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The 2010s, When Atlanta Got Serious About the Bicycle

This guest post is by Tonio Andrade, co-founder of the Decatur Bicycle Coalition, a bicycle and pedestrian advocacy organization based in Decatur, Georgia.

“Seriously? You ride your bike to work?” I used to get this question all the time, invariably followed by a sentence like, “I could never do that.” When I first began commuting by bike ten years ago, few people in Atlanta used bikes for transport. Those of us who did felt marginal and out of place. What a difference a decade makes. Today there are thousands of bike commuters here, and people are less likely to say, “I could never do that,” than, “I would love to do that.” Today, the bicycle is increasingly recognized as a legitimate and effective form of transportation in and around Atlanta.

What accounts for this change? One reason is the increasing clarity of the climate emergency, because this has also been the decade in which the crisis became real, less future threat than present danger. Whereas automobiles emit roughly a pound of CO2 per mile, a bike can go twenty miles on a bowl of oatmeal. More and more people are striving to reduce their carbon footprint, and driving less is one of the best things we can do.

Recent research has also shown that driving is bad for our health. Sitting for long periods puts you at a higher risk of metabolic diseases, and studies have shown that people who get around by bike or on foot are healthier, less overweight, and more content with their commute than people who drive. Kids who walk or bike to school concentrate better and are happier than those who are driven. As awareness of these facts has spread, more and more people have begun choosing active commuting for themselves and their families.

But perhaps the most significant reason for the rise of the bike is better infrastructure. The greatest impediment to widespread bicycle use is a lack of safe places to ride. American roads have long been built to move automobiles quickly, with little attention paid to the safety of people on foot or on bikes. Even the most carefully-laid bicycle route must sometimes intersect with dangerous roadways.

This is a contrast with other countries, which have built infrastructure that separates bikes and other light vehicles from cars, trucks, and buses. In these countries – such as the Netherlands and Denmark – bikes are as safe as cars, but much cheaper and, often, more convenient. As a result, most people in such places use bikes for some or most of their transportation, reaping the rewards in terms of good health and higher commute contentment.

It’s not that Americans didn’t know about separated, protected bike infrastructure. Some of the earliest such infrastructure was built here, including projects designed by Frederick Law Olmstead. It’s just that we took a wrong turn in the 1970s, when American cities stopped planning and building them. 

Atlanta itself is an example. As an article in ThreadATL showed, in 1973, the Atlanta Regional Commission released a visionary plan for a network of connected, protected bike routes, but it was abandoned. It was a sad missed opportunity, but things are improving now. 

The completion of the first phase of the Atlanta Beltline transformed the city, proving far more popular and transformative than expected. More and more protected bike lanes and multi-use paths are being planned and built, connecting the Beltline to the rest of the city and the region. As biking has become safer, more people are leaving their cars at home. Studies have shown that safe infrastructure encourages more people to hop on bikes, and that’s certainly the trend in Atlanta.

There’s still a great deal to be done, and it’s all too common for a bicyclist to find that, after riding safely for a mile or two, they must still contend with speeding cars. Too many of Atlanta’s streets remain dangerous for everyone, but especially for pedestrians and cyclists. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has promised to increase the number of protected bike lanes, and although her plan leaves much to be desired, it’s a good start, and a sign of how far things have come. 

Bike commuting isn’t just good for the environment and for the cyclists themselves. It’s also good for the city. Bikes are far more efficient than cars. A bike lane can carry ten times more people per unit space than an automobile lane, which means that a network of protected bike lanes has the potential to reduce motor vehicle gridlock, getting all of us less stuck. Bike infrastructure has also been shown to have a positive effect on businesses located near them. 

We’ve come a long way in the past decade, but the next decade is crucial. More and more Atlantans recognize that the automobile-centric urbanism of the past 70 years is a dead end, leading to unhealthy cities and environmental devastation. Atlantans are ready for change. 

The path to the future is clear. We just have to build it.

Photo: Steve Eberhardt