Atlanta’s bias toward driving, on our roads and in the media

Pushing back and challenging the assumptions of car-centric behavior, in urban design and in media coverage, is a key element in achieving positive change toward better urbanism. 

This is Moreland Avenue, just north of Little Five Points. My smartphone camera isn’t great at night, so you may have to trust me: there’s a sidewalk over to the left.  Notice the streetlights facing away from the sidewalk and toward the cars that really don’t need them, leaving pedestrians in the dark.

Moreland Avenue
Moreland Avenue, north of Little Five Points. Notice the streetlights facing away from the sidewalks.

This is one of the many little (and big) ways we favor automobiles as mobility, with “death by a thousand cuts” going to people on foot.

I took this photo on a recent evening while my wife and son and I were walking back from a shopping trip. We took the Freedom Path multi-use trail. It ended up having  almost no lighting – unlike Freedom Parkway (the road that runs beside it) which was well-lit. We ended up getting off the Path and walking a much longer route just to get some lights.

I don’t think we passed more than five pedestrians on our long trip, and it’s no wonder why. As a city, we’ve fairly designed ourselves into car dependency on too many levels . How many times are Atlantans in a situation where we suffer the indignities of car-focused design? Too often. Do we really think about it in terms of change? And who could make that change happen? The danger is in accepting the status quo as inevitable. 

The 285/400 interchange: why is the AJC not mentioning induced demand?

400/285 interchange
Site of the I-285/GA 400 interchange redesign. Source: GDOT website

Here’s an example of how that automobile bias works its way into the media. Check out this recent AJC article: Major work begins on one of metro Atlanta’s worst traffic bottlenecks.

Construction has begun in earnest on a fix for one of metro Atlanta’s worst traffic bottlenecks. The new I-285 interchange at Ga. 400 will take almost three more years to complete.When it’s done, state transportation officials say it will make commuting easier for hundreds of thousands of people…GDOT’s solution is to completely rebuild the interchange with a series of new collector-distributor lanes and flyover ramps that will carry more vehicles

If this article was about rail-transit expansion, the AJC would’ve likely gotten a quote from some anti-rail quack like Randal O’Toole as “balance” for the issue, as if we can’t just accept new high-speed public transportation as a good thing.  Or maybe they’d have gotten one from  David Hancock, chairman of the United Tea Party of Georgia, about the expense of transit. Or one from noted rail-transit critic Wendell Cox.

But since it’s about highway expansion for cars, this article basically a press release for the Georgia Department of Transportation, without a single mention of the induced demand effect.

In 2015, California’s DOT admitted a fact that had become more and more supported by data: congestion relief on major roads is a dubious pursuit, in which added capacity for cars induces more car trips.

The fact that the AJC didn’t mention it is a demonstration of another one of the little ways we express favoritism for driving. (Notable: a Google search on AJC.com shows that the only time “induced demand” has ever showed up in the text of a post is in the comments section.)

Tip of the iceberg

These two examples are obviously just a small part of the problem. Parking requirements for new construction (notice that we have no bus-shelter requirements for new developments that are built on bus lines), media reports on pedestrian deaths that shame pedestrians by focusing on whether or not they were in a crosswalk (even where crosswalks don’t exist) – there are many little cuts happening all the time.

Try to notice when this happens around you. Notice when a reporter or a developer or a politician is looking at Atlanta with a car-windshield perspective and invalidating the concerns of transit riders and cyclists and pedestrians. Pushing back and challenging the assumptions of car-centric behavior may be the only way to heal the wounds and create a healthier place.