Elena Caple was injured walking in Athens for the first time in 2020. Coming home from CVS–recently purchased lotion in one hand, her phone in the other–Caple felt her ankle crumple on top of the “cracked and broken” service road that leads to the bike path.
It happened again that year: Caple was walking down Stimson Avenue when she lost balance on the sidewalk and fell forward.
“I can’t wear shoes that aren’t supportive shoes anymore,” Caple, a lifelong Athens resident, said. “Those two incidents really impacted my mobility.”
Throughout the past two decades, the city of Athens has initiated several projects to address sidewalk quality and remedy some of the safety issues Caple, and others, experience using Athens’ sidewalks. Efforts to enhance pedestrian infrastructure are still ongoing.
In the 2010s, the city created an inventory to quantify and rate the quality of sidewalks. It has also replaced more than a mile of sidewalks along Richland Avenue and sought to improve sidewalks and bikeways to allow elementary school students to get to school easier.
“I’ve seen us really put a major focus on making things better,” Service Safety Director Andrew Stone said. “The number of both sidewalk repairs, as well as multi-use path and bikeway construction repairs that we’ve done, I really think are pretty amazing.”
Last December, Athens City Council formed the Pedestrian Accessibility Committee to develop suggestions and determine priorities for sidewalk safety, walkability and accessibility. The committee was formed by resolution, with members appointed by council.
Committee chair is Disabilities Commission Representative Dianne Bouvier, with members Mayor Steve Patterson, resident Robert Delach, First Ward representative Solveig Spjeldnes and student representative Neil Ryan. Resident Stephanie Hunter is an unofficial member.
The committee conducted a survey, which collected input from 750 residents. Preliminary results show that people want continuous, wide, smooth sidewalks that let them access places throughout the city.
“We have an infrastructure where people can’t get where they need to go safely and we really need to change that,” Bouvier said.
Focus groups helped the committee gain insights from specific populations about their use of sidewalks. For example, wheelchair users described compounding challenges that make navigating Athens prohibitive. Poor sidewalk conditions force some people off the sidewalk, causing them to roll or walk in the street because it is more accessible.
“We all need to use sidewalks to get places, so it’s part of our fabric, even though we might not think about it,” Bouvier said. “It’s part of what makes us able to get around, or not in some cases.”
The committee is still formulating suggestions, but some preliminary ideas include prioritizing repairs on the primary streets people use to walk places, such as West Washington or State Street. Bouvier thinks the slopes where driveways meet sidewalks should be lessened and made ADA accessible.
The committee will submit its findings to City Council in December, when the resolution that created it will expire.
“I know our project is for a year, but it really is not something where you fix the sidewalk and you’re done,” Bouvier said. “Sidewalks, over time, need to be replaced and new sidewalks need to be built. It won’t happen overnight.”
Stone said residents can submit complaints about sidewalks by calling the engineering and public works office, the code enforcement office and the office of the mayor, or by filing a report on the SeeClickFix app. Specific complaints help the city know exactly what needs to be repaired, he said.
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