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Atlantans are telling stories about their commutes through an interactive art project

Interactive project

Atlanta designer Sarah Lawrence has developed an interactive project that allows residents to take a look at how their daily commutes compare to those of others across the city, while thinking about why they use their particular mode. She calls it a ‘living infographic’:

Living Infographics

At a recent Root City event, participants tied color-coded strings representing their commute mode (driving along, walking, cycling, transit, carpooling) to the neighborhood they live in, and  they made note of the time it takes to get to work. Some of the results were surprising to Lawrence,  who says, “even though I grew up in intown Atlanta and fully grasp our traffic, I was still surprised at the number of people who proudly drive 15 minutes or less to work.”

Here’s a graphic showing the results from the “driving alone” commuters:

Driving alone infographic
I asked her a couple of questions about the project and these are the answers she sent, via email:

Do you think that participants in this interactive project have come away with a new perspective on their driving-alone commutes? Are they now viewing their commuting mode with a critical eye?

SL: “The thing that stuck out the most was how pleased people were with their short, solo commutes. One guy tied his string on, stood back to look at it with me, and said “wow, I’m lucky to have such a short drive.” Another woman walked by later, pointed at all of the strings indicating short drives, and shook her head. “Shouldn’t some of those people like, walk or bike?” Even if a lot of those people have situations that require them to drive a car, I’m sure plenty more live close enough to work that they could at least try it out a few days a week. Or carpool at least!”

As you’ve talked with the participants, do you get the sense that the high number of “drive alone” commuters is a product of preference or of inadequate choices? Or maybe even of an overall built environment (where our homes and destinations are located and how they’re connected) that reduces choice?

SL: “I used to take MARTA to Buckhead when I worked up there, and I really liked it—but it was definitely not for the faint of heart. I was nearly hit by cars or splashed with rainwater all the time, and in the deadening heat of the summer and chilly rainy winter evenings were miserable. I really loved taking the train because I got to read and catch up on emails, but I could understand how it’s not for everyone.”

“One of my friends still works up there and drives an hour each way; insisted on continuing to drive even when the bridge was down and she needed to find a lengthy detour. She lives and works super close to MARTA stations and had the choice, but just didn’t want to make the leap. The general sense I got from talking to participants is that they like having the freedom to change their plans, go somewhere after work, stop by a grocery store on the way home—even if we’ve designed our lives to live and work in a way that doesn’t necessarily require owning a car, it’s all of the other factors that keep us in them.”

According to the most recent American Community Survey data from last year, 69 percent of residents of the City of Atlanta drive alone to work, which is actually not bad for a sunbelt city when you compare the numbers. But surely we can do better and reduce that percentage intown.

The most troubling thing about that number is that it hasn’t changed — we were also at 69 percent for driving-alone commutes in 2005. Can city residents break the car commute habit? What’s keeping that percentage from moving? Is it a need for better alternatives (better connected bike lanes, more frequent bus service)? Or is our overall built environment just not what it should be in terms of facilitating choices in commute mode?