By Guest Columnist REBECCA SERNA, executive director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition and key organizer of Atlanta Streets Alive!
Streets take up almost one-third of the average U.S. city and represent the majority of our public space.
Yet the streets in car-dominated cities like Atlanta are not entirely public, at least not yet. Owning a car is widely viewed as a requirement for life in Atlanta. Those of us who choose to use bicycles to get around are often made to feel marginalized, as if our time and safety are less valuable than those who have made other choices.
Far from being a space only for cars, our streets — paid for with property taxes and public dollars — could be used to do a great deal of good, from providing space for active transportation (getting exercise while you’re getting places) and mobility, to enhancing the urban fabric with creative public art, useful street vendors and a thriving social environment.
Though not quite common, it is possible to live without owning a car, even in our car-dependent city.
I know because my family got rid of our car after a crash last year, and now my husband and young son and I depend on our bicycles, MARTA, zipcar, and our own two feet to get us around. It was initially daunting but ultimately doable with some planning and the encouragement of our friends in Atlanta’s growing bicycle community.
Yet despite the recent upswing in bicycling, Atlanta roads are still generally built for and dominated by cars and their drivers.
There is a movement afoot to change that dynamic.
Here in the United States we are not in the habit of looking to Colombia for innovative and democratic ideas. But three decades ago, a group of citizens of Colombia’s capital city, Bogotá, closed down a city street to cars and opened it up for people.
The grassroots idea gradually gained support within the city administration. That coincided with a policy shift to emphasize the creation of shared and engaging public spaces for recreation, cultural activities and social interaction.
The ciclovia was born. And in the decades since, it has spread throughout the world.
Today about 800,000 Bogotanos step out of their homes and into the streets every Sunday from 7am – 2 pm to bike, jog, walk, do aerobics, dance, and just enjoy their lives in a safe and welcoming environment.
Lately, ciclovias have spread like wildfire through the Americas and the United States. Twelve cities now have regular streets closures that allow for people to get active in street. And they are not limited to cities like New York or San Francisco, but include Cleveland, Baltimore, Louisville and Miami.
On Sunday, May 23, Atlanta will join the list.
While our ciclovia project, Atlanta Streets Alive, will start small (our initial goal of 7 miles became 5 miles, which recently became two miles due to the challenge of covering police costs), we do have lofty goals.
Those of us who have invested months scheming and dreaming to create a ciclovia for our beloved city hope for nothing less than a shift in the culture of our streets — away from a black and white “cars versus bikes” mentality — and towards the broader vision of a true transportation network with realistic options that meet the needs of all our citizens.
We are asking for nothing less than complete streets. We hope Atlanta will experience a taste of what those could be like through this project, and we hope the ciclovia will become a ongoing part of the Atlanta experience.
Creating Atlanta’s first car-free afternoon has not been easy. Providing off-duty police to safeguard the street closures was the hardest part. But it was made possible by the support of Atlanta City Council member Kwanza Hall, who took a risk in supporting the project after experiencing a ciclovia for himself in Guadalajara.
As in Bogotá, our Atlanta Streets Alive ciclovia is a grassroots effort led by the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition with a volunteer planning team that included people from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Atlanta Regional Commission, Central Atlanta Progress, along with many dedicated individuals and volunteers.
For a few hours on a Sunday afternoon, parents will be able to let their children play in the street without fear, and everyone, young and old, will be able to get active and engaged with the public sphere on streets open for the people, by the people.
The roads belong to those who use them. With the right planning and priorities, we can make them accessible for all people, not just for people driving cars.