Editor’s note from Darin Givens: I’ve never been big on advocating for the conversion of major streets in Atlanta to pedestrianized, car-free ones. It seems like such a long shot (though I’m big on shared slow streets). But as I sat down with Matthew Johnson one day at Condesa Coffee and he talked me through this proposal for Peachtree, I found his verve for the subject to be captivating; he makes a good argument. Enjoy…
Car dependency has destroyed Atlanta, and Atlantans should reclaim their city from cars. Cars are dangerous, dirty, and expensive, and there is a high psychological cost to suffering through traffic twice every workday. The physical isolation caused by cars prevents human connections from being made and causes human connections to be frayed, and cars impede the expression of a city’s cultural character.
Pictures that show how beautiful, walkable, and compact that Atlanta was in decades past convey the tragedy of what traffic engineers did by turning over the city to cars. Great cities prioritize walking, biking, and public transportation over driving, traffic, and dodging cars, and they give people what they like—beauty, community, enjoyment—instead of what they dislike—ugliness, isolation, boredom. Destroying Atlanta with car dependency was a tremendous blunder, but it is a blunder that can and should be corrected.
Atlanta should begin this correction by pedestrianizing Peachtree Street between Third Street and Tenth Street, an area of asphalt for cars that is ideal for conversion into an area of activity for people. Pedestrianization would lead to residences, shops, increases in property values, and countless possibilities for community events.
Most of that part of Peachtree Street is relatively flat, so restaurants could use it for outdoor dining, and seeing a show at the Fox Theatre could mean staying afterwards and enjoying a beautiful night in Atlanta, instead of leaving immediately by car. Unlike Underground Atlanta, which has no population anchors, Midtown is highly residential and has several large hotels, and Georgia Tech, a university of 36,500 students that lacks a district of restaurants, coffee shops, and bars, is a five-minute bike ride away.
There are six parallel streets within three-tenths of a mile of Peachtree Street between Third Street and Tenth Street, so drivers still would have several options for traveling north and south, and there is no on-street parking, so pedestrianization would not cause the loss of a single parking space. Having the Midtown and North Avenue MARTA stations at the respective north and south ends would encourage people to use mass transit, thereby alleviating traffic in the city, and people from outlying areas would have a reason to take public transportation to Midtown.
The design of the street would be simple, and since modernists have ruined enough of Atlanta, everything would be done in a beautiful, traditional style. Cobblestones, street trees, benches, tables and chairs, a fountain, public restrooms, bike racks, and free wi-fi could lead to a small revolution in urban planning in Atlanta and beyond. Pedestrianizing Peachtree Street would be a case of minimal sacrifice for maximal gain.
Atlantans are so afflicted with car dependency that many must think that reducing car use in a city would mean the death of that city, as if Atlanta did not exist before the early 1900s. However, the experiences of European cities like Amsterdam, which decades ago was clogged with cars but has chosen to minimize their use, prove the opposite, because when cities restrict car use, they flourish with human activity, their businesses thrive because of increased foot traffic, and those cities become the places that Americans save up for years to visit.
No Parisian ever has taken a trip to marvel at Spaghetti Junction, at least not in a good way, and a pedestrianized Peachtree Street would provide a glimpse of how wonderful that walkable cities are and a glimpse of how wonderful that Atlanta could be.
To fellow conservatives who think that restricting car access is un-American, I point out that no Founding Father ever drove a car. Cars do not represent freedom. Cars are prison cells, and every second spent in a car is a second squandered.
Freedom means having choices, and cities should be structured so that everyone has the choice to participate fully in them without buying and maintaining an extremely expensive asset that depreciates so rapidly as to be virtually worthless within a few years. Drivers themselves should welcome alternate modes of transportation, because everyone who chooses walking, biking, or public transportation, instead of driving, means one less competitor for road space. When everyone drives, everyone loses.
After a century of being drunk on automobile totalitarianism—autotalitarianism?—Americans would do well to have a sober look at how car dependency impacts how they live and to ask whether their governments annually should spend hundreds of billions of dollars of public money on the most private form of transportation. Cars turn good people into killers, and a slight mistake by even the safest driver can have catastrophic consequences.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that there were 42,915 traffic deaths nationwide in 2021, but less quantifiable are the stress, unhappiness, and social atomization that result from constant driving and car-induced sprawl; the unremitting ugliness of strip malls, billboards, drive-thrus, and other byproducts of car dependency; the environmental destruction that is necessary for constructing roads, intersections, and parking lots; the forgone human progress from devoting so much wealth to car usage and so much time to driving; and the psychological and emotional devastation that people suffer from losing a loved one to a violent, premature death in a car accident.
Atlanta rebuilt once before after being destroyed, and Atlanta can rebuild once again after being destroyed. Reclaiming Peachtree Street would be an important step towards a second rebuilding, as there is no good reason why such a famous, centrally located, commercialized half-mile that spans seven city blocks should be dedicated to cars and driving, when it could be dedicated to people and living. Having once again a loveable, livable city can begin by creating a pedestrianized public space that stretches from the Fox Theatre to the home of Margaret Mitchell, who was fatally struck by a car on Peachtree Street in 1949.
Matthew W. Johnson is a veteran and an attorney who practices with Georgia Veterans Law. He is a native of Lawrenceville and a graduate of the University of Georgia.