Atlanta Researchers Help Cities Track Their Sidewalk Problems

Georgia Tech professor Randall Guensler, right, and graduate student Daniel Walls stand with the tool they’ve developed to assess sidewalk quality.

Stephannie Stokes / WABE

A lot of cities struggle to maintain their sidewalks. And that can lead to legal trouble.

Last month, a lawsuit argued Atlanta’s crumbling sidewalks violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

So researchers at Georgia Tech have developed a tool to help cities assess how problematic their sidewalks are.

The tool can appear simply to be a wheelchair.

“It’s a very inexpensive setup,” said Georgia Tech professor Randall Guensler.

Where the seat would be is a white cutting board that’s cut to fit the wheelchair. On top of that is a mounted computer tablet.

Graduate student Daniel Walls demonstrates how the wheelchair works on a sidewalk near WABE offices.

As it rolls along, the tablet records video of the sidewalk and any rumbling the wheelchair experiences. The computer also documents the location.

Guensler’s students then review the data back at the lab to create an inventory of sidewalks — and any problems, like cracks or obstructions.

Guensler said cities can use the inventories to make sure they’re meeting federal requirements to accommodate people with disabilities.

Otherwise, local governments can face lawsuits, like Atlanta has.

The city, for its part, has said it is working to comply with federal rules. And Guensler said cities around the country — not just Atlanta — have neglected their sidewalks.

Sidewalks tend only to have a lifespan of about 40 years.

“They’re really not difficult to maintain. It’s just that we don’t consider them to be streets,” Guensler said.

In other words, cities don’t consider the sidewalks to be part of their overall transportation system.

Walls, the graduate student, said this research has made him pay more attention.

“It’s almost impossible for me to not recognize bad sidewalks now,” Walls said.

With this wheelchair technique, Guensler and his students have collected data on about 1,200 miles of sidewalks around Atlanta. They completed a sidewalk inventory for the Midtown neighborhood late last year.

Now, the team is working on 200 miles of sidewalks in Cobb County.