Traffic and transportation conversations seem to have always been part of the Atlanta landscape. While Atlanta’s traffic gained a notorious reputation in the 90s, the need for new discussion seems to have reached a fever pitch in recent years, especially as events like “Snowpocalypse” and the I-85 collapse highlighted the fragility of our transportation infrastructure. Congestion and Atlanta always seem to go hand-in-hand.
In response to this congestion, transportation conversations have always centered around road expansion. Unfortunately, that remains an attractive solution for many of our city’s leaders, with some even suggesting we build a network of underground tunnels below the Downtown Connector as a potential fix. The reality is that Atlanta’s development patterns have encouraged car ownership for decades. While Atlanta’s suburbs are notorious for perpetuating an automobile-heavy car culture, our central city is also culpable. With the exception of a few small neighborhoods in the heart of the city, Atlanta’s land use and zoning ordinances mandate that all new office, residential, and retail construction build new parking facilities.
Though our policies encourage (and in some cases practically require) residents to drive to destinations, vehicle ownership is a luxury for many Atlantans. This issue is particularly stark in our most vulnerable communities. Nearly 20% of households across Atlanta (and almost 40% of households in southwest Atlanta) don’t own or have access to a car as their primary means of transportation and have to rely on alternative forms of transportation to get to work, school, daycare, and everything in between. Atlanta’s job centers are clustered in the northern reaches of the city while many of our working families must spend hours commuting via bus and train in the early hours of each day. There is an imbalance, especially since the communities that need alternative transportation amenities the most have the least amount of access to those amenities. Sidewalks and bicycle lanes are commonly available in NE Atlanta, while in our city’s southwestern communities, children must walk in the middle of the street dodging unfettered vehicle traffic to get to where they need to go. And if they’re transit riders, that typically means a patch of dirt with a poorly-marked pole in the ground representing their local bus stop.
Limited transportation access means that residents can’t get to places of employment, or even to the training they need to secure that employment in the first place. And our city has been too slow to recognize this as a barrier. The Atlanta Streetcar and the Atlanta Beltline are two projects which seek to improve the city’s transportation infrastructure, but funding and management issues seem to have divided more residents than the projects have brought together.
While rail infrastructure captures the public imagination, Atlanta has had significant shortcomings related to the improvement of its bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Navigating Atlanta can be treacherous for pedestrians, largely because sidewalks, bridges, and other pedestrian rights-of-way are poorly maintained, or not maintained at all. Many of our communities never had sidewalks in the first place. And even in walkable neighborhoods like Midtown, new construction has blocked sidewalks and forced residents into dangerous situations. Fixing these problems would cost the city nearly $200 million, but we’ve failed to put a policy in place to fund these repairs. Development patterns are also problematic. Automobile-centric development patterns have made it difficult for residents to walk to local amenities. And this has come at a cost; pedestrian deaths in Georgia outpace the national average, and as recently as 2014, Atlanta ranked #8 in pedestrian danger.
Cycling also generates safety concerns, and with good reason. In 2013 alone, over 900 bicyclists were killed across the country, and there was an “estimated 494,000 emergency department visits due to bicycle-related injuries.” But rather than invest in the infrastructure necessary to encourage safe and efficient transportation alternatives, we’ve worked to destroy the infrastructure that already exists.
Most recently, the City of Atlanta removed a large section of a protected bicycle lane on Westview Drive in Ashview Heights. According to the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, when these lanes were installed, they resulted in a 38% reduction in crashes and a 68% reduction in crashes that resulted in injuries. This removal establishes a dangerous precedent that unnecessarily puts the people in our communities at risk. Ironically, the city then replaced these protected bicycle lanes with parking spaces.
Addressing bicycle infrastructure has its own unique set of challenges. Bicycle accessibility is too often seen as a luxury for a handful of citizens and is sometimes seen as a tool of gentrification. But I contend that cycling offers low-income residents a cost-effective and healthy way to navigate our city. Atlanta must work to educate and convince citizens of cycling’s place as an equitable mode of transportation.
Rather than widen roads and incentivize automobile-centric development, Atlanta must invest in alternatives which provide residents with cost-effective transportation options. To ensure that all Atlantans have access to our city’s rich assets and amenities, I am fighting to:
- Ensure that the city treats sidewalks as shared resources and commit the city to investing in fixing the backlog of sidewalk repairs while investing in new pedestrian infrastructure.
- Expand Atlanta’s bicycle infrastructure to ensure that access and connectivity remains safe and equitable.
- Partner with MARTA to identify opportunities to enhance existing bus stops with benches and shelters to make multi-modal transportation seamless and to make bus ridership a much more dignified experience.
- Ensure that the city remains committed to building rail transit along the Beltline corridor.
- Creating a Department of Transportation that prioritizes Atlanta’s transportation needs and streamlines the planning and implementation of those priorities across the city.
- Updating zoning and land use ordinances to remove parking minimums which encourage automobile-centric development patterns.
Prioritizing connectivity and accessibility for all Atlanta residents would also strengthen our existing public transit systems, making it easier for residents in far-flung corners of the region to utilize the city’s amenities. Ridership suffers when last-mile connectivity doesn’t exist in many places.
However, this is can only succeed when we support infrastructure with land use and zoning policies that enhance the urban fabric. What use is a streetcar when the route is surrounded by swaths of parking, much of it mandated by public decree? The City of Atlanta needs to support transportation priorities through complementary land use and zoning policies. Transportation planning can’t happen in a vacuum.
While it may seem counterintuitive, no amount of road construction provides a permanent solution to traffic congestion, and even the best-connected global cities experience these issues. Ensuring a diversity of transportation options will work in the best interests of all Atlantans.
Equitable investment in safe, affordable transportation solutions is key to bringing all Atlantans together.