Moderated by Tom Sabulis
A national bicycle foundation recently chose Atlanta to participate in a two-year project to help build “protected” bike lanes — those separated from traffic by planters, curbs or posts. A People For Bikes spokesman tells why Atlanta was selected for its Green Lane Project; he cites Memphis as a role model for how a Southern city can become bike-friendly. Atlanta Bicycle Coalition chief Rebecca Serna writes about how her group targets local streets to make them safer.
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By Michael Andersen
Some Atlantans are perhaps familiar with the phenomenon in which people make sweeping generalizations about the American South. “Braving the Deep, Deadly South on a Bicycle,” The Atlantic magazine shuddered in a headline last month.
In some sense, true enough. Georgia, for example, ranks 42nd of 50 states in estimated bike fatalities per rider, and 45th in bike commuting.
But this month my organization, the country’s leading bicycling foundation, put a big bet on the potential for biking in Atlanta when we chose it as one of six focus cities for our Green Lane Project. Every two years, this highly competitive program swarms a few leading U.S. cities with resources to help them design and build physically protected bike lanes — extra-safe bikeways that, evidence shows, are necessary to making major streets comfortable for the majority of the population to bike on.
Atlanta applied — and won.
Why? I can basically tell you in one word: Memphis.
People who snort that biking will never take root in Atlanta would have laughed out loud if they’d been told in 2010 that Memphis, Tenn., was about to become a national model for bike-friendly planning. Twice named one of the country’s worst cities for biking, the wide boulevards of Memphis didn’t have a single bike lane, protected or otherwise. Then, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton decided this needed to change.
What’s followed is the most remarkable turnaround story in American bicycling. Mayor Wharton pledged to build 50 miles of bike lanes. He hired the dynamic young director of a local nonprofit bike shop, Kyle Wagenschutz, as the city’s first bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, and assigned a cautious but open-minded engineer, John Cameron, to make biking and walking just as important as driving on new city street designs.
Intrigued, we took a risk in 2012 and chose Memphis as one of our first six Green Lane Project cities. In the years since, the benefits of biking have become conventional wisdom for Memphis’ leaders.
Protected bike lanes are now standard on every Memphis repaving project. Led by a private local foundation and a coalition of business owners, Memphis used the Internet to raise $75,000 in private donations to help build the Hampline, a two-mile bike lane separated from auto traffic by a row of planted flowers that will connect two key bike routes through the city’s arts district. This month, Cameron said the city will convert two full lanes of a four-lane boulevard along the Mississippi to bike and pedestrian space.
Some businesses in Memphis predicted that fewer auto lanes outside their shops would hurt revenue. By pushing his bike plans through anyway, Wharton showed those fears for what they were: understandable but unfounded.
“We’ve had very successful projects that skeptics criticized harshly during the planning process,” Wagenschutz said this month. “Once the new facilities were built, and the apocalypse didn’t occur, I think a lot of people are beginning to accept the fact that we can have a great bicycle network without sacrificing motor vehicle access or the economic vitality of small businesses.”
Indeed, the strongest force behind Memphis’ bike renaissance is that the city skipped directly over the outdated and crippling assumption, common in too many U.S. cities, that improving biking is a matter of us vs. them, four wheels vs. two, majority vs. minority.
Instead of trying to placate a two-wheeled minority with painted stripes, Memphis is using protected bike lanes to build a biking network good enough to serve its majority.
This is where Atlanta comes in.
Memphis and Atlanta are very different cities. But the forces we see in Atlanta — a strong, ambitious mayor who gives himself audacious goals; a public enthusiasm for better biking proven by the eye-popping 83,000 Atlantans who joined the Sunday Streets Alive event last fall, and a business community whose enthusiasm for bike improvements is second to none — are familiar to us.
Memphis has already smashed the nation’s assumptions about biking in the Southeastern states. In the next two years, Atlanta has a chance to create a whole new stereotype: that if you want to see cities that make bicycling work for mainstream Americans, you’ve got to head South.
Michael Andersen is a staff writer for the Green Lane Project at People For Bikes.
By Rebecca Serna
I’m a mom. I have two boys with one more on the way. And I’m a bike commuter. I like to be outside, getting exercise and working off steam on my way to and from work. I would love to be able to bike with kids to school — a proven way to help them concentrate better and achieve academic success.
But there are obstacles to biking in Atlanta, both by myself and especially, with my kids: DeKalb Avenue, Memorial Drive, Lee Street, Courtland, Juniper, North Avenue, Ponce de Leon, Cascade, Peachtree Road. I’m not likely to bike on these streets, and I’m definitely not letting my kids ride on them.
Despite our well-documented traffic problems, Atlanta has so many streets with what engineers call “excess capacity.” Simply put, we have more lanes than we need for traffic to flow. Often, we have the wrong lanes – dangerous, poorly marked reversible lanes, also known as “suicide lanes.” Four lanes work like just two when you don’t create turn lanes to handle cars stopped, waiting to turn left.
An increasing number of Atlantans who bike, or who would like to bike, stand to benefit in a real and personal way from the Green Lane Project. Atlanta was one of six U.S. cities chosen by People For Bikes to get help building better bike lanes — protecting bicyclists from car traffic with physical barriers to create low-stress streets.
Better bike lanes mean more people willing to use them. Other cities are using planters, raised curbs and even rows of parked cars to provide more protection, making people on bikes feel safer and more comfortable.
The Atlanta Bicycle Coalition recently launched a petition to “Fix DeKalb Avenue” to seize this opportunity. In one week, more than 1,000 people signed the petition to support removing the reversible lane and adding turn lanes and a bikeway.
Because the city of Atlanta has scheduled DeKalb for repaving this year and is studying removal of the reversible lane, we have the chance to fix not only the pervasive potholes, but a barrier to a safe and healthy mode of transportation. Neighborhoods along DeKalb are among the city’s most bikeable, yet this flat street that connects them to Atlanta and Decatur is dangerous and uninviting. Adding a separated bikeway — and, importantly, turn lanes — would make the street safer and traffic more predictable, and support the local businesses that draw people on foot, in a car and by bike.
This is just one example of a project that would benefit from some Green Lane love. Lee Street, in southwest Atlanta, is another.
Lee has a whopping six lanes, high speeds and low traffic, and doesn’t do anything to help attract the economic development and jobs the area needs. Like DeKalb Avenue, Lee parallels a MARTA line and is slated for repaving this year. Redevelopment projects like Fort MacPherson, and places like the Historic West End and East Point, would benefit from converting this motor speedway into an inviting main street.
As urbanist Peter Kageyama writes, “Livable is good. It’s a fine aspiration that we have yet to achieve on any large scale. But I think we can do better. Instead of merely livable … we need to start thinking about how we make our cities more lovable. When we love something, we cherish it; we protect it; we do extraordinary things for it.”
As we re-imagine Atlanta for a healthier, more livable and even lovable future, let’s rethink our streets. Let’s create streets that connect neighborhoods rather than dividing them. Let’s create streets that we would feel safe riding with our children. The Green Lane project will help us keep building a city we love.
Rebecca Serna is executive director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition.