Investing in Atlanta’s sidewalks will contribute to our quality of life

By Saba Long

As a daily transit rider, walking is part of my commute. Being a high-heel wearing urban dweller, I dare not pay close attention to the sidewalk lest I have a Samantha Jones moment and fall down a manhole.

Walking is often a forgotten segment of everyone’s commute – whether it’s from the parking garage to the office or from the chained bicycle to the front door of a restaurant.

Saturday I joined fellow PEDS board members and other pedestrian-safety advocates on a walking tour from the Georgia Dome, along the new stadium site and on to the Atlanta University Center.

Along the way, the group – led by PEDS pedestrian safety program manager Ian Sansom– experienced the full range of the city’s sidewalk woes including cracked and lifted sidewalks, wheelchair accessibility issues, nearly half a foot step down from the sidewalk curb to the street, and low hanging signage and tree limbs.

There were also moments in the walk when I appreciated the safety in numbers.

Crossing Northside Drive is not a comfortable pedestrian experience. Despite the fact that a new $1.2 billion stadium for the Atlanta Falcons is under construction on Northside Drive, and despite the fact that the Westside is a priority development area for the City of Atlanta, improvements to make Northside Drive more welcoming for pedestrians is not in the works.

As a state highway, Northside Drive actually is crying out to become a complete street that can accommodate pedestrians, cyclists and all modes of transportation that can help bridge the Westside with downtown Atlanta.

As bad as Northside Drive is today, it is not as bad as the more notorious micro freeways that Atlanta pedestrians cross on a daily basis such as Buford Highway, Piedmont Road and Cobb Parkway, to name a few.

In a recent Freakonomics podcast, host Steven Dubner cynically remarked that the best way to kill someone and get away with it is to hit a pedestrian.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 4,000 pedestrian deaths took place last year. To be sure, we’ve made progress. In the 1930s as the automobile became mainstream, pedestrian deaths approached 16,000 annually.

In a CityLab column on ped and cycling safety, the writer noted, “If you go out in public without the protective shell of an automobile around you, you’re fair game for all kinds of abuse – verbal and physical.”

In Georgia, between 2003-2012, more than 1,500 pedestrians died; the majority of the victims were children and adults aged 65 and older. Nearly half of the fatalities occurred in the Atlanta region. In fact, the Atlanta MSA is ranked in the top 10 most dangerous metropolitan areas for pedestrians.

Unfortunately, these deaths were preventable through tools already at our disposal. Yes, there is the common sense “look both ways before crossing” refrain, but that alone is not the answer.

State and local transportation departments must also reduce speed limits in walkable areas. Additionally, it’s cheapest to repair what we have and expand our existing sidewalk inventory as new developments install median refuge islands at congested intersections and promote developments that promote mobility on complete streets.

PEDS founder and executive director Sally Flocks hopes the City of Atlanta’s upcoming infrastructure bond will help address some of these issues.

“A network of well-maintained sidewalks contributes greatly to our quality of life, ” Flocks said, adding that she is a strong supporter of the complete streets approach.

A robust pedestrian network attracts even more feet on the street and improves neighborhood access. For Atlanta, the infrastructure bond is one tool of many we must use to expand and improve our sidewalk network.

Saba Long is a communications and political professional who lives in downtown Atlanta. She serves as the senior council aide and communications liaison for Post 2 At-Large Atlanta City Councilman Aaron Watson. Most recently, Saba was the press secretary for MAVEN and Untie Atlanta -- the Metro Chamber’s education and advocacy campaigns in supportive of the Atlanta Regional Transportation Referendum. She has consulted with H.E.G. an analytics and evaluation firm where she lent strategic marketing and social media expertise to numerous political campaigns, including that of Fulton County Chairman John Eaves and the 2010 Clayton County transportation referendum. In 2009, Saba served as the deputy campaign manager for the campaign of City Council President Ceasar Mitchell. Previously, Saba was a Junior Account Executive at iFusion Marketing, where she lent fractional marketing strategy to various ATDC technology startups operating out of the Georgia Tech incubator, ATDC. For the past two years, Saba has presented on online marketing and politics to the incoming fellows of the Atlanta chapter of the New Leaders Council.

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