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Atlanta welcomes its first Transportation chief and unveils a new plan with good ideas. Will we follow through?

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announces Josh Rowan (first man to her left) as Atlanta’s first-ever Department of Transportation commissioner, 11/13/2019

Congratulations to our new City of Atlanta, Department of Transportation Commissioner, Josh Rowan. Rowan has been heading up the Renew Atlanta program for the city, and he was selected after a national search led by Bloomberg Associates. 

Today’s announcement also included the release of the One Atlanta Strategic Transportation Plan, which lays out specific goals and timelines. There’s some interesting language in the plan about evaluating “future roadway fees” and “funding mechanisms.”

Could parking taxes and congestion pricing be part of that evaluation? We’ll find out in 2022, when ATLDOT has committee to present fee recommendations to Council and publish their recommendations from a pricing study. 

Bloomberg Associate’s Principal of Transportation, Janette Sadik-Khan (former NYC DOT Commissioner) has been part of the City of Atlanta’s search and development of the strategic plan, and was present at today’s announcement.

ThreadATL asked her how we make change in a city like ours where residents are resistant to it and local leaders seem too willing to back down. Sadik-Khan’s response: “People can’t argue about this. We’re not talking about one-off projects anymore. We’re talking about a strategic plan for the whole city. That’s a big difference and a commitment Atlanta is making to getting it done.”

Getting it done will take strong leadership in the face of pushback

The kind of commitment Sadik-Khan spoke of will be critical in the success of our new DOT. Changing the way people drive in Atlanta is incredibly hard.

If we’re going to increase access to safe public mobility options, it means making choices for a larger group, not just single occupancy vehicles. We’ll have to remove car lanes for bikes lanes. We’ll have to remove car lanes for bus rapid transit lanes. We’ll have to redesign streets to slow cars down so it’s safer for all ages and abilities to be on our sidewalks and streets. Residents, business owners, and big interests of all kinds will argue and push back. 

But Commissioner Rowan, we need you to take the lead on explaining to Atlantans why these changes are best for our city. Yes, resident voice is and will always be valuable. But we cannot continue to destroy potential useful transportation projects based on individuals who only focus on driving a private vehicle alone. The denial of a bike lane on Peachtree Street and the removal of an already built bike lane on Westview were mistakes, and they must not set precedent for how we move forward.

Highlights from the new Transportation Plan: they sound good in general, but details matter

ThreadATL has pulled out a few of our favorite highlights from the Transportation Plan:

  • Improve the bus network to connect more Atlantans to jobs and services.

    Cities across the country (Richmond, Houston, Jacksonville) are realizing the value in completely revamping their bus routes and building dedicated Bus Rapid Transit lanes to get people around more effectively. You only need to look at our current streetcar route to see the importance of an effective route that takes you where you need to go and having dedicated lanes.

    Redesigning bus routes isn’t easy, and there can be challenges. Outside factors like gas prices and employment rates have an impact on ridership. And while making sure buses travel on the most frequently accessed sites seems logical, it can have its own set of unique problems.

    Richmond is currently facing charges of racial discrimination when shifting bus routes to places where more people want to go because that means less frequent buses in lower income communities that have less assets. Consider bringing in a partner like Partnership for Southern Equity and Transformation Alliance when starting this work. 
  • Manage parking to better serve Atlanta’s merchants, commuter, and residents.

    If we’re ever going to manage parking in the City of Atlanta, we need to know what we have and how it’s used. We need to map parking capacity, public, private, curb management, etc. And we need to start charging appropriately for it.

    We’re excited to see in the plan that the ATLDOT will be drafting legislation that incentivizes development of shared parking facilities and that they’ll be working with the State to develop commercial parking tax legislation. Another point to consider is creating parking benefit districts, where the money collected from parking goes back into funding infrastructure.
  • Establish new funding mechanisms to build and repair sidewalks.

    Several times in this plan the city has committed to identifying new funding streams, and this will be essential. Paying for major transportation initiatives through bonds or special taxes is not sustainable, nor can it make enough of a dent in the ever-growing list of needs. The city is committing to “pursue new funding sources (e.g., impact fees, FTA and other grant opportunities)” in 2020 specifically for sidewalks.
  • Make bicycling and micromobility a safe transportation option for more Atlantans.

    With the number of deaths and injuries our city has seen on scooters and bicycles over the last few years, it’s no wonder many Atlantans say that fear is what keeps them from choosing a bike, scooter, or other option to get around. The ATLDOT is committing to “double Atlanta’s on-street protected bike network to 8 miles” and to “identify the existing ‘low-stress’ bicycle map network and publish network map” in 2020. 

It’s good to see our city moving in the right direction when it comes to thinking holistically about transportation options. We have to stop just filling potholes and fixing one sidewalk here and there. Instead we need to look at all of our mobility options, with a focus on public options. And when we do so, the priority must be increasing access with a focus on connections to jobs, schools, health care centers and more – not fancy vanity projects. 

This is not about reducing traffic. As long as people continue to drive, Atlanta will continue to have traffic. But if we can find ways to move people around to the places they need to go on a consistent and safe basis, we will have made significant progress.