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Is Atlanta becoming a top biking city? Maybe something even better?

There were 1.87 million users of the Eastside Trail in 2017 according to the annual report of the Atlanta Beltline. When I visit the trail and see these throngs of people walking and riding bikes, my first thought is always, “how wonderful that so many Atlantans are into active transportation!” Which is then followed quickly by: “how can we shift some of these people to the streets?”

It’s one thing to get folks out on a multi-use trail that intersects with surface streets very infrequently. That’s a safe and inviting setting for cyclists and pedestrians, obviously. But it’s a completely different thing to get more Atlantans out on the city streets outside of their car and yet elbow-to-rearview-mirror with drivers, sharing intersections regularly. That’s quite a task for a city that often gets spoken of as a place where “everybody drives,” but efforts have been made.

In 2013, former mayor Kasim Reed said he wanted Atlanta to become a top 10 biking city (in his usual “aim for world-class status” style) by the year 2016. I can’t imagine anyone making a convincing argument that we succeeded, but no one can say that we haven’t made some significant strides. A new report on cycling in the city offers a good look at those strides.

The City of Atlanta’s Department of City Planning released its first Annual Bicycle Report a few weeks ago, and in several colorful pages it details some impressive stats: the Path Parkway cycle track on Luckie Street/Tech Parkway was named best bikeway by People for Bikes; 10 new miles of bikeways were constructed; and more than 25,000 people used the Relay bike sharing system. Not bad at all for one year.

The state (and future) of cycling in Atlanta, according to Bike Czar Becky Katz

But to get truly excited about where we’re headed, you need to talk to Becky Katz who works in the city’s planning department and is known as the Bike Czar of Atlanta. I spoke with her recently and got some good info on what we’ve achieved and what lies ahead.

Becky Katz
Becky Katz, the City of Atlanta’s Bike Czar, points out some cycling info on a map.

ThreadATL: What are some of the interesting things you’ve learned about the way Atlantans use the Relay bike share system, according to statistics?

Katz: “A lot of people thought bike share was going to be used mostly for recreational rides but we’re seeing a lot of short trips that are being taken for errands, and commuting, and connections to transit. In fact 12% of all Relay rides start or end at a rail station.”

ThreadATL: Oh, that’s cool. Sounds like it’s not just a recreational tool — people are using this for regular, daily trips. What about where they’re riding, what can we see about that?

Katz: “We know where all the Relay bikes are going — they all have GPS units on them. If you look at where more of the rides are happening, it’s on roads that have protected bike facilities.”

ThreadATL: Interesting, So is that something you can take to the City and say ‘hey, look at how popular these protected lanes are?

Katz: “For me that is a HUGE talking point. If you build protected bike facilities in areas that have some amount of density, you WILL get ridership. We’ve seen it on 10th Street, we’ve seen in on Luckie/Tech Parkway which had really low bike ridership before [the protected lane was built].”

Chart of Relay use increasing
From the 2017 bike report, this chart shows an impressive growth in memberships for the City of Atlanta’s Relay bike share program.

ThreadATL: What’s happening on Juniper Street? Is the long-promised protected bike lane coming?

Katz: “Yes, It’s a one-way protected bikeway, so it’ll be sidewalks, seven foot bike lane, a planted strip, a full lane of parking and two lanes of travel from 14th to Ponce. That’s an old project that was federally funded. To match that, through TSPLOST, Piedmont Avenue will get the same condition — so it’ll be bike lane one-way pairs [note: Juniper is southbound, Piedmont is northbound] similar to the one-way car pairs. And that’s under design. Juniper is ready for construction, we’re just waiting for the federal government to give us permission.”

Juniper Street bike lane
Rendering of the Juniper Street bike lane, which can begin construction as soon as Atlanta gets final permission from the feds, who are providing funding support . Source: Midtown Alliance.

ThreadATL: What kinds of things can we look forward to, and I mean things that you’re particularly happy about personally?

Katz: “Through TSPLOST the city is doing an expansion of Relay and it’ll include electric bikes and I think that’s going to be VERY well received. We’re looking forward to at least another 500 bikes at another 70 stations. We’ll be focused on expanding south of I-20 and also east of Moreland Avenue.”

“I’m very excited about the Lee Street trail which is in southwest Atlanta. I think that’s a really needed connection and the community has been excited about the project. Also the eastside trolley trail that will run along Arkwright and will connect to Hosea Williams and to the Beltline at Mauldin.”

Rendering of Lee Street bike project
Vision for the Lee Street bike project, current (left) and future (right).

So what about it? Is this a cycling city yet?

Even after looking at the bike report, and even after feeling optimistic following my talk with Katz, if I was going to answer that question of “is Atlanta becoming a top bike city,” I’d probably balk. I’d say it’s the wrong question to ask, and arguably even the wrong goal to aim for.

Consider the TSPLOST and More MARTA projects, which include not just good things for pedestrian/bike infrastructure but also transit. Those are funded by revenue we’re collecting through the  2016 referendum that City voters approved. And consider the Renew Atlanta projects, including some complete-streets redesigns, that are coming thanks to a separate stream of funding we approved. What seems apparent to me is that Atlanta has gained the resources and the energy to become something more important than a bike city. It could become a multi-modal city.

Atlanta could have streets that embody the essence of a truly public domain, designed with respect for all users. That’s a status that Atlanta hasn’t achieved since the heyday of the old streetcar system in the 1920s. Which is not to say that this is a retro goal — it’s very forward thinking, and in this emerging future of mobility, we can do street-sharing much more safely and efficiently than we did 100 years ago.

We’ve seen how plans can be undone: diligence is needed from advocactes

Part of the key to reaching this better-than-bike-city goal is going to be shifting that enthusiasm for alternative transportation off of just the Beltline and getting it onto the streets. But we can only do that *if* the various projects — TSPLOST, More MARTA, and Renew Atlanta — are carried out. The city has to fulfill its commitments. It has to stick to these good plans, even when opposition rises from people who want to maintain the current level of car-priority.

We’ve seen the way that people can rise up and scuttle or delay proposals. It happened with the scrapped bike lane on Peachtree Road. It happened with the dismantled bike lane on Westview Drive. It happened with the sad inertia regarding a fix for the deadly intersection of the Beltline and Monroe Drive after residents voiced concerns about car flow. And, reportedly, uproar from residents scared about car flow on DeKalb Avenue have hampered the redesign process for that dangerous road.

Just because there are some good things happening, we’re not off the hook when it comes to advocacy action. We have to be diligent and demand that city leaders follow through with designs that will produce safe, inviting streets for every type of transportation.SaveSave

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