Moderated by Tom Sabulis
As the Atlanta Beltline grows in length and popularity, it’s building a public-space culture with a definite learning curve. Runners, walkers, bikers, dog owners and skaters need to acquaint themselves with the rules, and challeges, of the trail. Today, a Beltline leader offers a look at how best to use the trails in a spirit of cooperation and selflessness, while a transportation executive reflects on her Atlanta childhood and the potential the project has for personal as well as urban renewal.
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By Ethan Davidson
Something is happening in Atlanta. On the surface it doesn’t seem extraordinary, but upon further reflection, it is. When you visit the Atlanta Beltline’s Eastside Trail, two miles of what will be a 22-mile streetcar transit and trail corridor — particularly on weekday afternoons and on weekends — thousands of people are walking, biking and jogging.
These are thoroughly ordinary activities that are already familiar to users of the Silver Comet Trail or Stone Mountain, but the cumulative effect on the culture of Atlanta is new — and it is having a great impact on how people view and interact with this city.
Atlanta’s reputation as a car town is legendary. Borne out by various traffic studies and rankings conducted over the years, Atlanta’s driving culture is a known quantity. But another culture is emerging, one with a decidedly different feel and appeal: a pedestrian and bicycle culture that is inspiring people by the thousands.
Recent news coverage in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has called the Atlanta BeltLine “Atlanta’s New Playground” and “A Crowd Favorite.” And we have data to back it up. According to electronic counters, the Eastside Trail attracts up to 3,000 users on weekdays and up to 10,000 users on weekend days. That means the Eastside Trail is on track to see 1 million users this year.
And it’s only a fraction of what will be built over the coming years, starting with new connections to Historic Fourth Ward Park, Edgewood Avenue, Ponce City Market, Ponce de Leon Avenue, the City’s bikeshare program, and new trail segments on the east and west sides of the Atlanta Belt.ine.
The Beltline crowds demonstrate the demand for great public spaces and active transportation in the city. They also represent a new and growing kind of social interaction, and a new etiquette is beginning to emerge. As a native New Yorker, pedestrian culture is deeply ingrained in me. Instead of “rules of the road,” I was raised with “rules of the sidewalk and subway.” It goes something like this: Walk fast, find the most direct route to your destination, do not block movement and always, always, be aware of your surroundings.
The Atlanta Beltline is starting to create something of this ilk, but it goes more like this: Stay to the right, don’t clog the trail, ride slowly on your bicycle, pick up after your dog and watch out for kids on foot, bikes and scooters.
Most people are adapting to this new etiquette, but the biggest complaint we hear is about those who have not. Dog owners who do not pick up their pets’ waste are public enemy No. 1. Cyclists who treat the trail like a highway without regard for pedestrians are up there, too. While these are real concerns, the mere fact that the most common and consistent complaints are about etiquette, and not a myriad of other potential issues, is a very positive sign for the Beltline and for the city.
Last month, the Atlanta Beltline Inc. responded to this phenomenon with a “Southern Charm” campaign. Volunteers stood on the side of the trail with signs with lighthearted messages such as “Slow Down, Sugar,” and “Sweet Peas at Play.” Another sign read, “We saw that y’all, pick it up” (accompanied by a graphic of a person picking up after their dog). We encouraged people to take pictures and use the hashtag #beltlinecharm to promote the campaign.
The reception on the trail was very positive, with many people interacting with volunteers, posing for pictures with the signs and sharing them on social media with comments like, “I love these!,” and “New sign idea: ‘Put a bell on it’ Great work you all!”
The etiquette campaign was an experiment of sorts as we work together to figure out this new culture, which will continue to evolve over time. As we build out all 22 miles over the next several years and introduce streetcar transit into the corridor, the crowds and the culture will spread, creating a new sense of community and place throughout the 45 neighborhoods of the Atlanta BeltLine and beyond.
Ethan Davidson is director of Communications and Media Relations for Atlanta Beltline Inc.
By Heather Alhadeff
Atlanta’s Morningside neighborhood in the late 1970s was a great place to be a kid. I walked and biked around, played in creeks looking for crawdads, and changed plans literally on the flip of a dime that my friend liberated from the sidewalk. Now, thinking back on that joy of adventure and exploration, it dawned on me that I never organized or planned what I would do that day. I merely went outside and discovered life in whatever form or fashion came my way.
Watching my hometown change from discovered fun into a place of scheduled events has left me yearning. However, there is a bit of hope creeping in, like kudzu on an embankment. This hope is placed in the power of the culturally impactful Atlanta Beltline project. It is literally changing how we experience and feel about our city, as well as instigating new development patterns that city planners around the country have been promoting for decades. This switch toward public space and transportation game-changers is happening across the country.
When Ryan Gravel was thinking up the Beltline concept in graduate school, Los Angeles County adopted the Los Angeles River Master Plan (1996). Now, the City of Los Angeles is helping implement the L.A. River project after publishing the River Revitalization Master Plan (2007), which includes a network of parks, pedestrian, bike and equestrian trails, natural areas and community spaces.
Chicago is in on this culture shifting capital program too. It is building The 606 ( the Bloomingdale Trail) which, according to its website, “brings together elevated trails for bikers and runners, art installations and landscape design to create an urban oasis and a new way to explore Chicago.” They celebrate the ability for this infrastructure to connect people by what they deem a living work of art.
The real magic of the Beltline is that the portions that have been cleared and/or constructed are literally re-introducing this seemingly new style of life. It is rather fitting and ironic that the railroads are yet again the reason for Atlanta’s resurgence. The space once occupied by freight trains is now providing this new place of wonder. The Beltline has brought back what I call a “fortuitous life” to Atlantans. In my opinion, to experience a day of fun that consists of unintended possibilities is genuinely the best gift the general population could ever stumble upon.
I hope that we continue to celebrate this newly found experience. But let’s also realize that there are some basic norms expected of people in public spaces. Some things should be common sense rather than taught. For example, letting Fido’s dog leash extend as far as possible turns it into a clothesline that could take out an errant child on a tricycle. Simply put, use your common sense and, when necessary, correct others with a smile, because you can always catch more flies with honey than vinegar.
Atlantans are known for their hospitality. Let’s all continue to be good neighbors as we explore the city together on foot, bike or transit.
I haven’t found any crawdads, but if you haven’t explored the Beltline yet, I promise you will find fun in the most unexpected ways. Don’t forget to pay it forward by supporting more Beltline construction so all of Atlanta can stumble upon a Fortuitous Life right in their own backyards, whether in Morningside or West End.
Heather Alhadeff is the president of Center Forward, a transportation planning firm in Atlanta.