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Change doesn’t come quickly for state roads in the city, but it does come

State Roads

I get the sense that a lot of my fellow Atlantans — particularly ones who are concerned about pedestrian safety and better road design — are as confused as I am about all of the state routes that run through our city, and what we can do to get them redesigned. The map above (a detail of a larger one) shows all the roads that are managed by the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT).

Many times, I’ve asked people-in-the-know what could be done about a particular road with pitiful sidewalks and crosswalks and the answer is “that’s a state road, Darin, it’s up to GDOT to change it.” But after further investigation, it looks like there is some stuff that we can do as residents to help move those roads in a better direction. It’s not easy or quick, but it’s possible.

This post looks at two City of Atlanta streets that carry state routes, each of them in different phases of long-term redesigns: Memorial Drive and Peachtree Road.

Big changes for Memorial Drive’s design could support growth

There have been some concerns about safety on Memorial Drive which runs east/west on the eastern end of the city. Anyone who walks on this street regularly knows that it’s in need of attention. Luckily, someone out there is paying a lot of attention and making some good progress on getting this street in a more pedestrian-friendly (and overall safer) state.

Greg Giuffrida is a planner who works at Central Atlanta Progress on the Memorial Drive Corridor project, which aims to make that road a safer and more inviting place for the communities that sit beside it. Because Memorial Drive is a state route, this means working closely with the Georgia Department of Transportation.

I sat down with Giuffrida to get some information about his work on Memorial. Two main points stuck to me from our talk. One was the need for patience: GDOT sometimes takes criticism for the long timeline of its projects. There’s a reason for that: if federal money is involved in a road redesign — and it often is — then there’s a review process that has to be undertaken.

The second point was the complexity of this work: The scope of the project  goes from Downtown Atlanta all the way to the eastern city limit, five and a half miles, and it deals with years’ worth of various plans.

Memorial Drive
Nice sidewalk in front of a new apartment building on Memorial, near Reynoldstown. But this is not the kind of sidewalk you find everywhere on this street. See below for the vast contrasts.

What was the origin of this Memorial Drive project?

GG: “This came out the recognition that there were a lot of past plans related to Memorial Drive but none of them had really had success in coming together to advocate for major changes in the way the roadway is designed.”

“It’s not that they had no successes but speed and safety and aesthetic concerns along Memorial have continued to be a problem for decades. This effort is taking a look at a lot of the past plans while coming up with a new framework for addressing the problems. We had an LCI plan for part of the corridor, each neighborhood had its own plans, the Beltline had its subarea master plans — there’s a patchwork of all these plans.”

“City Council member Natalyn Archibong commissioned this because she was hearing clearly from her constituents that past efforts hadn’t been successful in getting the kinds of safety improvements in the road that they were looking for. Then she worked with Mike Dobbins at Georgia Tech to put together the scope of a study.

“In fall of 2014 the councilmember and the City of Atlanta paid for a Georgia Tech study of the road and all of these plans. ‘Imagine Memorial’ was a semester studio project with a professor and about a dozen graduate planning students working on it. This was a community led effort born out of frustration with the lack of progress in getting results from these past plans. None of them came together to produce major changes to the road.”

Memorial Drive
Just a little further west of the nice sidewalk pictured above is this busted one that turns into a pig-trail walkway. Pedestrians deserve better than this death-defying scramble for safety next to speeding vehicles. A state route should be for everyone. It’s not the Georgia Department of Car Service, is it?

What is one of the main things that neighborhood advocates need to know about GDOT’s process of redesigning roads, versus the City’s?

GG: “With GDOT, it’s difficult to go to them and say ‘we want to change this one mile of road’ — they look at the whole route. They’re running a statewide and regional transportation network. And if you’re not framing things in a way that responds to that, you’re probably not going to have as much luck as you could in getting the kinds of changes you want to see on the road.”

Is there a lot of support for the Memorial Drive project because of the new development that’s happening? 

GG: “The sense of urgency to make Memorial a better urban street is being driven by the recent wave of private development. But the foundation for this new development between Moreland and Downtown was put in place by the communities almost a decade ago, through community planning.

Memorial Drive
This is the section of Memorial alongside Oakland Cemetery. The sidewalk is narrow, with no buffer between pedestrians and cars that often speed above the limit. This cement block has been upended like this for years and years. It shouldn’t take this long for essential fixes to pedestrian safety.

Do you think there’s a lot of buy-in on a singular vision for what a “better urban street” looks like on Memorial?

GG: “There is buy-in on a few priorities. Like pedestrian safety. Everyone is in clear agreement that we need quality pedestrian facilities on both sides of Memorial, like sidewalks, ADA ramps, more crossing options.”

“Everyone is in agreement that driver speeds on the road are too high. Even though the designated speed limit is 35 MPH, the design of the road really allows and encourages speeds much higher than that. Even in locations where those kinds of speeds are dangerous.”

“There’s a general agreement that the reversible lane situation is confusing and unsafe. If you’re headed east on Memorial toward Reynoldstown, when you get to Pearl Street where the Atlanta Dairies project is, at that point the road goes down from five lanes to three lanes with a reversible and continues like that all the way to Moreland Avenue.”

What’s the timeline on seeing these kinds of changes?

GG: “We think there will be some significant projects that get us much of the way there within five years. Five years is good for any kind of transportation project. It’s obviously not soon enough for people in the community. But we’re talking about some pretty significant changes and some significant money.”

>> Lots of info on the project is on the Memorial Drive ATL website.

Peachtree Road in Buckhead: becoming a nicer place to walk

Just north of Loudermilk park, Peachtree Road in Buckhead is a pretty awful place for a walk thanks to a disappearing sidewalk. Imagine crossing this on foot with children or with a mobility impairment or with limited vision. This is not a road for everyone, and yet everyone pays into it since it’s a public route.

One of the incidents that made me want to write about this topic was a walk in Buckhead. I was at a church where my son was having choir practice  and decided to take a stroll around while I waited. The experience was enlightening and frustrating. I’d never noticed before how the sidewalks are patchy on Peachtree Road just south of Maple Drive. At a couple of points, the sidewalks disappear and are taken over by parking lots. It was unsurprising that there were not many people walking around in that mess. The road sends a clear, dangerous signal to pedestrians that they are second class citizens here.

Just south of Maple Drive on Peachtree Road, the sidewalk disappears and becomes a parking lot. No wonder there is little pedestrian activity here. Want to decrease car trips and increase walking and transit use (MARTA buses and a community shuttle serve this road)? Fix this awful situation that turns pedestrians into second class citizens.

But once I got north of Maple, things changed dramatically. The sidewalks were wide and buffered with trees. And there were medians with flowers in the road. Why the vast contrast?

The sidewalks change dramatically, for the better, on the northern end of Peachtree Road in Buckhead.

For info on the road, I reached out to Jim Durrett. He’s the Executive Director for the Buckhead Community Improvement District (CID), which does planning for the area. He knew about the contrast and let me know there’s a plan for extending the good pedestrian infrastructure southward.

I asked Durrett if pedestrian improvements are important to Buckhead’s residential and business community. He said “yes, it’s extremely important. One of the things we focused on is figuring out what interventions we make so that the original core of Buckhead becomes as walkable as it can be. People love what we’ve done transforming Peachtree Road and they say to please keep it going down [south] our way.”

Planted median
The planted median on Peachtree Road makes walking one a crosswalk a bit nicer.

By ‘original core’ he means the intersection of Peachtree and Roswell Road, at Charlie Loudermilk Park. Extending the good stuff down that way will be very helpful indeed. Durrett says that pedestrian improvements from Maple to Shadowlawn Avenue will be under construction probably late 2017 through 2018. I asked him if the redesign could encompass improving the situation where the sidewalk ends and parking spaces block the pedestrian walkthrough. He answered: “there’s potential.” So, no promises.

Peachtree Road
Peachtree Road is very wide in the northern part of Buckhead. Having wide sidewalks with buffers (trees, flowers, posts, benches) helps make it more welcoming for walkers.

He also noted, as did Giuffrida with the Memorial Drive project, the need for patience when working with the state, saying, “we’ve been designing [Peachtree Road] streetscape improvements for all the stretch within the CID boundaries and GDOT is telling us that, even though we’re funding this locally, it has to go through federal review. We’ve gotta play by their rules. Not that they would lead to a lesser outcome — just more processes to go through.”

>> More info is on the Peachtree Transformation section of the Buckhead CID site. 

Informed advocacy: know the details so that our efforts count

Funded through a 2015 infrastructure bond, the Renew Atlanta initiative is allowing the City to change the design of many of its streets. Improved  safety and better pedestrian/cycling connections are a big focus of the redesigns, and the planning and engagement for several complete-street projects has been going on for a while now.

Construction on some — such as a Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard re-do that includes traffic calming and bike lanes — could start in early 2018.

But change doesn’t come as quickly for the many roads in the middle of Atlanta that belong to the state. Metropolitan Parkway, Spring Street, Freedom Parkway, Ponce de Leon Avenue, North Avenue: all of these (and more) are streets that contain state routes. Atlantans can’t expect the City to be able to makes changes them the same way it can change other streets.

Neighborhoods have to follow a separate route — often a long and complex one — to get changes made to those state routes.  Sometimes you have to work through the local community improvement district as a channel for public engagement, rather than city officials. For the sake of safety and good connections for pedestrians and cyclists,  it’s worth the effort. Inequality is embedded in the infrastructure of too many state routes in our city, accommodating car flow while fairly ignoring the needs of people on foot. We shouldn’t throw our hands up and say “well it’s a state road, so we’re helpless.” But we do have to know the differences and the details regarding planning processes in order to make our voices heard and our efforts count.