It’s just under a mile from Emerson “Bill” Peet’s home in Mount Vernon Towers to his mother’s home in Sandy Springs. But for Peet, the trip is an hours-long odyssey he has to plan a day around and risk his life to complete.
That’s because Peet uses a wheelchair, and Mount Vernon Highway’s pedestrian paths are a jigsaw puzzle of dead-end, broken or nonexistent sidewalks. On a recent trip down that street, Peet pointed out the spot where a police officer stopped him several weeks ago for rolling in the road because there is no sidewalk.
“He said, ‘Well, don’t be out here [in the street] anymore,’” Peet recalled, as if he and not the lack of sidewalks was the problem. “If you’re on wheels, you’re forced to break the law.”
Peet, 50, has used a wheelchair since 1991, when a brain injury gave him severe balance problems. He’s become a popular figure at Mount Vernon Towers, dubbed its “mayor” by fellow residents, in his three years there.
But he’s not new to the area—he’s a Sandy Springs native who grew up in the Mount Vernon Woods neighborhood. As the suburb became a city, he saw the increase in sidewalks.
“It’s come in leaps and bounds, and now there’s something, but not near enough,” Peet said of Sandy Springs’ sidewalk installations.
The city has spent millions fixing and installing sidewalks, and the City Council regularly debates ways to do more. City spokeswoman Sharon Kraun said the city is also working with the Atlanta Regional Commission on a “Complete Streets” plan, which designs streets for various types of users, not just cars.
“We have been, from Day One, attacking the sidewalks, trying to upgrade, improve and add,” Kraun said. “We’ve got a lot of years to make up for. We’re very conscious of that.”
City leaders often cite some good reasons for their sidewalk efforts, such as attracting active millennials to shopping districts or getting kids safely to schools. But spending a couple of hours traveling with Peet shows a more basic issue: sidewalk conditions that make it difficult and dangerous for many residents to visit businesses they like and people they love.
Peet and his mother both live on the north side of Mount Vernon Highway, but there’s no direct sidewalk route. Peet only got a few hundred feet before the sidewalk abruptly ended, forcing him to cross the busy road.
There’s a useable sidewalk in front of the library and Mount Vernon Presbyterian School, but Peet soon ran into a open construction trench cut right through it, forcing him into the street again. From Glenridge Drive, Peet faces an 875-foot stretch of road with no sidewalk at all. Along the way, he faces some steep slopes and ramps, a challenge he copes with by pushing himself backward in his chair.
It’s a similar story on the way back. “This is great,” Peet said of a wide, smooth sidewalk—until it ended in a muddy trail that led to a curb with no ramps.
Peet said there are many parts of town he would like to visit, but doesn’t because “it’s so much to do alone.”
Tipped off to a little-known, wheelchair-friendly back path to Trader Joe’s, Peet paused and said, “That would open up a whole new world to me.” Trader Joe’s is next door to Mount Vernon Towers.
That tip came from Peet’s new friend, Eric Mowris, whose mother just moved into the Towers. Eric and wife Cheryl recently moved to Sandy Springs, too. buying a small home on Hilderbrand Drive. The Mowrises are poster children for the empty nesters the city wants to attract with its downtown redevelopment, which is partly sold on new sidewalks.
“I chose to live here in part…because Sandy Springs has stated its intent to be a walkable community,” Eric Mowris said.
Sidewalks in his area are pretty good, Mowris said, though with such obvious gaps as a trail worn in the grass on Hammond Drive and such dangers as short times on pedestrian-crossing signals.
While helping Peet around Mount Vernon’s obstacles, Mowris displayed a print-out for the new City Springs project and pointed out how many times its description calls it “walkable.”
“I never heard that term ‘walkable,’” Peet said.
“I’m learning as much as you are,” Peet said as he and Mowris traded tales of navigating Sandy Springs sidewalks.