Take back your streets

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

No one knows our city streets like the people who live on them. So how do you want them to look in 10 years, or 20, in terms of walkability and traffic flow? Today, an expert pedestrian advocate writes about what it takes for a community to accomplish some of the basics. In our other columns, a downtown worker sings the praises of the Cobb County commuter bus, and a bank executive explains why local corporations are committing big bucks to the Atlanta Beltline.

How to be street smart

By Sally Flocks

If you’re like me, you dream of metro Atlanta becoming a place where children walk to school, the elderly cross the street without fear, and streets are places where people enjoy chance encounters on sidewalks and street cafes.

Walkability doesn’t happen on its own. Development won’t necessarily bring it. Making our communities great places to walk depends on us. Together, we need to think small in a big way.

For decades, transportation agencies have made maximizing the flow of cars and enabling people to drive as fast as possible top priorities. Even in our urban areas, roads suited to long-distance travel are common. Transportation professionals often design projects, announce them to communities, and defend them from criticism.

Add a step to the process. Would you prefer other goals, even if they increase traffic congestion?

Do health, safety and quality of life matter more to you than getting places a minute or two faster?

We’re raising the first generation of kids who are likely to have shorter lifespans than their parents. Do you want to turn this around?

Instead of top-down planning, let’s start from the bottom up. No one knows a street as well as the people who live along it. What kind of place do people in your community want to live in 25 years from now? And what will your grandchildren want 50 years from now?

Issues we hear about frequently — technical expertise and cost — are not the real barriers to walkable communities. Plenty of quality engineers know how to create safe crossings and “right-sized” roads in urban and suburban areas. Transportation agencies in metro Atlanta spend millions each year. The real issue is how we spend it.

The key to success is community vision and will. One size doesn’t fit all, so be inclusive. Hold meetings in places that are easy to get to, even for transit users and people on foot. In many communities, it’s valuable to meet with people where they already are. Shopping malls, churches, transit stations and college campuses are just a few examples.

What does success look like? Come in with a blank slate. Leave professional degrees at the door. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that wide streets and speeding traffic reduce our quality of life.

Once your community has identified its values and vision, develop a strategic plan for achieving it. What will it take to make your community walkable, livable and lovable? Reach out to others – and consider opportunities, challenges and partners.

Think beyond sidewalks. People walk more when they have places worth walking to. Single-use zoning – with homes separated from retail and employment centers – is an experiment that failed. Would you like to walk to a restaurant or coffee shop? Achieving this may require zoning changes, but don’t be afraid to ask.

Leadership matters. The most successful change agents are those who listen and inspire. Empower a champion to maintain the momentum. You’re building a movement, not just a campaign.

Forget about silver bullets. Change takes time. It also requires relationships. “You vs. them” rarely, if ever, results in good outcomes. Instead, collaboration between community activists, developers, transportation professionals and elected officials is essential.

At the recent Golden Shoe Awards Celebration, PEDS recognized the Inman Park Neighborhood Association and city of Atlanta for working together to develop a transportation strategy for parts of Inman Park and the Old Fourth Ward. This is a historic area that is growing rapidly as the Atlanta Beltline inspires new development. Thanks to a year of community meetings, neighborhood activists developed strategies that will help make their vision a reality.

Why not try the same in your community?

Seeing progress is a great motivator, so try out a pilot project. Ask an elected official or someone in your Public Works Department for permission to use orange cones or bales of hay to keep people from parking close to a crosswalk. Or try using them to narrow travel lanes or create a traffic circle in an intersection. Does that get drivers to slow down?

Streets have many uses, only one of which is moving cars. They’re also public spaces, accounting for nearly one-third of the land in our communities. Working together, we can take back our streets and make them places we love.

Sally Flocks is president and CEO of PEDS, a pedestrian advocacy group.

Cobb transit bus offers welcome choice

By Beth Jones

I commute 32 miles from Acworth to the best job in the world at Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta. In 2008, gasoline prices started to climb, and by summer, the price was almost $4 a gallon. Each day during my commute, I noticed two things: Cobb Community Transit (CCT) buses were dropping people off on the Georgia State campus, and they were speeding along in the I-75 HOV lane while I was stuck in stop-and-go traffic.

I did some research and found the CCT website, including the bus schedules. To my delight, I discovered one of the CCT Park-and-Ride stations is on a route I could take to I-75, and it’s only seven miles from my home. The bus stop in town is across the street from my office building. Due to one-way streets in Atlanta, the afternoon bus stop closest to my office is an easy walk of only two blocks.

On the CCT website, I found various ways to pay for the ride fare at a discount. There is a 31-day monthly pass, a 20-ride pass for $65 or simply pay a one-way fare of $5. After considering the fare cost, wear and tear on my car (not to mention myself) and increasing gas prices, I bought a 20-ride pass and was able to put it on my Breeze card. I was ready to give bus riding a try.

On my inaugural bus trip, I found a window seat near the front so I could easily know when we arrived at my stop. The bus interior was surprisingly clean and comfortable. An hour later, I was at my office. As I walked to my building, I realized riding the bus was less stressful than driving to work. I was looking forward to having someone drive me home at the end of the day.

Now, let me explain bus etiquette. Most bus riders are well-mannered. There is no pushing or shoving as we board. Passenger wait their turns and quickly take their preferred seats. Generally, there is little talking. Thankfully, cell phone conversations are still the exception and not the rule. We like a quiet bus.

On a typical ride to work, I leave home about 20 minutes before my scheduled bus departs. I easily find a convenient parking space in the lot, and it’s free. After walking to the covered bus shelter, my bus arrives about five minutes before departure time. We usually leave promptly according to schedule.

During the morning commute, I often read a book for part of the ride, take a nap and review work emails on my cell phone. If there are no traffic issues, I can plan on being at my stop at Courtland Street and Auburn Avenue approximately one hour after departure. I’m in my office five minutes after I step off the bus.

In the afternoons, I have to remember to start watching the time because the last bus leaves Atlanta at 5:40 p.m. The trip home to Acworth usually takes longer because of afternoon traffic congestion. Fortunately, as a passenger, my only job is to entertain myself. The ride home gives me an opportunity to decompress, review my day and catch up with reading. Even with bad traffic, arrival time to the park-and-ride lot is normally about 1 hour 15 minutes after pick-up from downtown.

CCT allows me a choice. My work and family schedules do not let me ride the bus every day. When weather is an issue, or the news tells me there is a bad traffic accident on I-75, I take the bus knowing traffic will be a challenge.

Though gas prices have begun to decline, there is still value in taking the CCT bus. The bus ride reduces my stress level. I can use my time productively for work or personal projects. And riding the bus takes my car off the road, reducing car maintenance, congestion and pollution.

By riding the bus, I can use my time wisely and enjoy the trip.

Beth R. Jones is associate vice president for finance and administration at Georgia State University.

Investors tout Beltline

By Mike Donnelly

Companies, foundations and philanthropic individuals are again stepping up to invest in the Atlanta Beltline because it is transforming our city. Ground was broken last week for the Westside Trail.

Private entities are partnering with Mayor Kasim Reed and the city of Atlanta, Georgia Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration to make an unprecedented $43 million investment in the west side. As we’ve seen elsewhere on the Beltline, this will help transform neighborhoods, draw investment and make our city more competitive, vibrant and sustainable.

The three-mile Westside Trail — a multi-use trail, greenway and foundation for future transit — will be built in the Beltline’s southwest corridor from University Avenue in Adair Park north to Lena Avenue at Washington Park. Wells Fargo’s contribution to the Atlanta Beltline Partnership capital campaign for the project followed a lead gift from the James M. Cox Foundation/PATH Foundation, along with other important corporate citizens such as Kaiser Permanente.

Together, we’re contributing $10 million to secure an $18 million TIGER V grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The Beltline once more offers to public- and private-sector funders the opportunity to leverage each other’s investments to reconnect Atlanta. We’re able to combine resources that by themselves might seem small — our $500,000 contribution is just a piece of the puzzle – into something that will make a huge difference.

A few years from now, the Westside Trail will connect 10 neighborhoods, four schools and four parks. It promises, as we’ve seen elsewhere around the Beltline, to attract economic development to places like Murphy Crossing and the Kroger City Center. Above and beyond leveraging our investment with public-sector funds, we can look forward to attracting additional investment to these communities.

For Wells Fargo, this represents perfectly our intense local focus on the communities where we live and operate. And like our fellow philanthropic funders, it is important to us that — as with all Beltline implementation — the Westside Trail is happening for and with the residents of southwest Atlanta via a robust public-engagement. It is equally significant that this next step for our city’s leading transformational program demonstrates the commitment to build the Beltline equitably around the historic rail corridor.

About a decade after a grassroots movement began making the case for the Beltline, the initiative is taking shape around our city. If the Eastside Trail, dedicated almost exactly two years ago, was a revelation for Atlantans, the Westside Trail promises to again open eyes and minds.

With the Eastside Trail, we’ve all seen how energizing (not to mention efficient) it is to traverse our city’s neighborhoods in new ways. We’ve all enjoyed being together in wonderful new public spaces. We’ve seen that when we build it, the investment will come. The Westside Trail will be a great win for everyone . It deserves the broad community support the Atlanta Beltline is receiving.

Mike Donnelly is Atlanta regional president for Wells Fargo.

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