Light turnout shows one challenge of transportation sales tax campaign – Public interest

By David Pendered

Heather Alhadeff glanced at the half-empty room and asked the obvious question no one had raised.

“Where is everyone? I thought there would be standing room only,” said Alhadeff, a transportation planner with Perkins + Will.

About 40 folks had gathered Friday morning for a Southface program about pedestrian safety near transit stops. The light turnout does not bode well as the region shapes a debate on all forms of mobility in advance of the 2012 vote on a penny sales tax for transportation improvements.

New transit facilities likely will be a significant part of the project list to be presented to voters in metro Atlanta. Ensuring pedestrian safety near transit is essential to enticing new riders.

After Alhadeff posed her question, one voice suggested that excesses on Cinco de Mayo may be to blame.

Whatever the reason, the speakers certainly were up to their task of discussing “Safe Access to Transit,” which was the monthly topic of Southface’s Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable.

Sally Flocks, president and CEO of PEDS, presented a compelling presentation that featured some grim statistics about pedestrian crashes in the 18-county metro area:

  • 48 percent occur within 300 feet of a bus stop;
  • 25 percent occur within 100 feet of a bus stop.

Flocks went on to outline the benefits of enhancements that are relatively inexpensive, but go a long way toward improving pedestrian safety. They include raised medians, cross walks and traffic signals – all of which could be funded with proceeds of the penny sales tax for transportation.

Josh Mello, Atlanta’s recently hired assistant director of transportation planning, said proactive engagement with the state DOT is the single best way to improve pedestrian safety.

“If city officials and planners and folks get a head start on local projects early enough, there is a tremendous opportunity to incorporate some of the items Sally has highlighted to improve pedestrian safety,” Mello said.

“One of the biggest issues is getting ahead of the curve,” Mello said. “To take advantage of that, you have to have local staff to work with the state highway folks.”

At about this point, Southface COO Michael Halicki opened the floor to questions. And that’s when Alhadeff raised the question about how to interest more people in the crucial issue of lowering the risk of pedestrians being struck near a bus stop or rail station.

“Maybe this topic is not sexy enough,” said Alhadeff, who oversaw the creation of Atlanta’s 25-year transportation plan when she worked for the city.

Halicki, Flocks and Alhadeff gathered after the meeting to talk about ways of raising awareness.

Flocks said the issue resonates when it’s personalized. Her presentation included a slide about a 4-year-old child who was killed April 10, 2010 after he, his mom and sister were struck while crossing Austell Road to get home after a bus trip.

Halicki said part of the reason it’s hard to reach a wider audience is of the perception in this region’s car-based culture of who is the average pedestrian.

“The importance of pedestrian issues can be diminished because it turns into a class issue in some respects,” said Halicki, who, before joining Southface, worked for 16 years in the industry of devising outreach programs about public policy issues in metro Atlanta.

“Some of the challenge of talking about the true costs of a complete street involves in looking at the street in different ways,” he said.

Alhadeff suggested talking about the bottom line.

“Whenever you do streetscape improvements, you get more economic development, as well,” Alhadeff said. “So these improvements change not only the safety, but changes the attraction to the area. The entire area then can attract better development and more mixed use.”

With the sales tax referendum looming, the three agreed on the need to refine the message about keeping people safe as they walk to a transit stop.

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

3 replies
  1. juanita driggs says:

    Atlantans apparently won’t get motivated about this issue until gasoline tops five bucks a gallon and maybe not even then. While our friends and neighbors complain loudly about high gas prices they stubbornly refuse to think outside their cars and do what it takes to address this chronic problem straight on.Report

    Reply
  2. Paul says:

    Southface charges $20 for entry into these events, and they occur during working hours. It is no surprise attendance is low. It does not mean people don’t care about the issue.Report

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

What are your thoughts?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.