Atlanta’s Mayor Bottoms made a startling, unannounced move yesterday, vetoing the conversion of Baker Street from a one-way ‘car sewer’ to a safer two-way street.
What’s so concerning about this veto is that support for converting the street is widespread, including:
- 11 Council members who voted ‘yes’ on this, including two that represent the districts that the street runs through.
- The Downtown Atlanta Master Plan developed by Central Atlanta Progress, which includes significant community engagement and planning data; it promotes the benefits of converting several of these one-way car sewers, Baker Street included.
- The mayor’s own planning chief, Tim Keane, who’s been publicly trumpeting the benefits of changing this street to reduce its focus on car flow and speed, and who went so far as to publicly criticize an AJC article that questioned the conversion on Twitter:
- The Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, which created an online petition to draw support for this conversion because of the known safety benefits:
Why this veto is significant
With this veto, Bottoms is also casting a shadow over Atlanta’s ability to commit to becoming a less car-oriented city – and she’s doing it exactly when we need to be attracting a good Department of Transportation candidate from a national pool.
Local urbanists and advocates are still reeling from the city’s lack of follow-through on complete street plans, and from the City’s milquetoast response to pushback on the good DeKalb Avenue redesign. Vetoing the Baker Street conversion is another brick in that same wall, but the wall doesn’t have to remain standing.
Atlanta can overcome this hurdle. Whoever got the mayor’s ear and persuaded her to make this move doesn’t have to win the day. This can be reintroduced in Council (or better yet, Council can easily overturn this veto at their next meeting), and it can usher in the successful conversion and redesign of other streets for safety, and for moving away from priority towards car flow and speed.
The benefits of the redesign are clear
This post from the Public Square blog contains an excellent list of the benefits of converting wide, one-way streets to two-way ones, as well as success stories from cities that have implemented conversions.
These benefits – reducing car speeds, reducing pedestrian collisions, improving interactions between cars and bicycles – are particularly important for fostering walkable cities.
“There was a time when all city streets were two-way—but between 1950 and 1980, Speck documents an “epidemic” of conversions to one-way streets in cities all across America. Although one-way systems can sometimes work well—particularly if there is a dense network of narrow streets—mostly these conversions greatly damaged downtowns by killing off retail and turning city streets into, essentially, surface highways”
Essentially, changing them to one-way in the first place was a mistake.
Mayor Bottoms refers to Baker Street redesign by saying “if it happens” — that should be “when”
During an interview on WABE, where I spoke to Rose Scott about Baker Street for her “Closer Look” show, Scott played an audio clip of Mayor Bottoms saying that she vetoed this ordinance so that the city can “step back” and give reassurances to property owners and they can feel better about the conversion — “if it happens.”
That “if” made my head explode. It needs to be a “when.” It would be completely inappropriate for the mayor to scuttle the project to turn these car sewers into safer streets. Luckily, most local leaders are moving ahead with the understanding that the project isn’t dead, per this AJC article.
The opposition’s argument about safety concerns is misleading, to say the least
If you look at the engineering report for Baker Street that was prepared for prepared for Richard Bowers & Co. Real Estate (Bowers, who owns an office tower on Baker Street, has been the most vocal opponent to conversion), you’ll find one line that has had a big impact: “Converting one-way roads to two-way roads are expected to increase pedestrian and vehicular crash rates by 57%.” That stat has been trumpeted loudly by the opposition.
The footnote for that line points us to a report from 2010 from the Texas Department of Transportation, based on a study of five rural towns that converted their two-way “frontage roads” to one-way. What was found is that there were 57% fewer collisions after the small towns in the study converted their downtown streets from two-way to one-way.
This was not a study of an Atlanta-sized city converting one-way car sewers to two-way roads and finding them to be more dangerous. It’s about rural towns changing their streets and it’s completely inapplicable to our situation.
Interestingly, one of the towns in the Texas study, Sulphur Springs, has just this year decided the conversion wasn’t a success overall and has changed their downtown roads back to two-way.
A much more accurate comparison would be Louisville, where they did convert one-way streets in their downtown to two-way. They say accidents decline, and they even saw traffic flow improve.