Carless in Atlanta — seeing city’s streets and neighborhoods on foot

By Guest Columnist E. FRED YALOURIS, director of design for Atlanta BeltLine Inc.

I am often asked about my decision to move to Atlanta without a car, and, if there is time, I like to take the opportunity to bore my listener with the story of how I made this decision.

I had come to Atlanta a month before starting work at the BeltLine to attend a public meeting at City Hall. It was on a beautiful spring day, Saturday afternoon, May 2, 2008. The sun was shining, the outside temperature was 64 degrees, and you could smell the spring blossoms in the air.
fred yalouris
It was such a nice afternoon, that, after an excellent public meeting, I decided to walk the nine or ten blocks up Peachtree to my hotel. To my naïve surprise, except for a few homeless folks, I saw no one on the sidewalks over the roughly one mile walk through downtown Atlanta!

Secondly, although it was a salubrious spring day, all the cars on the street had their windows up. Curiously, this experience helped me to understand one of the key underlying missions of the BeltLine vision: get people out of their cars and allow them to walk.

Make the streets and sidewalks attractive and safe for pedestrians.
It thus made some sense to try living in Atlanta without a car. It has not been easy, but it has been revealing, and often, very pleasing. There are many good things to be discovered on foot in this city.

During the week, I take MARTA to work. It is safe, clean, reliable, and fast. For a good portion of the trip, I can look down on the commuting cars on DeKalb Avenue, struggling to get to their ugly parking garages downtown, and think of my good fortune of being able to take transit to work.

Sometimes after work I will walk the two miles down Edgewood Ave. to my home. I have grown to appreciate the urban landscape, and note the little and big changes that occur over time in the several, now familiar, neighborhoods through which I pass.

On the weekends there are long walks to be had, either on some segment of the BeltLine corridor itself or some distinct neighborhood, near or far. I take with me my trusty map of the city and set off alone or sometimes with a friend. The urban landscape in this town has a multitude of interesting experiences to offer, some very pleasing, some distressing.

The physical contours of the city are full of texture. You know there are hills and vales and streams out there, but you feel a landscape suppressed by concrete and asphalt. The various neighborhoods are fascinating. The single family housing stock, surely Atlanta’s greatest architectural asset, is exceptional: well-designed, well-built, attractive, functional houses, sitting there with dignity and purpose.

Often, I have to walk on the streets because the sidewalks are either hazardous or non-existent. (P.S. The hexagonal pavers are costly, impractical, and unkind to pedestrians.)

And then of course, there is the tree canopy. For all its concrete bedspread, Atlanta has this most glorious spread of trees, which is best appreciated on foot. God bless Trees Atlanta!

And then there are the cars and drivers. Seeing them tear through the intersections explains at least in part why there are so few pedestrians on the streets and sidewalks. Drivers here are unaccustomed to dealing with pedestrians and bicyclists.

My friend Heather Alhadeff, a senior transportation planner for the city, and fellow carless resident, likes to point out that every driver is also a pedestrian at some point, and if we could think of ourselves in that way when behind the wheel, the relationship between cars, bicycles and pedestrians might be better balanced.

Our streets must be seen as public ways for all of us, not as a no-man’s land for all but those in cars. Heather also speaks poetically about her experiences as a walker, noting “the most profound effect, that one only appreciates once you have taken the leap to walk instead of drive, is that by walking you are effortlessly re-calibrating your psyche.

You will inevitably start noticing the world around you because you are a part of it, rather than just traveling through it on auto-pilot. Your mind relaxes and you end up getting adjusted against the effects of the forever quickening rat race.”

Another intrepid carless resident is Sally Flocks, executive director of PEDS, the pedestrian advocacy organization in Atlanta. She notes that “people are losing the habit of walking.” The movement from the house, to the car, to the office or mall has become too ingrained.

We need to think twice before getting into the car. Perhaps that errand can be accomplished on foot! Optimistically, Sally sees a rising sensitivity by some drivers toward pedestrians, especially in the city, and especially by drivers who live in the city.

Suburban drivers are much more indifferent toward pedestrians. Not surprisingly, she sees intown neighborhoods as being more insistent on an improved pedestrian realm (good sidewalks, safe crossings, calmer speed limits). There is hope for us yet, but we must get out and walk.

In the new year, about seven miles of the old railroad corridor will be open to pedestrians in segments in the northeast, southeast and southwest (go to www.BeltLine.org for information). Hiking it will be a treat. When you walk the BeltLine, a multitude of views and aspects of the city will unfold before you.

In addition to the dozens of neighborhoods through which you will pass, you will experience some of those natural textures and contours, free of asphalt and concrete. Sometimes, the BeltLine will feel like a strip of countryside, and then the city skyline appears before you.

It is a monumental asset waiting to be discovered. Perhaps you will share with my colleagues and me a most satisfying glimpse of the spectacular opportunity we have before us.

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