By DAVID CORNETT
ATLANTA – Atlanta had the greatest increase in cycling commuters in the nation from 2000 to 2009 – so states an American Communities survey. Ask anyone new to Atlanta who has lived in other, more cycle-friendly cities, about the validity of that statement and he or she will likely respond by calling that statistic crazy. That’s because Atlanta was average (at best) when it came to rankings of cycle-friendly cities. But that is all about to change.
“Atlanta now ranks number 18 among the 51 largest cities,” says Rebecca Serna, executive director of Atlanta Bicycle Coalition.
Serna was recognized in 2013 with the Advocate of the Year award given by the Alliance for Biking and Walking, a program dedicated to the empowerment of local walking and biking advocacy groups across the USA. She is also on the board for Georgia Bikes, the winner of the Campaign of the Year award for Georgia’s “Complete the Streets” policy which was also given by the Alliance. This project helped the Georgia Department of Transportation to adopt a policy that stated “wherever possible, road designs will properly balance the needs of all modes of transportation.” This means that all new road projects will call for safer roads for pedestrians as well as cyclists. A state policy like this is the first of its kind in the United States.
Georgia Bikes and the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, along with smaller coalitions in the state, have persisted with the Georgia lawmakers in order to keep these changes in the right direction. In March 2012, a ride to the Capitol was coordinated through the help of such coalitions along with the help of over 20 elected officials in the state. Some groups rode 25 miles from Roswell, Ga. all the way to the Capitol. It was the sixth year of the ride, but one of the most meaningful.
Chants of “Complete the Streets” from over 1,500 riders at the Georgia Capitol steps helped to push the policy to its adoption on Sept. 20, 2012. The March 23 ride of this year held chants of “Thank you, GDOT!” for the new policy. Organizers of this annual ride plan to keep up the tradition despite their successes in order to maintain the production of the city.
This persistence has held the proverbial doors of communication open between citizens and lawmakers to allow constant feedback for past and future projects.
From Thesis Paper to 30-Year Plan
Another program making huge strides in connecting the many neighborhoods through downtown Atlanta is the Beltline project. According to the media relations contact from the project, Ethan Davidson, it all started with a Georgia Tech student named Ryan Gravel and his thesis paper. This new city project has flourished into a project that will ultimately help change the city to a more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly community.
The plan consists of converting four distinct old freight train rail lines into one, multi-use path. A benefit to using old rail beds is that they are already graded to be flat as freight trains can’t operate on an incline; this is ideal for walkers, cyclists, skaters, and anyone who is tired of the rolling hills through Atlanta.
This same strategy can be seen on the popular Silver Comet Trail that starts in Smyrna, Ga., and runs west over 120 miles into Alabama. Atlanta Beltline developers will join these four rail lines with relatively major infrastructure improvements; the longest connection being about a half-mile long in the Southeast portion of the city. These paths will create a perimeter around Atlanta, which will be closer to downtown than Interstate 285.
The project will be accomplished in 10 different phases; what started in 2005 will not be complete until 2035, the projected year of completion.
A project this extensive takes major funding and the city, as well as the private sector and other philanthropic and corporate sources, has stepped up to keep this project well underway. In 2005, the City Council of Atlanta approved a 25-year deal with the Tax Allocation District where the rise in property values and the inherent rise in property taxes will be the main source of funding for this project.
The properties accounted for in these districts cover a half mile in each direction of the paths. Over the 25 years, property taxes are projected to earn an estimated $1 billion in revenue. The private sector and other philanthropic and corporate sources have already contributed about $41 million to the project.
Safety Patrol on the Beltline
Davidson also mentioned a program starting in the summer of 2013 that creates an even stronger community. The Atlanta Police Department will form the “Path Force” which will be dedicated to only patrolling the Beltline trails. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, a $1.87 million federal grant will offer the hiring of 15 military veterans to be a part of the Zone 6 Beat to allow everyone a safer experience.
“I think that the people who are getting more interested in cycling in the Atlanta area are being even more motivated by these accommodations,” said Davidson. “The growing interest in cycling will only perpetuate the support for these projects and the two will feed off of each other.”
“It’s great to see Atlanta evolve into a city that can compete with other cities’ mobility through the city,” says Troy Lynch, a commuter whose only vehicle is a bicycle. “I moved here from the suburbs with dreams of not needing a car. That dream is finally coming true!”
Lynch travels from the Old 4th Ward area to the Peachtree Battle and Peachtree Road intersection, about six miles, nearly every day. This type of commuter will be exactly what the citizens of Atlanta are hoping to see more often.
According to the Atlanta Business Chronicle, the population growth in Atlanta is lagging over the last couple of years. These new improvements that offer better commuting choices among high gas prices and a recession recovery should make Atlanta a much more attractive place to live.
Atlanta: A More Attractive Place to Live
If you look around Atlanta, many more signs of Atlanta being more accepting of cyclists are showing up. Turner Field offers four bike racks around the stadium and plans to offer more. This can allow for a much more cost-efficient option of transportation. Also, when compared to other public transportation in large cities, MARTA seems to be the most accommodating. All buses have bike racks on the front of the bus and the trains are open to all cyclists; some cities require passes to use the rails with a bike or they won’t allow bikes on buses.
If you attended the Sweetwater 420 Fest over the weekend of April 19-21 you may have noticed their first ever bike valet. With the parking troubles around Candler Park, this bike valet really helped give another transportation option.
“The bike valet system ran awfully smooth,” said Andy Bibliowicz, coordinator for six years at the Sweetwater 420 Festival. “The Little Five Points area can have enough traffic issues on any regular weekend. We think we helped reduce that problem”
Bibliowicz is an Atlanta native who just began commuting to Atlanta in the last six months via MARTA and bicycle. He is the Southeast marketing coordinator for a micro-brewery in Chicago. He lives in Dunwoody and commutes all over Atlanta to connect with clients.
“I think that Atlanta has outgrown MARTA,” said Bibliowicz. “I think that the addition of trails, bike lanes, and light rails are needed to compliment MARTA to make Atlanta the city it has the potential to be.”
All of these additions will help to keep people moving about the city of Atlanta. This should mean not only an increase in population, but also create an urban renewal. One of the side-stories of how the Beltline will help the community is the affordable housing project that will be along the north side of the trail and work in conjunction with the Shepherd Spinal Center. Both buildings happen to lie along the trail and will create a way for patients to commute to the center without the need of a car or other means of transportation.
The Beltline will also help serve the half-mile radius from the trails, as the expected rise in property values and taxes will go directly back into the Beltline and its improvements, thus creating an ideal win-win situation. Also, the east-west line of the Atlanta Streetcar project runs along Edgewood and Auburn avenues where there are a lot of abandoned buildings. This project will transform this area into a thriving live, work and play community and will eventually connect with the Beltline. The project will continue by building a north-south line a couple years from now.
These changes are what Atlanta natives have been calling for. As a host of three major sport teams, 24 universities, colleges and junior colleges, the busiest airport in the world as well as home to major corporations like Coca-cola, Home Depot, and Delta Airlines, Atlanta must have the capacity to house and move all of these citizens and visitors alike. Atlanta was once called Terminus because of all of the intersecting freight lines that grew Atlanta so fast in the antebellum South. Now, ironically, with the help of these old rail lines along with tremendous community support, Atlanta hopes to once again become one of the more progressive cities in the nation.