More cycling, walking and green space will make Atlanta a more competitive and livable city

By Maria Saporta

What ingredients contribute to healthy cities? National experts in Atlanta last week identified three — walking, cycling and parks within walking distance for all its residents.

For Atlanta — be it in the central city or in the suburbs, we have a ways to go to compete with the top tier cities around the world.

But the good news is that today there is a greater appreciation and a renewed dedication among local officials and civic leaders to create a more livable city.

“Bicyclists and pedestrians are the equivalent of the canary in the mine,” said Roswell Mayor Jere Wood. “When you don’t have cyclists, and when you don’t have pedestrians, you don’t have a healthy city.”

That was the same refrain shared heard at last week’s Park Pride’s Greenspace conference that focused on the relationship between transportation and parks.

The keynote speaker was Gil Penalosa, founder and executive director of 8-80 Cities and former commissioner of the Parks and Recreation for the City of Bogota, Colombia.

It comes down to creating “cities for people,” Penalosa said. More specifically, if a city is welcoming for 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds, it will be welcoming for everyone.

“Public spaces have to be wonderful places for 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds,” Penalosa said. “When we look at cities from the air, the largest public spaces are streets. The cities we have been designing for 100 years have not been designed for people.”

Instead they have been designed for cars. But Penalosa said that one-third of the population doesn’t drive. So to create a livable city for everyone, the focus should be on pedestrians and bicyclists.

For longer distances, public transit is key. “Public transit is the glue that pulls it all together,” Penalosa said. “There’s no city in the world the size of Atlanta that has solved its transportation problem through cars. Atlanta is competing with all the cities in the world.”

How we grow as a community will become even more pronounced because Georgia’s population is expected to grow by 43 percent in the next 30 years.

“We have doubled life expectancy in the past 100 years. We have learned how to survive, but now we have to learn how to live.”

Later in the week, the City of Atlanta hosted a “Cities for Cycling Road Show” that repeated several of the same themes. Bicycle leaders of Boston, Washington, D.C. and Austin, Texas shared programs that had worked in their communities.

Wider sidewalks, separated bicycle lanes, multi-purpose trails all contribute to creating a city for people.

Nicole Freedman, executive director of Boston Bikes, said the organization started in 2007 after Boston had been ranked as the worst city for cycling in the United States. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino took the lead to reverse the city’s reputation for cycling by encouraging support for Boston Bikes and investing in bike facilities.

“This year we installed our 50th mile of bike lanes, and we started out with 180 feet.” Freedman said. “It’s a huge accomplishment to add bike lanes downtown. And we have bike lanes on all the main bridges.”

Boston now has a system-wide plan to get a total of 417 miles of bike lanes or separated paths, and now the city ranks among the top dozen for cycling.

One element, however, is key. And that is to have a highly-placed champion who can share and implement the vision for walking and cycling in a city.

“I think 2012 is going to be Atlanta’s watershed year for cycling,” said Josh Mello, the city’s assistant director of transportation planning.

To back up that statement, Mello mentioned a series of projects currently underway in the City of Atlanta: a raised cycle track; a left-turn queue box and bicycle-oriented traffic signal at the intersection of Fifth and West Peachtree streets; buffered bicycle lanes along Juniper Street and Ponce de Leon Avenue; new bicycle lanes and innovative intersection treatments along Auburn and Edgewood avenues; and bicycle lanes on Peachtree Road.

One of the newer concepts being implemented in the Atlanta region is that of “Complete Streets” — streets that can accommodate pedestrians, bicycles, transit as well as cars. A number of “Complete Streets” are included in the proposed project list in the regional transportation referendum that will be on the July 31 ballot.

But Penalosa gave Atlantans a warning. “Complete streets is not about painting a line on pavement,” he said, adding that it’s best to physically separate bicycles and pedestrians from cars.

Penalosa also encouraged Atlantans to “be bold.” Other cities are turning six lane roads into two lane streets with widened sidewalks, bicycle paths and green space.

Innovations are underway in New York City under the leadership of transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Kahn; in Paris; in Seoul; and in a host of cities around the world.

Investments in alternative modes of transportation help make our cities safer. But all too often, cities increase their public safety budgets while cutting their parks budgets.

At least the City of Atlanta has a plan — the Connect Atlanta Plan — that includes 200 miles of bicycle routes that would connect key travel corridors with major activity centers.

And that is meeting a growing need. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the City of Atlanta has experienced a 386 percent increase in the number of people riding their bicycles to work between 2000 and 2009.

“The City of Atlanta ranks 18th among bicycle commuting among the 51 largest cities,” said Rebecca Serna, executive director of Atlanta Bicycle Coalition. “With the Atlanta BeltLine and other projects underway, Atlanta is poised to make great strides among cities nationally for cycling.”

Obviously, creating communities that welcome pedestrians and cyclists should not begin or end with the City of Atlanta. In fact, such a trend is blossoming all over the Atlanta region as Roswell Mayor Wood already has proven.

If it were up to Wood, metro Atlanta would have a regional bicycle plan that would connect all the various bicycle-friendly communities together in a seamless network.

But at least we finally seem to be working towards a vision of creating communities that can be enjoyed by 8-year-olds, 80-year-olds and every one else in between.

Note to readers: Back in 1978 when I was working on my Masters degree in urban studies at Georgia State University, I was a part-time graduate assistant working as the first bicycle planner for the City of Atlanta. The hazards to cyclists seemed insurmountable, be it bicycle-unfriendly sewer grates or drivers of cars who didn’t believe you should ride on the street. That’s not surprising because there were so few cyclists on the road. Today it gives me great pleasure to see how cycling has become part of our city’s fabric. We still have a long way to go. But we can’t forget that we also have made great strides.

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.

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