Walking joy, traffic outrage

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

If you follow real estate news and urban development trends, you’ve probably heard about the popularity of “walkable communities,” the latest iteration on “live-work-play” communities. But walkable enclaves have always existed in our cities, be they Atlanta, Decatur or Marietta. Today, we hear from two different generations of Georgians who have managed to downsize (and improve) their lives by choosing a more pedestrian-oriented existence. In our third column, an Atlantan decries the ubiquity of construction traffic burdening the lives of taxpayers trying to drive intown streets.

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Walking translates to freedom

By Jessica Estep

I grew up in the 1990s in Lula, a modest town of a thousand people in the Appalachian foothills of North Georgia. As a child, I frequently walked to my neighbor’s house to borrow a cup of sugar or milk. I would also walk (alone) to piano lessons, to the hardware store, to the grocery store, or to borrow books from the widowed schoolteacher next door. My mother and I planted flowers in our front yard, chatting with the neighbors who walked down our street. Come to think of it, everyone in Lula walked — a lot.

And in Lula, we had a community, a nearly extinct but frequently simulated place. To me, a community is somewhere a dozen unchaperoned kids can meet up at local baseball field and start an unplanned game, where neighbors talk to each other face-to-face. I believe this kind of trusting, tight-knit community is what Southern culture is all about, and at its core is the friendly and visible pedestrian.

Three years ago, after finishing graduate school in Boston, I moved back home to Georgia — specifically, to the suburbs in Gwinnett County, where I became completely reliant on a car for the first time. Traveling to work or the store, I saw my neighbors through my car windows as we drove past each other; we never spoke because we never needed to.

It took me 15 minutes to drive anywhere, even to the grocery store. The kids on my street didn’t play together much, despite the safety of a quiet cul-de-sac. In this subdivision and planned residential “community,” I felt isolated. I yearned for the ease of exploration that comes with walking wherever I want to go. So I did what anyone my age would do: I packed up and moved to Atlanta.

Generations of Georgians grew up in communities where they walked because it was simpler, or maybe just because they were poor — but also because they deliberately chose an unhurried pace of life. My Granddaddy grew up walking through Whitesburg in the 1930s; my parents did the same in Decatur in the 1960s. I grew up walking (often barefoot, I confess) around Lula decades later. Pedestrian-accessible, vibrant communities are part of my Southern heritage. And these days, the best place to find them is in the city.

According to Christopher B. Leinberger of the Brookings Institution, 60 percent of development in metro Atlanta between 2009 and 2013 occurred in walkable urban areas — areas like the Beltline, Cabbagetown, Adair Park and Decatur, where neighbors congregate on porches; where parents bike with their kids to school; where a person can leave her house and transport herself wherever she’d like on her own two feet. These are the places I want to live.

I’m not the only one. Many in my generation want communities in which we can walk, rather than drive, to get around. A frequently cited Nielsen Co. study found 62 percent of millennials would like to live in urban centers with a mix of restaurants, shopping and offices. We want pedestrian access to our jobs, friends and communities. We yearn for this access not because we desire modernization or innovation, but because we are nostalgic for a simpler past.

Sadly, if you go to Lula these days, you will find the hardware store, the antique shop and many other storefronts on Main Street shuttered or decrepit. It’s not so easy to walk places there now. I won’t speculate as to how or why this change occurred, but it has. In Atlanta, however, I can still find my tight-knit community. I can still walk down the street and visit my neighbors.

As an at-least fifth-generation Georgian, this is a freedom I value.

Jessica Estep, 27, teaches English at a local college.

My Mayberry in the city

By Jay Croft

My daily world is much smaller than it used to be, and I couldn’t be happier about it for one reason: Traffic. For more than six years, I fought the 9-to-5 rush from my intown Atlanta home to my suburban job every morning (30-45 minutes) and every evening (up to 90 minutes). It was the most mind-boggling, frustrating ritual I’ve ever endured – and every commuter in this town knows what I mean.

Until then, I had smugly suspected people were making excuses when they complained traffic had made them late. But before long, I was mapping alternate routes; checking traffic sites for live updates; and trying anything I could to outsmart the beast of metro Atlanta’s commuting madness.

Now I work intown on North Avenue, the same street where I live less than three miles away. And everything’s different. I didn’t plan it this way, but as far as new-job perks go, it’s right up there with dental insurance and a decent on-site cafeteria. I’m at the office in 10 minutes. I can even scoot home for lunch, which I do sometimes.

It’s so close, I could ride my bike, and I will someday, just as soon as I get comfortable with the new dangers traffic poses to bicycle commuters. It’s so close I could even walk, if it’s not too hot out and I don’t mind arriving a little sweaty.

With work so close to home, I have everything I need nearby – not only my job, but shops, restaurants, a dry cleaner, a gym, bike trails, a Publix and a movie theater. My own Mayberry in the big city, Poncey-Highland is a real walking neighborhood — a rarity here, but something more people are making a priority.

I wish everyone could enjoy this, whether it’s my colleagues who fight the Connector every day or my friends who would like to see more of their kids in the evenings or afternoons. And what would it do for our civic problems? How much better would metro Atlanta be without all that wasted time and energy? How much happier, healthier and, yes, greener. And it’s not a variation on “city good/suburbs bad.” It’s all about proximity, walkability and less time stuck behind the wheel.

Just the daily gift of two hours back into my life is a tremendous blessing. I can’t tell you how good it feels to be without the psychological and, yes, physical stress of being stuck on Ga. 400 or I-85 – knowing there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.

• I can snooze a little later in the mornings

• I can make, and keep, appointments in the evening.

• I can go to the gym or see a friend for dinner or a movie.

• I’m saving money on gas and wear and tear on my car.

• My blood pressure is closer to where it should be.

• And when I see friends complaining about the schlep home from the Perimeter on Facebook or Twitter, I say a little prayer of gratitude.

Traffic in metro Atlanta is crazy, right? But everything’s good in my little world.

Jay Croft, 51, a former AJC reporter and editor, writes about Atlanta and communications on www.storycroft.com.

Give drivers a break

By Robert Charles

Over the last decade, traffic in Atlanta has become a nightmare for most drivers most of the time. Much of the media focus on traffic has been on the interstates. But a real problem for intown residents is the congestion on high-volume surface streets. A doctor would diagnose our city as suffering from “clogged traffic arteries.” An acute problem lies with real estate developers who shut down lanes with no regard for residents who have to use them.

Recently, I was stuck in midday traffic on Piedmont Road; it was backed up from Ansley Mall to Cheshire Bridge Road. The culprit? Construction on a retail project at Cheshire Bridge and Piedmont had all but one northbound lanes shut down, and the one open lane was perpetually blocked by cars turning left. It took over 40 minutes to go a mile. This is the third time this has happened in the last month.

Later that day, my wife had the same experience; she said that a Grady EMS vehicle, with sirens blasting, had great difficulty negotiating the logjam.

It’s happening all over Atlanta. For the past two years, the developers of the Buckhead Atlanta project along Peachtree Road have created a traffic quagmire for Pharr Road motorists by blocking all but one westbound lanes. I have also observed traffic on Peachtree northbound narrowed to one lane.

There are so many new developments now underway that this problem will only get worse. It does not seem anyone at the city has any concern for the problems such lane closures cause for residents who use these roads and pay property taxes.

The city should require developers who need to close traffic lanes to do so at night between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. with very few exceptions, and with detailed traffic management plans for those exceptions. Of course, this will add to the cost of the development, but shouldn’t the people benefiting financially from the development have to bear the costs?

It is unreasonable to expect Atlanta motorists to stew in traffic during the day when there are a lot of cars on the road. The city should also require developers to repair the roads their construction vehicles tear up; those costs should not be borne by taxpayers. And the city should add a position called “Public Traffic Advocate” whose sole mission would be to look out for the interests of motorists and who would have veto authority over lane closures and other traffic flow impediments.

I don’t profess to be a traffic expert, but common sense suggests there are other steps the city could take to improve traffic flow. Delivery trucks should not be allowed to block arterial traffic, period. They can park on side streets. And what about the folks who simply close lanes while they work on the wiring under the roads? Sorry, but that work should be done at night.

While we’re on the subject of left turns, they are by far the biggest impediment to traffic flow. The city would do us all a favor by installing “No Left Turn” signs in many locations where there are no stacking lanes or left turn signals. And why can’t the traffic lights along major corridors be synchronized? Do we really need lights that stay red for a minute on cross streets that have little traffic? Or “No Right Turn on Red” signs seemingly everywhere?

Without reasonable ability to move about the city, quality of life decreases for all of us. It doesn’t have to be this way. The city should re-prioritize.

Robert Charles is CFO at an Atlanta private school. He lives in Buckhead.

 


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