Atlanta region planning a network of bicycle and walking trails, paths and lanes

By Maria Saporta

For decades, bicycle lanes, multi-use trails and paths have been developed all over the Atlanta region.

But they have been developed – for the most part – in a haphazard way. A city, such as Roswell, will build a trail along the Chattahoochee River. Or the City of Atlanta will build a separated two-way bicycle path along 10th Street in Midtown. Or the Chattahoochee Hills will build a walkable and bicycle-friendly community in South Fulton near Serenbe.

The closest the region has had to a master developer of multi-use trails is the PATH Foundation, which has developed the Silver Comet Trail, Arabia Mountain Trail and segments of the Atlanta BeltLine to name a few.

Now the Atlanta Regional Commission is working on a comprehensive Bicycle and Walking Plan for the region that start trying to knit the various trails, paths and lanes together.

bicycle walking plan

Mia Birk of Alta, Rebecca Serna of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, and Byron Rushing of the Atlanta Regional Commission, at recent workshop (Photo by Maria Saporta)

The ultimate goal is to make the greater Atlanta region – the 19 counties that make up the metropolitan planning organization – a friendlier place for people to ride their bicycles and to use their feet to get around.

In a bid for national experts, the ARC awarded a $200,000 contract to Portland, Or.-based Alta Planning & Design to help the organization develop a regional bicycle and walking plan. The firm was selected because of its experience in both planning and implementation of bicycle and walking trails, ARC officials said.

A workshop to launch the planning effort was held May 29 at the R. Charles Loudermilk Center where dozens of people interested in bicycling and walking in the region came to offer their ideas on how the plan should come together.

“We are all pedestrians,” began Mia Birk, Alta’s founder. She then described the opportunities for cyclists. About one-third of the population could be described as “No bikes. No way.” There is nothing that could be done to convince them to get on a bicycle.

Mia Birk of Alta next to bicycles parked on sidewalk (Photo: Maria Saporta)

Mia Birk of Alta next to bicycles parked on sidewalk (Photo: Maria Saporta)

And there’s about 1 percent of the population that is “strong and fearless” – nothing will stop them from riding. They will ride anywhere, anytime. About 7 percent are enthusiastic and confident – riding where there are amenities such as bike lanes.

And then about 60 percent of the population are “Interested by concerned.” Those are the people who could be convinced to ride their bicycles if there were more trails and lanes, better safety measures, accessible bicycle parking, and more bicycle-friendly amenities – such as showers at work.

When it comes to national rankings, Atlanta usually falls in the middle when listed as a bicycle-friendly or a walk-friendly city.

“I think you are raising your game,” said Birk, adding that the plan will focus on the needs of the region and analyze the building blocks that are needed to create a more comprehensive network of paths and trails.

Byron Rushing, ARC’s bicycle and pedestrian planner who is the organization’s project manager for the plan, said the team is now working on its technical analysis for a regional trail network. It will look to see where existing trails exist, and it will focus on the gaps that exists.

bike track

New bicycle track on Peachtree Center Boulevard (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Rushing said that he believes those gaps probably total to several dozen miles rather than hundreds of miles. But it will take until the end of summer before that the team will be able to present draft recommendations. The hope is to have a final plan presented to the ARC board at the December meeting.

“Our challenge is how we talk about bicycling, walking trails, access to transit, safety and economic development when we talk about these two modes of transportation,” Rushing said. “They really are very different.”

The exercise becomes even more complex when it is extended over 19 counties – with a few that are urban, others suburban and others that are exurban.

One way to address the challenge throughout the 19 counties is through the Livable Communities Initiative (LCI). By having particular nodes – town centers – then it is easier to develop trails and paths connecting those nodes while also providing walking and cycling within those livable centers.

“We would love for our eventual outcome to be a connected regional network of trails, sidewalks, bike lanes and transit,” Rushing said. “But we recognize that each piece is important for each community.”

Brad Davis, the Atlanta project manager for Alta Planning and Design, said the challenge is not insurmountable.

“We are really close to having some great connections that would allow us to extend to the east, west, south and north,” Davis said.

multi-use trail map

The beginning of a regional multi-use trail network – existing paths seeking connections (Map: Atlanta Regional Commission)

For years, the PATH Foundation has been working on a way to connect its eastside trails going to Stone Mountain to the Silver Comet Trail going to Alabama. The missing piece has been having a path or a trail through downtown Atlanta.

Meanwhile, Atlanta has been busy building trails along the Atlanta BeltLine as well as new bicycle tracks along the city’s streets – including Ponce de Leon and now Peachtree Center Boulevard.

Step by step, community by community, city by city, and county by county, we may soon be able to weave our region together in a way that it’s never been tied before – through a tightly-knit fabric of paths, trails and sidewalks – giving people an alternative to the car as a way to get around.

Now if we could only add true regional transit to that mix, we really would be getting somewhere.

Atlanta bicycle center

A newspaper headline from the 1920s: “When Atlanta Was the World’s Bicycle Center”

historic Atlanta

An aerial view of how downtown Atlanta used to look before the age of the automobile (Source: presentation of the Atlanta Regional Commission)

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.

8 replies
  1. Colin Ake says:

    Checking in from Woodstock, where we have a sixty mile multi use trail system planned to complement our ~30 miles of single track mountain bike trails. Great to see this across Atlanta!Report

    Reply
  2. Renee Gable says:

    Maria, please join us in Graduate Athens for Georgia Trail Summit this week, where many stakeholders across the Southeast will present Case Studies of built trails, Federal, State and local funding options, the beginning of a statewide Trail Organization, and more to further the expansion of trails throughout Georgia as a transportation alternative!Report

    Reply
  3. Sally Flocks says:

    Building more trails is a terrific aspiration for the Atlanta region.

    But as Byron Rushing said during the Bicycle-Friendly / Walk-Friendly Communities workshop, walking and bicycling are very different transportation modes. People may ride a bicycle to travel from one town center to another. Very few people, however, will walk from one town center to another. Instead, they’ll walk to a rail station or bus stop, use public transit, and then walk from the station to their destination.

    From a regional perspective, what matters most for people who walk is safe access to transit. Without safe crossings, walking to transit can be deadly. Over 80 pedestrians are killed in the Atlanta region each year. Nearly half of all pedestrian-vehicle crashes occur within 300 feet of a transit stop. A large share of fatal crashes occur on wide, high-speed roads in the inner suburbs.

    Making transportation equity a priority is essential. Most
    people with low or moderate incomes cannot afford to live in town
    centers. Many, however, rely on public transit to get to work, school,
    shopping and other destinations. They also walk along or cross roads that you and I would find terrifying. They do so not because they’re strong and fearless. Instead, it’s because they have no other choice.

    A built environment that encourages increased physical activity is also important to the region. The success of the Atlanta Beltline’s Eastside trail confirms that people walk more when walkable places are close to where they live. Public Health experts recommend that people get at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week. Most people aren’t “weekend warriors” — but for most of us, 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week is a realistic goal. 
    From the perspective of safety, public health and transportation equity, the regional plan must address the needs of everyone who walks, not just those who live in town centers or enjoy walking on trails.Report

    Reply
  4. Real World says:

    It should be clear that ARC and cooperative local governments have been actively building a coordinated trail plan for several years. Without a master plan how could anyone explain the various trail projects that miraculously meet at inter-jurisdictional borders? It appears that ARC is now going to “backfill” a PUBLIC plan to provide cover for the NOT-public plan that has evidently existed for years. I can tell you for certain that ARC has had a public plan  that never seemed to mesh with what was happening on the ground. Similarly, the county DOT ‘plan’ has never meshed with reality or with the public ARC plan.

    I admire the advocacy work of Sally Flock. Especially since she lives in a community where her needs are met to a great extent with existing infrastructure and where additions can be made reasonably.

    A gap opens when these ideas are dragged into suburban environments where costs soar and utilization falls sharply. The value of bike or pedestrian facilities in widespread suburbs as “transportation” is close to zero. Both activities can only be seen as recreational.

    Unfortunately, the cost of all such infrastructure falls on transportation budgets. Despite what some believe, the cost is substantial. It is also common for such infrastructure to require land acquisition for Right-of-Way and that acquisition comes through eminent domain because property owners are not willing sellers and often do not want these projects.

    The pow-wow at ARC last week comes as news to me as I had seen no mention of it prior.. Clearly the only people whose input is valued are the known advocates for bike/ped facilities. ARC’s enthusiasm for this and disregard for the people who pick up the costs (aka, Taxpayers), along with the regular habit of burying these projects in every transportation program, inevitably leads to the conclusion that ARC cannot be seen as a serious player in transportation planning, at least for the suburbs if not for all Metro Atlanta.Report

    Reply
  5. Sally Flocks says:

    Real World 
    The value of safe crossings at transit stops in suburban areas is enormous. Many
    people who walk to transit live and travel along roads built for high-speed automobiles only. Three fourths of transit trips begin and end with walking trips. Most people who use transit do so to get to jobs, schools, shopping, or other destinations. Walking to transit is an essential part of our transportation system, not simply a recreational activity. With regards to taxpayers, please keep in mind that a healthy population will also save the regions millions in health care costs.Report

    Reply
  6. Susan says:

    Real World Sorry you did not see any of the many places ARC promoted the community forum for the update to the Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan. The Forum was advertised on the homepage of ARC’s website leading up to the event, and multiple times on ARC’s Facebook, Twitter and Linked In pages, in a SaportaReport Thought Leaders Column, and in ARC’s bi-weekly Regional Planning Newsbriefs e-newsletter. If you want to be informed about ARC’s planning activities, please go to our website at http://www.atlantaregional.com and sign up for our newsletters or follow us on social media.Report

    Reply
  7. MauriceCarter says:

    Sally Flocks Great points.  Ultimately, designs and plans must be built from the perspective of people who use the transportation system — all of them.  Rather than focusing on the things we are building:  roads, train tracks, trails, sidewalks, and crosswalks, we need to be focused on the PEOPLE who use these things, understanding current and future needs and wants — their experience.  I’m a bicycling advocate, but ultimately I am a fan of every for of active transportation.  And, I can never stop noticing all the beaten paths in the dirt where needs are going unmet and experiences are far less than safe/enjoyable.Report

    Reply

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