Making Atlanta more bicycle friendly will complete our streets

By Guest Columnist REBECCA SERNA, executive director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition.

The city of Atlanta recently took on an exciting new challenge – to rank among the top 10 most sustainable cities in the United States.

Following the announcement, Atlanta was selected as one of nine U.S. cities to pilot a new sustainability index for cities. Sustainable Atlanta, the city’s nonprofit partner in achieving these goals, plans to include miles of bike lanes and percentage of bicycle commuters in its environmental dashboard. This is great news for those who ride bikes, and for those who would like to have better streets for biking, because how can you expect to improve something you aren’t even measuring?

Atlanta area community groups have been hard at work advocating for better conditions for bicycling for two decades now, and we are beginning to see the results.

Bicycle commuting in the city of Atlanta rose 111 percent between 2008 and 2009, according to the American Community Survey. National coverage cited Atlanta’s figure as surprising given the lack of new bike facilities during that time period.

This is an encouraging sign that, given some level of public investment, bicycling could be poised to make an important contribution to the overall health and well-being of our city and its residents. On the immediate horizon, the Atlanta BeltLine’s paved trails promise to significantly increase the number of city dwellers who can and do ride bicycles.

Bicycle lanes are the most cost effective and inexpensive type of transportation projects, period. And the city has been slowly, but steadily, finding the dollars needed to build them. But during the most recent investment in bicycle facilities this year, the biggest challenge was finding streets where they would fit.

Unlike with most public needs, cost, while a factor, is not the main barrier. The biggest hurdle is amassing the political will to carve out space for bicyclists on our roadways.

Narrow lanes prevent bike lanes from being installed without dropping a regular travel lane. Known as a road diet, this boils down to more transportation options that get people out of traffic, but it also means drivers often lose the use of a lane. Tough sell in a city known for its car dependence – although that, too, is changing.

It should be noted that not every cyclist wants designated space on the streets, i.e. bike lanes. But in order to make biking feasible for people of all ages, and all levels of experience and fitness, we need to provide safe and attractive places for beginning cyclists.

Those cities that do invest in creating safe streets for bicyclists and pedestrians are getting fascinating results that should grab everyone’s attention – drivers and their passengers actually reap the greatest benefits.

The best example, naturally, comes from Portland, where traffic safety planners note that traffic fatalities continue to drop each year, recently dipping below any level previously on record since tracking began in 1925.

In addition to the obvious benefits, installing bicycle lanes create more jobs than roadway repairs or resurfacing. According to a study by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, “Each $1 million spent creating on-street bike lanes directly creates 7.9 jobs and creates a total of 14.4 jobs when we include the indirect and induced effects. The two categories of road repairs have the lowest employment effects.”

So to create safer, more livable communities for everyone, not just cyclists, and to add jobs to local economies, municipalities throughout metro Atlanta should be looking for policies, programs, and projects that make cycling safe and easy.

A good place to start is with a Complete Streets ordinance. Roswell, Decatur, and Cobb already have such policies, which require streets to be designed for all modes of transportation, not just as funnels for cars. Complete Streets take the needs of people biking, walking, driving, and taking transit into account, and provide mobility for aging populations.

Enrique Penalosa’s dictum applies here. He notes, “children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people.” Complete Streets allow us to travel safely with our children.

What’s more, Complete Streets requirements save tax dollars in the long run, as they prevent costly retrofits. They can also ensure that traffic calming projects, desirable in many neighborhoods, are designed with bicyclists as well as pedestrians in mind. We’ve lost too many previously bikable spaces due to poorly-conceived traffic calming projects.

Sadly, most of Atlanta’s streets today are incomplete, but given the right policies, time, and commitments, we can build better streets for a healthier, more fiscally sound future.

Next, in keeping with the concept that – what gets measured, can be changed – cities should adopt a few simple goals.

First, aim to increase the percentage of all trips that are bike trips – 5 percent would be both ambitious and realistic. Then identify a local funding stream for bicycle infrastructure of all kinds – standard bike lanes, buffered bike lanes, bike racks, multi-use trails, etc.

Parking fees are a good place to start, especially if tickets or fees are reinvested in the neighborhoods where they are collected. This concept was proposed in the city’s comprehensive transportation plan, Connect Atlanta, approved in 2008.

Then let’s commit to spending a dollar amount or to building a certain number of miles of new facilities each year. Biking isn’t for everyone yet, but it could be for many more of us soon.

Let’s get there together, Atlanta!

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