By Guest Columnist REBECCA SERNA, executive director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition
Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among Americans from 1 to 34 years old. So it seems reasonable to assume that major public investments in transportation systems such as that proposed by the Transportation Investment Act, would place some value on preventing travel-related deaths.
Reasonable assumptions would be wrong – safety hasn’t made a single appearance in discussions as to what we should and shouldn’t build with the proposed penny sales tax for transportation.
While transit is the safest way to travel and does well on the draft constrained project list approved by the executive committee of the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable, too many of the roadway projects miss the opportunity to increase the safety of our roads, not just for bicyclists or pedestrians, but for drivers as well.
As other commentators have noted, a special sales tax calls for special projects.
Does the project list live up to that promise?
Encouragingly, transit has merited serious and positive consideration throughout this process. Yet there has been almost no media coverage of the bicycle and pedestrian projects (the SaportaReport being the welcome exception) that could dramatically enhance the safety of our roads for all users.
Other cities, including New York, have found that adding bike lanes, for example, reduces car crashes of all kinds, preventing lost work hours, injuries, and fatalities. And the bike commuters their newly-networked systems of lanes has created benefit immensely from improved personal and public health, savings at the pump, and time saved by no longer having to add a gym visit to their day after work.
Given the lack of media coverage, it’s perhaps not surprising bicycle and pedestrian projects would suffer disproportionately when the time came to trim – how can we value what we don’t talk about? Initial guidelines for the project selection process recommended bike/ped projects represent 0 t0 5 percent of funding.
Advocates (including the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition) succeeded in bumping that range out of the basement, to 1 one 5 percent. Draft lists along the way placed bike/ped projects in the 2 to 3 percent range, not what you’d call overwhelming, but enough to make a dent in the appalling lack of safe spaces for people to walk or bike to their destinations across metro Atlanta.
Yet the project list approved unanimously by the executive committee Aug. 15 slashed bike/ped funding by 84 percent, dropping to 0.36 percent of the total funding, not even the bare minimum established by the guidelines. And the lion’s share of those dollars will go to expanding Buford Highway to include sidewalks and bus rapid transit – a very worthwhile project that unfortunately lacks a bicycle component despite great demand in the corridor.
For all the great work the Atlanta Regional Commission did to hear what the public had to say, it appears elected officials did not hear the cry for investments in these clean and effective transportation modes.
Twelve percent of respondents to the ARC’s outreach asked for bicycle improvements, compared with 14 percent who called for road improvements (with 8 percent specifically weighing in against road improvements).
This indicates that people are not interested in building more of the same – adding lanes to roads that are already unsafe to make them briefly less clogged, at least until commuters alter their routes – and ready for something new.
The draft project list dedicates 44 percent to road projects, a full third of which is gobbled up by super-sized interchanges. These projects might save several minutes for each of the many drivers they serve, but much should we spend to shave three minutes off our commutes?
We have enough capacity on most metro Atlanta streets – we’re just using it the wrong way. We should invest heavily in long term solutions that provide permanent congestion relief, such as transit, bike lanes, safer conditions for walking, to let people opt out of congestion.
Adding bike lanes helps those willing to hop out of their cars do so, and one less car means existing capacity gets more flow for the buck. Talk about transformative, and cost-effective.
Previous iterations of the project list included a healthy balance of road projects that created “Complete Streets” — balancing options and safety for everyone.
But only 33 percent of road projects on the draft list potentially include a bike lane or sidewalk, down from 4 percent. Complete Streets, like bicycle and pedestrian projects, suffered disproportionate cuts.
Don’t give us more Spaghetti Junctions – we have already gorged on those. These times call for a more balanced, healthy, and life-long approach to street design and transportation planning. Instead of continuing to fill our tray with empty calories that will just a memory tomorrow, let’s flesh out our diets with opportunities for active (and inexpensive) transportation.
Luckily, there’s still time to increase the bike/ped portion in the coming weeks. There are multiple opportunities for public comment, but whether officials who have spent countless hours to arrive at this point will be willing to make changes now is doubtful. Still, the amount of funding we are looking for could easily be found in the cost overruns of an interchange.
Looking beyond the regional project list, each county and city will have 15 percent of sales tax dollars collected to spend on projects considered more local.
Throughout the process we’ve been assured those funds are the best place to get bicycle and pedestrian projects built. But if bicycle or pedestrian projects aren’t included in a meaningful way on the regional list, we’ll need firmer assurances that the local funds will be used as promised.
Now is the time to hold our elected officials accountable – attend a public meeting or contact your mayor or county chair to let them know where you stand.
In order to pass this thing, we’ll need broad and deep public support. Cyclists may not make up a large percentage of overall commuters today, but we are passionate, and growing in numbers.
Tomorrow may be a different story, especially if investments are made to make our preferred mode safer and more accessible for metro Atlantans of all ages.