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Atlanta’s Second Chance to Build Bikeways and Complete Streets

Little progress has been made on Atlanta’s planned complete streets projects. City of Atlanta leaders need to follow through! This guest post from Joe Hurley tells a story of lost opportunities and what we can learn from them.

Nearly three and half years ago Atlanta residents overwhelmingly approved the Renew Atlanta Bond, a $250 million infrastructure improvement bond that, among other things, promises to fund the construction of “bike lanes and Complete Streets projects for more transportation options.”

One year later, voters approved the 2016 City of Atlanta T-SPLOST, a local sales tax for transportation. It allocates an unprecedented $75 million for 15 complete streets projects and for bikeways to connect neighborhoods with public schools and rail stations.

Concerningly, the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition (ABC) recently noted that, to date, little progress has been made on the complete streets projects. ABC says, “we’re seeing one project after another get kicked down the road to 2020.” The City of Atlanta stands at a critical transportation crossroad. Will it build complete streets and bikeways as viable transportation alternatives, or will it continue to primarily invest in infrastructure for car travel on streets?

We’ve been down this street before

This is the second time the City of Atlanta has faced a choice about building a bikeway network.  During the 1970s, plans were produced for an expansive one. Documents from that decade reveal an amazing, truly forward-thinking vision in which biking was to be a legitimate mode of transportation with safe, protected bikeways.

Although the city ultimately failed in its attempt to build this system, the ideas proposed provide important lessons about the current choices the city faces with complete streets and bikeways.  In fact, many of the concepts and some of the proposed projects that were outlined in the 1970s plans are essentially the same that we are discussing today.

1973’s ‘The Bicycle’ plan: a progressive missed opportunity

The 1973 pioneering publication The Bicycle, commissioned by the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), the Georgia Department of Transportation, and MARTA, became the nation’s first regional bikeway plan and clearly articulated the need for safe and protected bike lanes.

In an almost prophetic declaration, the authors noted, “In short, there is little question that interest in bicycling will remain high. The biggest single deterrent to continued interest in the Atlanta region would be the lack of safe and pleasant bicycling facilities.”  Forty-five years later, the lack of safe bicycling facilities remains the number one deterrent to biking.

The Bicycle challenged transportation planners to rethink road design, including descriptions and illustrations of street cross section designs that would provide safe and pleasant bike facilities.  The protected lane, track, and bikeway designs proposed, which are now almost a half-a-century-old, are the same designs that many Atlanta residents would like to see used in the city’s complete streets and bikeway plans.

Cross sections
Source: The Bicycle, 1973, 27.

The most astonishing bicycle infrastructure plan from The Bicycle is also perhaps the city’s greatest missed opportunity. Published approximately two years before the construction of MARTA tracks began, it called for building bikeways along the rail lines. The proposals are so intriguing that they deserve to be quoted in full:

“There is a very great potential “market” for commuting by bicycle into the Atlanta Central Business District. Unfortunately, traffic volumes are so high on virtually all approach routes that provision of safe bicycling facilities on existing streets into the CBD appears virtually impossible. Potentially severe cost, engineering, and legal problems notwithstanding, there appears to be one unusual, if not unique, opportunity for penetrating into the core. That potential lies along the railroad corridors entering the CBD from four directions almost totally grade-separated from existing transportation facilities. The bicyclist could arrive at Underground Atlanta and be within convenient walking distance of such concentrated activities as Georgia State University, the Capitol Complex, and other commercial employment concentrations. This opportunity appears to be particularly good in conjunction with the proposed MARTA construction on the eastern approach route to the CBD. A bike track is already planned along Decatur Street. If this bike track, or bike lane, continued to follow the MARTA alignment away from Decatur Street, direct access to Underground Atlanta would be possible. In addition, bicycle facilities should be included in the proposed Peachtree Pedestrian Mall running from Five Points to Simpson Street.”

The “planned bike track along Decatur Street” did not come to fruition. But included in The Bicycle is a drawing of a bike track along the Decatur Street/DeKalb Avenue corridor.  This drawing of the then yet-to-be-built Candler Park MARTA Station proposes a “bicycle facility incorporated into the reconstruction of DeKalb Avenue.”

Candler Park bike facilities
Source: The Bicycle, 1973, 23.

1974 ARC plan anticipates today’s ideas for DeKalb Avenue

One year later in 1974, ARC released the Decatur Parkway Preliminary Engineering Design Report, which contained detailed plans of the proposed Decatur Parkway, a plan for remaking DeKalb Avenue.  The document’s cover depicts an aerial view drawing showing a bike track adjacent to the Candler Park Station.

Source: Decatur Parkway Preliminary Engineering Design Report, Phase I, 1974, cover image.

The technical drawings reveal a plan for a bikeway on the north side of Decatur Street/DeKalb Avenue that would run the expanse from Hilliard Street all the way to East Lake Road.  Although the plans unfortunately called for significantly widening the street, adding lanes, and eliminating a number of buildings, the multi-modal concept depicted in the street cross sections are remarkably similar to two cross section proposals revealed for DeKalb Avenue at the Renew Atlanta DeKalb Avenue Complete Street Project meeting on March 30, 2017.

typical parkway section
Source: Decatur Parkway Preliminary Engineering Design Report, Phase I, 1974, 29.
Cross section b
Source: DeKalb Avenue Corridor Improvement, Public Meeting 2, Information Packet, March 30, 2017, accessed August 2, 201.
Cross section d
Source: DeKalb Avenue Corridor Improvement, Public Meeting 2, Information Packet, March 30, 2017, accessed August 2, 2018.

1977 City of Atlanta plan would’ve produced a biker’s paradise

During the 1970s, City of Atlanta planners seemed to take seriously the recommendations from The Bicycle, at least according to city planning documents from the period. The 1977 City of Atlanta Comprehensive Development Plan stated that the city should “provide bike paths within the rights-of-way of major streets and highways when such streets are improved or newly constructed.”

It also called for the development of “bicycle lanes in coordination with the construction of MARTA line segments.” Finally, the 1977 Comprehensive Development Plan included a city-wide 15-Year Bikeway Plan map. If the city had followed through with this bikeway plan, by 1992 Atlanta would have had a reputation as a cyclist’s paradise.

Citywide bike plan
Source: Comprehensive Development Plan, 1977, 225.

After a 1980s stagnation, the PATH Foundation comes through

By the early 1980s planning documents revealed the city’s frustration over funding for bicycle infrastructure.  The 1983 City of Atlanta Comprehensive Development Plan stated that the “capacity of the city to implement bicycle projects is limited because of the lack of federal funding for such improvements.”

Bicycle infrastructure emanating from city officials seemed to stagnate for a long period thereafter. Although only a small fraction of the 1970s plans materialized, high quality bicycle infrastructure in Atlanta found its redeemer two decades later. With the arrival of Ed McBrayer and his PATH Foundation, and with Olympic planning, bikeways in the form of multi-use paths became a reality.

The Bicycle stated that “to a certain extent, the battle for bikeways has already been lost in the developed portions of the Atlanta region.” But with examples such as the recently constructed PATH Parkway and the Luckie Street cycle track, the PATH Foundation has proven that the battle for bikeways has certainly not been lost.

PATH Parkway
PATH Parkway before and after the PATH Foundation sponsored conversion to a multi-use path. Source:  Best of Atlanta Urbanism, 2017, ThreadATL, accessed August 10, 2018.

It’s time to learn from the failure of the 1970s plans

During the 1970s, city officials seemed willing to allow bicycles into the city’s transportation mix.  They also seemed willing to recognize bicycling as a legitimate transportation mode. During that same decade, residents of the City of Atlanta faced a choice of whether or not to fund MARTA and construct a rapid transit system. MARTA was built, but the system of bikeways was not.

Today, it would be difficult to imagine Atlanta without a MARTA rail system. Had the city built the bikeway system that it envisioned during the 1970s, it would be equally difficult to imagine the city without an extensive bikeway system.

Atlanta failed with its extraordinary bikeway plans during the 1970s. Incredibly, the City of Atlanta once again has the opportunity to build a network of bikeways and complete streets. An essential difference between today’s opportunity and the one from the 1970s is that today the City of Atlanta has $75 million in funding from T-SPLOST and millions more from the Renew Atlanta Bond to actually build complete streets and bikeways.

Now is the time for the city to finally answer the 1973 call to build safe and pleasant bicycling facilities. To miss this opportunity would be the equivalent of failing to build the MARTA rail system.

The City of Atlanta cannot fail this time. City leaders need to follow through with the stated plans to build bikeways and complete streets. Failing to build safe bicycle infrastructure now when long sought-after funds have finally become available would show disregard toward the previous generation that tried to build bikeways in Atlanta. It would show contempt toward the current generation of planners, advocates, and residents who present city leaders with evidence-based studies that confirm that complete streets and bikeways lead to healthier, safer, and more sustainable cities.

If the bikeway network and complete streets are not built, Atlanta leaders would irresponsibly place the city’s future generations in jeopardy as they will suffer under needlessly increased pollution levels and intractable traffic congestion. Atlanta voters overwhelmingly approved funding for safe bicycle infrastructure and these funds are currently available. City of Atlanta leaders should act responsibly and build a bikeway network and complete streets without any further delay.

Call to Action

Write to Renew Atlanta and let them know how important these projects are.

Also contact the Atlanta City Council Transportation Committee members:

Andre Dickens – Chair
Natalyn Archibong
Amir Farokhi
Dustin R. Hillis
JP Matzigkeit
Marci Collier Overstreet
Carla Smith