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A more walkable Atlanta equals a healthier and more prosperous city

By Maria Saporta

It makes so much sense.

The most walkable cities are the healthiest cities — economically, environmentally and emotionally.

Designing our streets, sidewalks, public spaces and buildings for pedestrians could be the soundest infrastructure investments we could make — on multiple levels.

That’s the overarching message made by Jeff Speck, author of a new book called: Walkable City: How Downtown can save America one step at a time. Speck was in Atlanta last week speaking to a group of the Midtown Alliance and conducting an all-day workshop for the Congress of New Urbanism – Atlanta.

Unfortunately, Atlanta is not well portrayed in Speck’s book, a fact that made him sound almost a bit apologetic. It is no secret that among that intellectual group of urban planners and architects, Atlanta has developed a bad reputation over the years for being a bastion of sprawl and unbridled development.

Jeff Speck

Jeff Speck

But that’s what happens when people begin to paint Atlanta with a broad brush.

One can’t compare what is happening in downtown, Midtown and Buckhead with what is going on in the suburban and exurban parts of the region.

One can’t even compare the enlightened town centers in our suburban counties — Roswell, Marietta, Lawrenceville, Chattahoochee Hills, Woodstock to those endless subdivisions connected by roadways lined with strip centers that a former Charlotte, N.C. mayor once called: “corridors of crap.”

So what is their distinguishing characteristic? Their walkability.

It’s only in the past decade where there’s been a convergence of appreciation of the role that walkability plays in American cities, according to Speck.

First, developers and economists have realized that the young and educated class prefer to live in walkable urban communities that provide a high quality of life. Also, as the baby boom generation gets older it also has been seeking more urban options that is not as dependent on the automobile.

Second, a trio of Atlanta public health leaders —  Howard Frumkin, Lawrence Frank and Richard Jackson — published their book: Urban Sprawl and Public Health on July 9, 2004, which Speck calls the best day for being a city planner in America.

Jackson’s inspiration for the book was while driving on Buford Highway, a roadway with no sidewalks and traffic lights two miles apart, and seeing an older woman walking on the side of the road carrying shopping bags in 95-degree heat.

Jackson is quoted as saying: “If that poor woman had collapsed from heat stroke, we docs would have written the cause of death as heat stroke and not lack of trees and public transportation, poor urban form, and heat-island effects. If she had been killed by a truck going by, the cause of death would have been ‘motor-vehicle trauma,’ and not lack of sidewalks and transit, poor urban planning and failed political leadership. That was the ‘aha!’ moment for me.”

All of a sudden, walkability, cycling, transit and pedestrian-oriented urban design contributed to overall better public health.

Third, environmentalists also have begun to appreciate that people living in more compact communities with fewer cars and wider sidewalks decreases energy consumption and reduces our carbon footprint.

“Cities that are more walkable are more productive,” Speck said. “There is a strong economic argument.”

Speck said that the major cities around the world are figuring this out.

“Paris is committed to removing one million parking spaces in the next 20 years, that’s 50,000 a year,” Speck said.

Mercer does a quality of life index of the top 50 cities in the world.  Interestingly enough, no U.S. city is listed in the top 25.

“There is not a non-walkable city in the top 50,” Speck said. “Having a walkable city makes you more sustainable.”

Kevin Green, president of the Midtown Alliance, pointed to the progress that is being made to make Peachtree and its surrounding streets more walkable. He pointed to how Juniper Street will soon go from being four lanes to two lanes with wider sidewalks and a separated bike path.

“We know it’s only going to get better,” Green said.

Cities interested in becoming more walkable can do a “walkability study,” which Speck said yields far better results than a traffic study or a master plan.

According to a national ranking of walkable cities, Atlanta ranks 20 out of the top 50 U.S. cities with an average score of 52.9. For a breakdown of its neighborhood scores, click here.


In his Atlanta workshop, Speck actually offered tools that the city can adopt to make it more walkable. He is a big advocate of road diets – reducing the amount of space devoted to cars and reallocating it to people.

Pick streets that are the most likely winners — those that are strong candidates to become pedestrian-friendly.

Reduce the number and/or width of the lanes, widen sidewalks, put in bike lanes, add parallel parking, plant street trees between the road and pedestrians and make sure there’s a building with active storefronts or restaurants opening up to sidewalk.

Nothing kills street life more than a surface parking lot or a lifeless concrete garage butting up to a sidewalk.

Speck is also a big believer in paint  — for crosswalks and bike lanes. “Use the boldest strips and the brightest green,” Speck said. “It’s the best advertising you can do for your city.”

It does make so much sense. And better yet, it doesn’t seem that far out of reach.

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.



  1. Seth Foldy April 2, 2013 5:23 pm

    Nice article. My home Milwaukee (where the head of the national Congress for New Urbanism and I worked together) is a very walkable city (after shovelling and de-icing, of course).

    A shout out also to Decatur, NE ATL, Midtown, and of course, the Beltline. Selected ATL neighborhoods are walkable/transitable if you carefully watch your step. (NOT good for disabled, however.) When I gave up the car for a week the biggest problem was the infrequency of buses. The seeds are there.

    Seth Foldy MD, MPHReport

  2. Peaton April 5, 2013 5:24 pm

    I agree. It would be great to have better headways for MARTA. I’m a little worried that the street-car will only run every 15 minutes (correct me if I am wrong), but these are steps in the right direction. I am especially worried about walk-ability in areas like Buford Highway were there is a transit-dependent community that is undeserved both by transit and urban form.Report

  3. The Last Democrat in Georgia April 7, 2013 1:19 am

    @ Peaton, April 5, 2013 at 5:24 pm-

    I agree with the desire of MARTA to have better headways for its heavy rail and bus service.

    Though in regards to an area like Buford Highway, at least that particular road is very-slowly (with an emphasis on VERY-SLOWLY) seeing improvement in walkability with the recent and ongoing installation of sidewalks and crosswalks on the stretch of the highway between roughly the Beverly Hills Drive intersection in Chamblee and the Gwinnett County Line.

    Buford Highway is also proof of the effectiveness of public-private partnerships in providing transit service to the public as the road’s large population of transit-dependent pedustrians is served by both public transit in the form of MARTA and at least one private transit service (the privately-owned Royal Bus Lines).

    The existing poor urban form of the Buford Highway corridor that you describe also figures to improve over the long-term as the very-preliminary proposals to implement increased transit service on the roadway between roughly Sidney Marcus Blvd in the City of Atlanta and the Gwinnett County Line in the form of improved bus service and possibly streetcar service will likely increasingly make the highway a target for higher-density transit-oriented development in the future.Report

  4. The Last Democrat in Georgia April 7, 2013 12:36 pm

    The mention of Buford Highway in this conversation about urban walkability in Atlanta and environs also raises some other important points that relate directly to the issue in question.

    One of those important points, particularly in regards to Metro Atlanta and the State of Georgia at-large is available levels of transportation funding or the notable lack thereof.

    With Buford Highway being a state-maintained and state-controlled right-of-way (the road is signed as Georgia Highway 13 for its entire length and as U.S. Highway 23 for most of its length through Northeast Metro Atlanta), one could possibly make the argument that the ongoing efforts to make the increasingly-urban road more friendly to pedustrians and transit could be farther along if there was more funding available for the State of Georgia to do so.

    The main reason that there is not more funding available to make Buford Highway more friendly to pedustrians and transit is not necessarily because of a lack of interest on the part of state transportation planners, which is the common perception amongst the transit-hungry urban community inside of I-285.

    Though it plays a major role in the equation, politics is also not necessarily the main reason that more funding is not available to make a road like Buford Highway more friendly to the heavy pedustrian population that uses the road, even though the section of Buford Highway that is most heavily utilized by pedustrians runs through a part of the metro area and state that is heavily-populated by immigrants from Latin America and Asia who have virtually no political pull within a statewide scene that is dominated and controlled by political interests that are proudly and fervently anti-transit.

    The main reason that there is not more funding available to make a road like Buford Highway more friendly to the very-heavy amount of pedustrian traffic that utilizes the roadway and surrounding corridor is because the State of Georgia collects entirely too-little in transportation funding through the state’s increasingly-meager fuel tax.

    The failure of the State of Georgia to collect the amount of money that is actually-needed to adequately fund the operation and maintenance of the ENTIRE state’s transportation network (roads, rail, bus, sidewalks, etc) means that increasingly the state barely has enough money on hand to pay for routine continue maintenance of road surfaces and existing transportation facilities, much less new or expanded transportation facilities like sidewalks and transit.

    With the state collecting entirely too-little in through its current method of funding transportation by way of the increasingly-ineffective fuel tax, one can make the argument that the state needs to find a much more-effective way or ways of financing transportation needs as a whole.

    One idea that has been floated by transportation think-tanks and that is being increasingly considered by the state’s political leaders is to phase-out the state’s fuel tax and replace it with user fees on major roads as would be warranted.

    In a user fee method of financing, the portion of the gas tax that funds major roads (interstates, expressways, major surface roads like Buford Hwy, etc) would be eliminated and replaced with a per-use base fee of roughly $0.01-$0.03 per-mile that would be pegged to rise with inflation as needed (so that the proper amount of funding that is needed to operate and maintain the transportation network is always collected) and collected mainly through the use of electronic tolling or open road tolling (ORT) technology at selected major intersections and major interchanges.

    Under the user fee method of financing, each road would also get to keep what it collects in user fees which would be a vast improvement over the current system of transportation funding in which the revenues from the state’s fuel tax have to be split equally amongst each of the state’s 13 congressional districts.

    A switch to a user fee or per-use fee method of transportation funding would mean that a road like Buford Highway would get the revenues that its needs to fund its own unique set of transportation and logistical needs (logistical needs like landscaped medians, sidewalks and crosswalks (at-grade and elevated in the form of pedustrian bridges, where applicable) along the entire length of the surface/at-grade portion of the road in DeKalb (and Fulton and Gwinnett) counties.Report

  5. The Last Democrat in Georgia April 7, 2013 12:50 pm

    Another way to insure adequate funding of the state’s entire multimodal transportation network would be to insure that pedustrians and transit users also have the same ‘skin-in-the-game’ that motorists will be required to have. This would be done with the transition from the current system of transit funding that is overly-dependent upon the very-limited revenues of sales taxes to a much more effective system of funding where at-least 75% of the cost of transit operations and maintenance is funded with user fees in the form of a distance-based fare structure with base fares of roughly $0.20-$0.50 per-mile.

    Like the funding structure of the road network, the distance-based fare structure that funds the transit network would also be pegged to rise with inflation as needed so that at least 75% of the cost of operations and maintenance would be funded with the revenues from the farebox.

    The other 25% of the operational and maintenance costs of transit would be funded with Tax Increment Financing (portions of property tax revenues from new development that pops up along transit lines) and private investment (arrangements in which transit lines/corridors are leased out to private operators for upfront and/or yearly payments and the public no longer pays to operate or maintain the transit line/corridor during the life of the lease).

    Transit users would also help to finance the improvements and upgrades to pedustrian facilities that would be needed to insure safe and adequate pedustrian access to transit modes with the implementation of small fees to fund pedustrian facility improvements that would be included within the cost of fares.

    Just like motorists should pay for what they use of the transportation network, pedustrians should do the same as user fees are not only the fairest way to adequately fund the operational needs of the transportation network, but also the most effective seeing as though the existing method of transportation funding funds less and less of the needs of the entire transportation network with each passing year as vehicles become more fuel efficient.Report

  6. The Last Democrat in Georgia April 7, 2013 3:50 pm

    In addition to a severe lack of funding, another important point about why pedustrian-heavy roadways and corridors like Buford Highway don’t have the pedustrian facilities that they need to adequately serve their rising adjoining pedustrian populations is because of a local social and political culture and climate that is currently dominated by political and cultural factions, particularly at the state and regional levels, that view the increasing need for transit and the increase in pedustrians as a mortal threat to the existence of their traditionally automobile-dominated suburban lifestyle.

    Take Cobb County, for instance as a prime example. Cobb County, a community that is now home to approximately 700,000 residents, is a place that for much of its post-World War II existence has been overwhelmingly predominantly-white, affluent and very-conservative and exurban to outer-suburban in nature, culturally and politically (Cobb County has long been considered to be one of the absolute most-proudly conservative communities on the continent).

    Thoughout the 1960’s, ’70’s, ’80’s and even into the early 1990’s, Cobb County was much more similar in nature demographically to the way that neighboring outer-suburban Cherokee and Paulding counties are today.

    But after decades of explosive growth in development and population, Cobb County has transitioned from being a predominantly-white and affluent exurban/outer-suburban community to being an increasingly diverse and heavily-populated district that is an increasingly key and indispensible part of the urban core of Metro Atlanta, an urban core that includes long-urban Fulton County, formerly suburban DeKalb County and formerly-outer suburban Clayton and Cobb counties and formerly exurban Gwinnett County (a county of 842,000 residents which 40 years ago had only 70,000 residents and was similar in nature to what rural/exurban Jackson County is today up I-85 in Northeast Georgia).

    It is this transition from a predominantly-white and mostly-affluent outer-suburban county to an increasingly-diverse community (ethically, racially, culturally, politically and socioeconomically) that is increasingly urban in nature that has the county’s traditional power structure very-upset.

    Cobb County’s traditionally white and ultraconservative power structure is very unsettled at the continued rapid changes that are taking place in their once seemingly ‘far-removed from the urban core’ outer-suburban community that has long been referred to as “The Center of the Republican/Conservative Universe” is considered to be one of the birthplaces of the modern conservative movement in Georgia and national politics (as Cobb County was once the home of Newt Gingrich who is considered one of the fathers of the modern conservative movement, former Georgia governor and staunch segregationist the late Lester Maddox, the late Larry McDonald namesake of I-75 in Northwest Georgia and the second president of the ultraconservative anti-communist John Birch Society who died when his plane was shot down by the Soviets in 1983, and late Georgia State Representative Bobby Franklin who was widely considered to be one of the most-hardcore conservative state lawmakers in the entire nation).

    The rapid changes that are continuing in once overwhelmingly white and affluent Cobb County include the introduction of newcomers with more moderate and liberal political and cultural mindsets to an area that has long been one of the absolute most-proudly hardcore conservative suburban enclaves on the entire continent, as well as the introduction of more and more lower-income minorities into an area that has traditionally been overwhelmingly predominantly-white and affluent as a consequence of the white-flight movement out of the City of Atlanta during the ’50’s, ’60’s, ’70’s and ’80’s.

    Cobb County’s traditionally white and ultraconservative power structure sees pedustrians and transit (or most particularly, the low-income liberal-voting minorities who are most-likely to be the pedustrians who are most- dependent upon transit) to be the cause of what they perceive to be the decline of the county from a predominantly-white and affluent exurban-like outer-suburban community into an increasingly-diverse urban community that is increasingly aligned with the black and liberal-dominated government of the City of Atlanta, an entity which has been much-hated in the traditionally ultraconservative-dominated political climate of Cobb County for much of the post-WW II era.

    It is this sometimes-hostile mindset towards pedustrians that is seen in Cobb County’s sometimes overly-aggressive prosecution of pedustrians in traffic incidents involving what the county considers to be jaywalking on sections of roadway with pedustrian facilities that are clearly inadequate, if not totally non-existent in many cases.

    Though the highly transit and pedustrian-hostile mindset is changing as the county becomes more heavily-populated, more diverse and more urban in nature, as is seen in the county government’s support of long-term plans to extend some type of light rail-type of transit up a much more pedustrian-friendly Cobb Parkway to Kennesaw from Atlanta, there is a still a mindset amongst much of the county’s traditionally-affluent power structure that pedustrians and transit are a sign of irreversible blight and decline and that any attempts to make the county more friendly or hospitable to pedustrians needs to rebuffed and resisted for as long as possible as the growing pedustrian element is perceived by many in the county to be a sign that an increasingly diverse and progressive outside world wants to impose its social, cultural and political will on a proudly-ultraconservative suburban enclave.

    The hostile mindset of the Cobb County power structure is important to the conversation about walkability and transit-friendliness because it is the highly transit-averse ultraconservative-dominated suburban power structure in Cobb County and other suburban counties (Paulding, Cherokee, Gwinnett, Forsyth, Henry, Fayette, Coweta, etc) that controls and dominates the statewide political scene where the funding and execution of transportation priorities is set on state-controlled routes that are utilized by heavy amounts of pedustrian traffic such as Buford Highway (GA Hwy 13/US Hwy 23) in DeKalb County, Cobb Parkway in Cobb County (US Hwy 41), Roswell Road/Atlanta St/Alpharetta Hwy in North Fulton County (GA Hwy 9), and even P’tree Rd in Buckhead and North DeKalb (GA Hwy 9/GA Hwy 141).

    If the statewide power structure that is currently dominated by the transit and pedustrian-averse power structure of the suburbs deems pedustrian issues and transit improvements to be wholly-unimportant to the state’s transportation strategy despite the overwhelmingly obvious need (both in the short-term and in the long-term) then projects like installing sidewalks in pedustrian-heavy corridors like Buford Highway and the like will continue to be ignored and deprioritized in the way that the obvious need for a more-effective way of transportation funding as a whole is ignored and depriorized by the current political regime under the Gold Dome.Report


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