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Ask ATL: How are we doing with our climate goals?

This week we learned that Atlanta became one of five cities selected to be part of the Climate Challenge program from National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). NACTO won’t provide funding, but they’ll work with the cities’ transportation departments to design and implement high-quality bike and transit corridors by the end of 2020.

Shifting Atlantans away from many of their single-occupancy vehicle trips so that we can address the climate crisis is a goal that has been stated by various levels of city leadership. But how are we really doing with that? Are we taking it as seriously as we should?

We turned to three local experts and asked them three questions about how Atlanta is handling the climate crisis.

1. What are people-first streets, and do we have any in Atlanta?

Cyclists on Peachtree Street this summer during Streets Alive
Cyclists on Peachtree Street during Streets Alive

The question is: where are these [people-first streets] and who is privileged to live on or near them? Too many people reliant on transit, walking, and/or cycling for their daily routines are made vulnerable to injury and death because we are not creating safe sidewalks, streets, and trails for them.

On people-first streets, the way street space is allocated reflects that people come first, rather than any one type of vehicle.

Wylie Street, where our office is located, is not fully there but comes close. We have sidewalks, plenty of marked crosswalks so you don’t have to go blocks out of your way just to cross the street, the BeltLine, and markings on the street that indicate you can also bike there. I know it’s almost a people-first street because during our “Bike There” event last Friday when we pulled our couch outside and plopped it in a parking space no one complained, yet cars still zoomed past at high speeds because there was nothing to slow them down.

We need to prevent cars from reaching fatal speeds throughout the city – there are too many examples to count of car-first streets. So many examples, in fact, that people are surprised to hear streets aren’t just for cars.

Streets should be designed to build community, not just move cars. People-centric roads serve as a connector of businesses and neighborhoods that enable users of all ages and physical ability to safely navigate sidewalks, public transit, bike lanes, and the roadways. Broad Street Pedestrian Plaza, the BeltLine and Streets Alive, when major thoroughfares are closed to vehicular traffic, offer glimpses into what a people-first street could be like in Atlanta.

2. What’s the most important thing Atlanta could do to make significant gains in reducing our contribution to the climate crisis?

I think Atlanta should make it’s current transit infrastructure work as hard as possible for all users. That would mean:

  • innovative financing to incent thoughtful, equitable, creative housing near transit stations including lots of housing affordable to families earning 50% or less of area median income;
  • investments in the sidewalks and connecting streets that bring users to the transit and make it pleasurable to walk, cycle or scooter to their main transportation option; and
  • sustained engagement in courageous conversations about the impact of race and racism in creating the disparities that are holding all of us back, and what we all need to thrive.

Atlanta needs to stop spending additional resources to further accommodate cars and traffic. If we keep accommodating traffic we’re doomed to sit in it. Replace that obsession with reallocating space on our streets so that most streets include realistic options for people beyond cars.  We have a transit system but it’s underinvested and underused. To have the greatest impact we could create a network of shared bus/bike lanes. These would prioritize the kind of transportation that moves people more sustainably.

Seville, Spain is the poster child of how to build a network of bike lanes quickly. Connecting the whole city via a network of bike and scooter lanes (what some are calling LIT lanes, for Light Individual Transportation) would make safer biking and scooting accessible to all communities. For those streets where bike/LIT lanes don’t make sense, traffic calming measures like pedestrian refuge islands could make streets low-stress for people outside of cars.

Tackling climate change is really an “all of the above” endeavor where it will take strong commitments along the GHG-emitting sectors, buildings, transportation, electricity generation, land use/forestation, waste/materials management, and water. But essential to resilience is the human element, recognizing that we must commit to alleviating poverty, reducing inequities, and empowering women. Cities at the forefront of climate action are designing and building our heavy infrastructure in a way that fosters human connectivity, strong neighborhoods, and shared spaces. Atlanta can continue to be a leader on climate if we are deliberate about growing our city so that the natural and built environment promote human resilience.

3. What obligation does Atlanta have to shift car trips to bike, walking, and transit trips given the federal-level lack of action on the climate crisis?

Bike Riders
Streets Alive, Atlanta. Photo: Steve Eberhardt

Today we understand better and better the critical role cities play in setting and managing policies and strategies for all sorts of mutually beneficial goals. Atlanta has set its goal, and now must identify the strategies for getting there. So, the obligation we’ve created is to implement policies and strategies that protect the historically unprotected, center and amplify historically ignored voices, and in doing so we’ll come up with solutions that actually help all of us thrive.

We have both a major obligation and a major opportunity. We each hold in our hands the ability to contribute to climate change or to be part of the solution. I’m talking about car keys, MARTA cards, bike locks, and apps to unlock shared scooters and e-bikes.

As individuals, both those with privilege and those who lack other options can and do make things better with our daily transportation choices. As communities, we can band together to call for the changes we must have on our streets in order to shift from everyone driving everywhere, all the time. If we can get to the point where we only drive when there’s no other option we’ll be in great shape. And we have to hold our elected officials accountable to the issues, not to the noise of the status quo.

If we truly want to stop global warming, cities are going to have to take the lead. The good news is that cities are united by networks like Bloomberg Philanthropies American Cities Climate Challenge, Urban Sustainability Directors Network, The Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 Campaign, Clean Cities Coalition, U.S. Climate Mayors, and others. 

It’s imperative that cities not just focus on drafting plans but move forward with implementation. We need to unlock the potential of our citizens to take action to make their communities more resilient. That means providing residents with transportation options – like safe sidewalks, bike lanes, accessible and affordable bus and rail service.

Public transportation emissions
The per-passenger-mile emissions of public transportation are much lower than those of single occupancy vehicles. Source:

Thanks to Odetta, Rebecca, and Stephanie for taking part in this post. Look out for future posts where we’ll ask Atlantans their opinions on topics that affect the city.