usual commute is about a mile down a sidewalk along a busy road in north Atlanta. His motorized wheelchair zigzags a little.

JAMES CURTIS: I'm new to a powered chair, and so I'm not a very good driver.

STOKES: Curtis used to take a manual wheelchair to the spinal hospital where he volunteers, but he had to switch.

CURTIS: The sidewalks are so broken up that it's hard on the chairs. And it's hard on my shoulders.

STOKES: And that may not be the worst part. Not long ago, as he navigated an uneven curb cut, he tipped over. These daily challenges are why Curtis joined a federal class-action lawsuit that accuses the city of Atlanta of violating the Americans With Disabilities Act. The legal argument has become a common tool against cracked and incomplete sidewalks around the country from Seattle to New York City.

ANNA RIVERA: Usually, you know, most cities have some sort of plan to repair sidewalks. The problem is it doesn't usually keep up with the needs of the community.

STOKES: That's Anna Rivera, an attorney with a Disability Rights Legal Center. Her organization sued Los Angeles. She says cities just don't make sidewalks their top priority, and it leaves people with disabilities with few options.

RIVERA: If there was I think a less adversarial way to resolve their problems, folks, you know, would just be happy to get their sidewalks fixed and to not have to go down the lawsuit route.

STOKES: City leaders might prefer that, too. But some have neglected sidewalks for so long; the size of the issue can be daunting. Professor Randy Guensler teaches planning at Georgia Tech.

RANDY GUENSLER: You know, sidewalks have a 30- to 40-year lifespan. If you're not paying attention to them at all, then it becomes a problem.

STOKES: One that's costly. When Los Angeles settled its lawsuit in 2015, the price of repairs exceeded a billion dollars.

GUENSLER: It's a big chunk of change, and you need to know where it's coming from and where it's going to be spent. So those are difficult political and policy decisions.

STOKES: For now, Atlanta has responded to the lawsuit with only a statement saying it's already improving sidewalks to meet federal disability guidelines, and it's committed to making the city accessible. For NPR News, I'm Stephannie Stokes in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephannie Stokes