Let’s design a safer Atlanta for pedestrians and cyclists

By Maria Saporta

Shifting Atlanta from a city centered around cars to one focused on people on foot or bicycles faced a reality-check on Friday.

Alexis Hyneman, a 14-year-old student at Grady High School, lost her young life when a car hit her while she was riding her bicycle Thursday at the super-confusing intersection of 10th Street, Monroe Drive and the Atlanta BeltLine.

Alexis Hyneman

A photo of Alexis Hyneman that appeared on WSB-TV (Special: WSB-TV)

Hyneman’s death was tragic. The one positive outcome was to serve as a reminder for our top leaders that our city needs to do better.

“The safety of pedestrians and cyclists remains a priority for my administration, with $37 million dollars in the Renew Atlanta infrastructure program committed to making sidewalks and streets safe for people of all ages and abilities whether they are walking, biking or riding,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said in a statement released Monday afternoon. “We value our partnership with the cycling and pedestrian advocacy community who have been engaged with the City to adopt policies and practices that prioritize people over cars.”

In the last three weeks, two of Atlanta’s top nonprofits promoting alternative modes of transportation celebrated milestones.

ABC bicycle parking

Dozens of bicycles are parked in front of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition’s 25th anniversary for the Blink Awards on Feb. 12 at “the Garage” near Georgia Tech (Photo by Maria Saporta)

PEDS (Pedestrians Educating Drivers on Safety) celebrated its 20th anniversary on Jan 26; and the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition celebrated its 25th anniversary on Feb. 12.

Both organizations have done an incredible job in trying to help Atlanta adapt to becoming a more cosmopolitan city with a thriving urban core.

When we think of the world’s greatest cities, we inevitably think of cities we enjoy while walking or riding on transit or cycling. We rarely think of cities filled with surface parking lots, highways and commercial strip arterials.

Today, Atlanta is moving in the right direction. But I can’t help but feel we need to move faster and more aggressively to make our city safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

ABC blinkie award winners

Winners of the Blinkie Awards stand for a photo at the 25th anniversary party for the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition (Photo by Maria Saporta)

In response to Hyneman’s death, Reed immediately echoed recommendations of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition – saying the Renew Atlanta program already has allocated $2.5 million for a complete street overhaul of Monroe Drive, and the city “will move quickly to get these improvements done.”

Some of us have been waiting a really long time.

When I lived in Boston from 1973 to 1977, my five-speed bicycle was my major mode of transportation. So when I moved back to Atlanta, I brought my bicycle quickly realizing local drivers had little respect for someone on two wheels.

At the time I was getting my Master’s in urban studies at Georgia State University, and I was able to get a graduate assistantship with Atlanta’s planning department. I asked if I could do bicycle planning for the city, and even though that was a foreign concept, my bosses said yes.

ABC bike parking

More bicycle parking at ABC 25th anniversary party (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Among the biggest hazards for Atlanta cyclists in the 1970s were sewer grates running parallel to the road – perfect for bicycle tires falling in the slots and flipping cyclists into the road.

I found out one could swap out sewer grates to have the bars run perpendicular to the street – making them safe for bicyclists. So when I presented a proposal to an engineer at public works, he told me that swapping out the grates would cause horrendous flooding in Atlanta and made a comment about bicyclists being Communists.

When I was nearing graduation from GSU, I didn’t know whether I should become a journalist or city planner – specializing in alternative transportation planning. To answer that question, I spent four months traveling throughout Europe – interviewing transportation planners and journalists.

I saw wonderful, innovative plans – streets designed to slow traffic; crosswalks made of a different pavement that brought cars to stop; buffered bicycle lanes next to wide sidewalks; and all kinds of public transit. But city planners kept telling me how hard it was to get their plans implemented – and that was in Europe, a continent that respects planning.

Sally Flocks

Sally Flocks, founder of PEDS, speaks at the organization’s 20th anniversary party on Jan. 26 (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Upon returning to Atlanta in 1980, I had decided I might be able to have a greater impact as an urban-oriented journalist than as a planner. My career choice, however, has never stopped me from dreaming, scheming and planning on how we can improve our city.

The stretch of Monroe Drive from 8th Street to Park Drive is one of the more complicated puzzles for an Atlanta transportation planner. To really fix it, we should have a design competition that would make the entire corridor safer for all – but especially pedestrians and cyclists who are at a natural disadvantage in a collision with a car.

Reed, in his statement released Monday, appears to understand what’s at stake.

“The safety of Atlanta’s pedestrians, bicyclists and traveling public remains this Administration’s top priority,” Reed said. “My senior leadership team, including the City’s Chief Bicycle Officer, will work closely with the Atlanta City Council to continue making Atlanta a city that supports all modes of transportation.”

By designing an Atlanta for people first, we will create a city with a greater quality of life. And we will end up loving our city even more than we do today.

Alexis Hyneman bicycle

A fitting tribute for Alexis Hyneman at the spot where she lost her life (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

22 replies
  1. Jeff Joslin says:

    You are right. I hope this moves forward. Too many Atlanta’s are married to their cars, while we transition to a live-work-walk-bike future. They are fighting the inevitable. As traffic worsens, it’s past time to welcome alternative, healthy and more satisfying ways to move.Report

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  2. Dan Thornton says:

    Bruce, please get involved in cycling advocacy in and around Atlanta. There are so many things you can do to help. You keep posting how ABC and Georgia Bikes need to do things to help Georgia became a safer state, I’ve never seen you at one advocacy meeting , Georgia Bike Summit, or other volunteer advocacy meeting. As John Burke the President of Trek Bicycle Co says “the world is run by those who show up!” Not trying to bash you, but posting about all the changes Atlanta and Georgia need gets tiresome when your not doing anything to make a difference. There are many thousands of volunteer hours spent annually to make a difference. Hop on and join the movement!Report

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  3. Paul Skrbec says:

    Another great topic!! (Not a surprise.)
    In my first six months living at 10th and Piedmont, I witnessed six car vs. bicycle accidents. I never rode my bicycle in the 6.5 years I was in Atlanta unless it was on the beltline. Now that I’m back in Minnesota (with cold and snow), I use my bike all the time because our transportation infrastructure and design was built with biking and walking in mind. Traffic in the twin cities is a fraction of what it is in Atlanta because we have alternatives to using cars. And we’re healthier for it on many levels.
    Atlanta is a first rate city that desperately needs a first rate transportation plan.Report

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  4. Clay Walker says:

    Georgia needs a “Vulnerable Users Law” in place so that the cel phone distracted and intoxicated drivers can get the proper sentencing that they deserve for injuring and/or killing pedestrians & cyclists.Report

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  5. TEAD says:

    What we may need is a group called PECAA) –  Pedestrians Educating Cyclists About Arrogance.  Granted that drivers really do need to be educated about those who walk and ride bikes, but the arrogance, anger and downright belligerence of those riding bikes is absurd……Report

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  6. SteveVogel says:

    Part of safer cycling is getting the cyclists to obey the traffic laws.  I had one yesterday run a 4-way stop right in front of me and that is certainly not an isolated incident.  Yes, drivers need to respect cyclists, but the opposite is just as true.Report

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  7. MelaniePollard says:

    This is an excellent article on why we cannot allow the pattern of variance development without proper planning for green infrastructures, pedestrian sidewalks and bike paths, and untethered traffic congestion that has made many of our major passageways impassable. Peachtree and North Druid is another dangerous intersection but the Marta solution offered is for added density and housing to help their fiscal woes. Both COA and Brookhaven need to focus on better planning first. Then development.Report

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  8. Rob Little says:

    The lesson from this should be that mixing bikes and cars/trucks on the same roadway is like mixing ants and humans on a sidewalk. One mis-step and the ant will always lose. Roadway markings, signs, laws and rules have never stopped a vehicle of any kind..not once. Encouraging this mix, especially in an urban environment, is irresponsible. I have managed people working adjacent to and on roadways and if they are within 10 feet of live traffic they wear high visibility vests, they are behind traffic cones with warning signs stretched out for hundreds of feet and sometimes flashing arrow boards. They also never take their eyes off of the traffic. One person is designated to do nothing but watch. It’s an OSHA requirement and it’s still the most dangerous job in the US today. But somehow it’s OK to allow people, with zero protection, to travel within arms length of and facing away from traffic?? How did that leap occur?? Putting it on the driver is shear stupidity. We’ve been driving for decades and the majority of accidents still involve one vehicle. What? People aren’t supposed to make mistakes?? That’s little consolation to the biker unless you believe you’ll get some satisfaction from pointing the finger from your grave.Report

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  9. Sally Flocks says:

    The “leap” occurred just over a century ago when automobiles intruded on a space that had been used far longer by people who were walking. How was it OK to allow people behind the wheel of a potentially deadly weapon to share space with more vulnerable users? Roads have many uses, only one of which is moving cars. 
    More and more cities are adopting “Vision Zero” — with a goal of eliminating all traffic fatalities. As humans, people will make mistakes. Given that, our roads should be designed and operated so that when someone does make a mistake, the consequences won’t be severe injuries or fatalities. 

    Blame the road, not the victims. Good engineering breeds good driving. Let’s work with government agencies to fix the road.Report

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  10. Jess says:

    SteveVogel People on bikes might be young, reckless, impulsive, just like any car/truck driver might be. The difference though is that an uneducated driver of a car/ truck could kill someone else.Report

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  11. Sally Flocks says:

    Burroughston Broch Some people chose to use automobiles.That doesn’t justify tyranny of the majority. During the eighteenth century, people in America chose to take land belonging to Native Americans. Most people would agree that the Trail of Tears that resulted was a shameful tragedy. The same could be said of streets designed for automobiles only. At least one-third of people here are too young, too old, or have medical conditions or too little money to drive a car. Equity demands that all of us share the road.

    The choice to use cars resulted in part from social engineering. Factors include the conspiracy by auto manufacturers to buy and then destroy streetcar lines, followed by actions that reduced the quality of bus service. Concurrently, they successfully promoted laws that gave motorists the right of way over people who walk, unless people crossed at crosswalks. Add to that the decision to build the interstate highway system and to subsidize mortgages, both of which encouraged sprawl. Walking to destinations isn’t feasible when people live miles and miles from destinations. In areas with compact, mixed use development and a good street, more and more people are accessing destinations on foot or by  bicycle. In Midtown Atlanta, for example, people driving cars should consider themselves guests, not people who own the road.

    I encourage you to think bigger.  In 2015 U.S. the Surgeon General issued a call to action on walking and walkable communities. Walking is one of the best ways for people to prevent chronic health conditions. Sitting is now considered just as unhealthy as smoking — and the health community is taking this seriously.

    Rob commented that the majority of “accidents” involve one vehicle. Crashes aren’t accidents; they’re preventable wrecks. In 2015, Georgia experienced the second highest increase in traffic fatalities in the U.S. Single vehicle wrecks accounted for the highest share of increases. And by single vehicle, I refer to one car, not one car and one bicycle or one car and someone walking. The biggest increase in fatalities is due to distracted driving. Research shows that talking on cell phones — even hands-free – while driving is just as dangerous as drunk driving. And texting while driving is far more dangerous.Report

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  12. Burroughston Broch says:

    Sally Flocks Burroughston Broch  Most (not some people) people chose to use automobiles.
    Isn’t “tyranny of the majority” another name for democracy? Or do you want to substitute tyranny of your minority?
    You don’t know me, so it’s presumptuous of you to encourage me to think big. I recently spent two weeks in the UK and was never in an automobile other than two taxi rides. I used subway, train, walking, and ferry to get around.Report

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  13. Sally Flocks says:

    Burroughston Broch Sally Flocks 
    A tyranny of the majority occurs when a majority takes action to
    thoroughly subjugate the minority. In a democracy, the majority rules, but it
    must act in the best interest of the people as a whole, not just itself. Otherwise,
    we risk slavery and genocide. Road designs that help ensure safety for all
    users is not equivalent to tyranny of a favored majority.
    With
    regards to thinking big, I refer to the importance of recognizing the positive
    impact of walkable communities on our health, happiness and economy.Report

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  14. Burroughston Broch says:

    Sally Flocks Burroughston Broch  It’s all a matter of perspective – who feels maligned and who does not. I have not whined about tyranny of the majority during the last 7 years.
    Do you really mean to mention automobiles in the same breath as slavery and genocide? That’s a gross exaggeration.Report

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  15. Sally Flocks says:

    Better signal timing; enlarged crosswalk, with separation of people riding bikes from people walking and separation of eastbound cyclists from westbound cyclists; safe crossing in front of Grady High School on 10th and at other locations on Monroe Drive; realign 10th and Monroe intersection so cyclists travel directly between cycle tracks and trail.Report

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