Dekalb Avenue Needs a Fix that Reflects the Changing Urbanism of Atlanta

This is a major connective street in the city with 11 neighborhoods and 6 MARTA stations along its length. Making it safer and more inviting for pedestrians and cyclists is essential, even if that means reducing the amount of space devoted to car commuters. 

Posted on November 22, 2016 by Darin Givens [ATL Urbanist]

A few key streets epitomize the change Atlanta is going through with its urbanism — and the conflicts that come with that change. Some people are expecting more from those streets in terms of them becoming safer and more inviting places for cyclists and pedestrians, but others want them to remain focused squarely on the needs of car commuters.

I try  to avoid painting street design in an “us versus them” them issue between drivers and pedestrians/cyclists. Most of us are multi-modal in our lives and are not firmly ‘drivers only’ or ‘pedestrians only’ in the way we get around. But when it comes to the arguments that crop up when proposals are made to radically change these these key streets, the language of competition is hard to avoid.

I’m going to write about a few of these roads over time, and I’ll start off with Dekalb Avenue since it’s in the news this week, thanks to the Renew Atlanta project to redesign it.

A mess of a motorway with pedestrian challenges

Atlanta as a city has changed dramatically around the Dekalb Avenue corridor over the last several decades. But the street has basically remained stuck in the 1950s as a motorway for car commuters, with patchy infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists. Parts of it completely lack sidewalks. Below is the view facing east, near the intersection of Dekalb and Elmira Street.

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Dekalb Avenue facing east, in front of Fox Brother’s BBQ. Notice the lack of sidewalks. Source: Google Street View.

And I pick “stuck in the 1950s” intentionally because of what’s seen in this 1940s photo below. It shows the same spot as the above image, but facing west. Notice that there was actually a sidewalk here at this point**, as well as the tracks for a streetcar line that connected Downtown Atlanta to Decatur. So the pedestrian-friendliness of the street has actually declined in some places since the mid 20th century.

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The intersection of Dekalb Avenue and Elmira Road in the 1940s, the current site of the popular Fox Brother’s BBQ restaurant, facing west. Notice the sidewalk and the streetcar tracks. Source: Georgia State University Digital Collection.

Even the parts with sidewalks present some challenges for pedestrians, such as a lack of a barrier between them and fast-moving cars, and utility poles blocking their path. I took this photo below on a weekday morning during peak commute time, near the Reynoldstown/Inman Park MARTA station. You can see the train in the background. It felt really unpleasant to walk here with these cars speeding by so close to me. Amazingly, the 35 MPH speed limit seems to be equally ignored and unenforced.

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This is a photo I took recently near the Reynoldstown/Inman Park MARTA station, facing west. Notice the poles in the sidewalk ahead and the lack of a barrier between pedestrians and car, which are moving fast.

It’s dangerous for everyone, drivers included

Walking here is inhospitable in many spots, and outside of some bike lanes that exist close to Downtown on the west side, cycling isn’t an inviting prospect either.  According to statistics from the City of Atlanta, Dekalb Avenue has been the location of 638 traffic crashes and 169 injuries over the last three years (2013-15).

There are some hot spots for crashes, but overall it looks like the entire road is dangerous, as the heat points are pretty evenly spread across the length of it.

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Heat map of crashes, as seen at the recent Renew Atlanta event.

The general consensus seems to me that the center lane is the main culprit. There’s a reversible “suicide lane” running through a long stretch of the road that switches direction, as noted by overhead lights, through the day to accommodate car-commuter traffic flow to and from Downtown.

Taking out this lane may reduce the number of lanes of travel for car commuters, but it could also increase their safety a great deal.

It’s important for a lot of people that we get this right

There’s a solid reason that the city is taking on this very tricky project: it matters to a lot of people and to a lot of investments.

Dekalb Avenue connects 11 neighborhoods (see the image below) and many popular destinations. All of the people coming to and from those destinations are going to be fairly compelled to drive if walking and cycling aren’t safe options.

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It serves six MARTA rail stations and five bus routes. Walking to and from those transit stops along Dekalb is not as safe and inviting as it could be — which means transit ridership is not being enabled to the degree that it could be.

The street also intersects with major existing and planned bicycle trails (like the Beltline and the Stone Mountain trails). Those cycling-infrastructure investments won’t offer the return they could without improved safety for bikes on Dekalb.

The public meeting: Atlantans have strong feelings about this street

On November 17th this year, the city’s Renew Atlanta office — which is implementing the projects that are funded by an infrastructure bond referendum voters approved last year — held a public meeting to get thoughts on what people wanted to see happen with Dekalb Avenue.

Creative Loafing has a great writeup about the meeting. It highlights the conflicting goals that Atlantans have for the road. Some people have strong feelings about it being geared entirely for car commuters while others, as you can tell by the board below, really want bike lanes.

This board was put up at the meeting so that attendees could put a blue sticker on the transportation mode that was most important to them on this street. Bikes won in popularity. There was obviously a huge turnout of bike advocates at the event, showing how important this issue is to them. You can also see that the stickers on the “walking” section are about even with the ones on the “driving” section.

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Most of the public comments at the meeting seemed to be in favor of doing away with the reversible center lane. But I’m sure that many people — who may not be clued in with the process or who may not have known about the meeting — would be very upset to not have two lanes to serve their commutes in and two lanes out of Downtown, into the eastern neighborhoods.

And that’s not just guesswork on my part. You can read online comments from a Decatur Metro post that back up this assumption. But keep in mind that those comments are likely coming from commuters into Atlanta who live in Decatur. This street’s re-design is being funded by City of Atlanta residents, for the section of it that is in Atlanta. It needs to be a multi-modal part of our public domain for these neighborhoods more so than it needs to be a road strictly for car commuters from Decatur who could be using the MARTA train (see below).

We need major change for this major street

As Atlanta’s chief planner Tim Keane has said many times, change is not an option when it comes to Atlanta’s future. Even if we do nothing in the way of planning at the city level, major growth will happen with new apartments and retail and office all around. And that’s certainly true of this popular Dekalb Avenue corridor.

It’s not an option for us to disallow an increase in the number of people who need to use this street. That’s going to happen.

Case in point: at least three of MARTA’s proposed Transit Oriented Developments (where parking lots at stations will be turned into mixed-use density) will sit on this street. All those added people will have an effect. If we want it to be positive, it helps to get ahead of the growth with a plan for sustainability and transportation safety.

Your car commute isn’t as important as complete streets and strong neighborhoods

Some people are worried about the idea of Dekalb potentially being changed to having only two lanes for car traffic in many spots, down from three, and how that might affect their car commutes. Let’s keep in mind that rail transit runs the entire length of this road, right beside it.

Here’s what Google has to say about the time it takes to take a MARTA train from Decatur to Downtown Atlanta during the morning rush.

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And here’s what Google says about the time it takes to get from Decatur to Downtown on the other car routes.

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These alternative routes are comparable to driving on Dekalb Avenue during peak commute times.

The important thing to address is the neighborhoods and overall connections. Thread ATL believes in building strong neighborhoods and in building good connections for the people in them. For the sake of good urbanism, those concerns have to be more important than ones about car commutes. When the needs of car commuters hurt the ability of neighborhoods to have safe connections to transit and pedestrian/bike travel, that’s a sign that major change needs to be planned and enacted.

This is not the same Atlanta — either in its current form or in its expected form for the future — that existed in 1960. Radical changes have happened and more are on the way. Our main roads will need to reflect those changes.

What can you do? Send comments!

You can print and fill out a comment card from the Renew Atlanta website, or email them at: renewatlanta@atlantaga.gov

The deadline for comments is December 8. Let the city know that this street needs to become a safe place to walk and bike — a street for strong neighborhoods and good urban connectivity, not simply a route for car commutes!

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** Correction: thanks to the reader who pointed out that there is actually a sidewalk set back from the street in front of Fox Brothers. I hadn’t noticed it before and that’s probably because there are usually cars parked in it during the evening.