A conversation with Rebecca Serna of the Atlanta Bike Coalition
By King Williams
On Sunday, Sept. 29, the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition brings its massively popular event – Atlanta Streets Alive – to the Southwest and Southside of Atlanta.
To get a better feel of what Atlanta Streets Alive is, check out last year’s event which shut down 3.1 miles of Peachtree Street from Downtown at Ellis Street to the Colony Square building on 14th Street in Midtown Atlanta.
Next Sunday’s event will be connecting 7 neighborhoods: Westview, West End, Beecher Hills, Adair Park, Pittsburgh, Mechanicsville and Summerhill.
The nearly 4-mile event will be closing down the entire street, spanning from Cascade Avenue along Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard to Georgia Avenue for pedestrians and non-motorized vehicles.
I had a chance to talk to Rebecca Serna, President of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, prior to the event. Rebecca is an Atlanta native, a life-long bicycle She is a graduate of both the University of Georgia for undergraduate and holds a Masters from Georgia State University in Urban Policy as well as Planning and Urban Development.
Below is an edited version of that conversation.
King Williams: Atlanta has been known as a place where the car comes first, the parking comes second…
Rebecca Serna: and on-street parking comes third (laughing).
KW: What have been the challenges you’ve seen as a biking advocate in Atlanta?
RS: When I started working at the Atlanta Coalition about 11 years ago, we were a metro bike advocacy organization and we tried to cover the whole metro Atlanta area. The sprawl and really different land uses… There’s just such a wide variation that we realized it was impossible to cover the entire region.
We narrowed down our focus to the city of Atlanta, and when you look at advocacy options for the city, it looks like we’re picking up steam.
KW: I wrote an article last year on Uber or Lyft being the future of transit. What do you think their role will be?
RS: Disclaimer: Atlanta Streets Alive is sponsored by several of these companies now. That’s because Atlanta Streets Alive is about all the different types of mobility and having scooters and electric bikes is a positive thing.
Alternative transportation options give a little bit of a twist to get people to change their mindsets. Scooters in particular are interesting. Research shows the number of scooter trips replacing car trips is around 10 to 15 percent, which for Atlanta is significant.
KW: Everything the city of Atlanta does, it seems as if the outer counties pick up on. Is that true of cycling, too?
RS: I think it’s hard to generalize across such a big region but if you had to, I’d agree with you. Programs like the Liveable Centers Initiative that the Atlanta Regional Commission spearheads is replicating some of the success we’ve seen with land use and mobility. They are creating these pockets of places where you can walk around, you can bike, you can interact with your community in a more natural way, not just from your car.
KW: You’ve kind of alluded to it, but there’s a perception of cyclists only being young white guys – that women don’t bike. Does that concern you, as a woman who leads a cycling organization?
RS: Yeah, absolutely… We brought together a group of executive directors of biking and walking advocacy organizations in April, and they were almost all white men. Bless their hearts, they’re great but we are not going to be as effective if we don’t represent the populations we serve.
KW: I hear a fair number of women who want to bike, but they are worried it’s unsafe. Is that something you’re trying to educate people about?
RS: Absolutely. We do free bike training courses once a month. Women tend to be more risk-averse as a group, that’s not necessarily true for me. So, if you see more women riding, it’s probably because you’ve made it safer. It’s kind of like universal design – where you design something that can be used by all ages and abilities.
KW: Is it hard to get the average person to understand the benefits of biking?
RS: I think people are getting aware of it. I hear from people who feel trapped in their cars, where traffic is degrading their quality of life. It feels as if there is greater awareness than it used to be.
When I first started, people would say ‘do you do those 100-mile things on the weekends?’ or ‘do you enjoy the Tour de France?’ and I don’t like any of those things.
KW: It seems as if we’re going two directions. One, where some people are starting to build bike lanes and the other being the exact opposite – “we’re going to build as many roads as possible.” Do you see that or am I reading too much into it?
RS: There’s this term, “20 min neighborhoods.” These are places where you can get anywhere you need in 20 min by walking. We don’t have many of those neighborhoods in Atlanta, because we don’t have many people-scaled places, we have car-scaled places. People don’t understand that when you build more lanes, that you get more cars.
KW: If money was no object, what would you do right now in Atlanta to promote biking.
RS: I would build an entire network of dedicated and physically separated places to bike.
If you look at the road network now, roads don’t suddenly end where a road becomes a gravel road…but sidewalks do. Bike lanes do. With more people coming to the city of Atlanta and our population [projected] to triple, I would just connect it. So, it becomes an option on equal footing with other options of mobility. We aren’t forcing anyone to ride a bike, but it should be an option.
Atlanta Streets Alive will be rolling out on Sunday from 2:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. For more information, click here.