So Monday I made the audacious claim that I had an idea how to make Atlanta a bikable city. I grew up in Atlanta, and I biked it in a time before there were any striped bike lanes. The shared use paths that existed (specifically and solely the path to Stone Mountain), were incomplete, interrupted and buckling with neglect. It is far easier for a highway department to repave a 12-foot lane than an 8- or 6- foot one, in the same way it is easier to paint a whole wall than the trim. They know where to get a 12 foot-wide machine to pave a lane, but not where to get one at biking scale. Separate path work is just too fine-scaled for them to pay attention until its too late for maintenance to matter.
But I digress.
The first key to making Atlanta bikable is making places worth biking too. That means lots of things proximate to each other. Lots of residences, lots of jobs, lots of shopping, lots of customers, lots of groceries and lots of gardens. Lots of parks, and lots of green. If you want people to bike in Atlanta, make Atlanta a pleasant, not daring, place to bike. The Belt line, bike lanes, and developers are beginning to do this, but they are just a start. There are around a hundred miles of bike lanes in metro Atlanta. There are thousands of miles of roads in Atlanta. Many of the bike lanes don’t go anywhere, unless you happen to live or work along an old rail right of way. Traffic lanes and roads go everywhere.
The second key is metropolitan access. Proximity only gets you so far. If you need to get across town in a metro built for cars, how can you do it? A good and direct transit system is the way. The bus network started out as a fairly direct clone of Atlanta’s trolley system, from the 1920s, but is now playing traffic’s tune. So bus routes take more and more torturous routes through the suburbs, increasing access while decreasing level of service and efficiency. The stops on transit should be spaced so that people can bike or walk to them, not every block. And transit stops should be along simple routes. Every time I see a transit route snaking a curlicue through a subdivision of residential streets intended for car traffic, I know the transit system is in trouble.
The final key is to make roads for their most efficient modes, not their heaviest or speediest. A 4-foot bike lane can carry almost as many people to a place per hour as a 12-foot traffic lane, and many are woefully underused. A 3-foot sidewalk lane can carry slightly fewer, but in 25% the space of a traffic lane. If the sidewalk or bike lane gets too congested, add a lane. Traffic does this all the time, and it seems to work out pretty well for them. We now have 4.5 million miles of traffic lanes. No one has a really good answer on how many miles of bike or walk lanes we have, but it may be as much as an order of magnitude or three less.
The thing about making Atlanta bikable is that it doesn’t all have to be bikable, just enough of it for it to be useful. I feel safe in the core of Atlanta that was built before 1920, because those places were never built for traffic to run at above 35 miles per hour. But the majority of metro Atlanta was built specifically for traffic to speed free. Being passed by a car at 20 MPH is a whole different experience than being passed by one at 45 MPH. The first I had no problem with, the second I avoided wherever possible. One was routine, the other dreadful.
Atlanta can be bikable one station area or development at a time. It is already doing that, but not fast enough. A single walkable subdivision in a mesh of traffic dependency is not bikable or walkable at all, unless you consider walking the dog with baggie in hand walkability. The people living and working in these places still have to drive for most of their errands and nearly all of their work. They almost certainly cannot send their kids out their door to walk to school*.
The great thing about proximity is that it builds its own market. If people can walk or bike to get what they need, then they don’t need to use their cars in traffic as much. If people are using their cars less, then those places can be more proximate. The biggest space need for traffic is stopping distance. Cars take up almost 3% of an acre each at the average speed of 31 MPH and parking. If we don’t need traffic as much to get where and what we need, then people can take up less space. Much less space.
Just as no carpenter wants a drill (they want a hole) no person wants to drive. Thhey want to get to what they need to get to. Bring those needs closer, and they don’t have to drive to them. This is not an anti-car screed, and I am not anti-car. I drove a car 2 miles up 2 hills to write this on the first chilly day of the fall. I know they are useful. I am just proposing they are not useful everywhere.
Let the areas within biking distance of transit stops be bikable, and let transit be in straight and sensible lines, and Atlanta can be a bikable place. More than New York, even.
^ Mind the Pants
Monday, I’ll describe briefly the radical transformation Atlanta put itself through in the last century to turn it into a non-biking city.
* I was able to walk to elementary school across Candler Park golf course, because golfers don’t play at 8 in the morning. I was also a bad fifth grader.