This graphic by Dhiru Thadani is so good. Many pro-pedestrian groups refer to crosswalk buttons disparagingly as “beg buttons,” and this shows the tables being turned: here pedestrians have the right of way by default and a car driver has to “beg” to move forward. It actually doesn’t look too ridiculous in the setting of urban density, where pedestrian improvements are constantly happening, It would be even funnier if the image was of a car driver in the sprawling suburbs, where change is happening more slowly, if at all.
When it comes to making cities like Atlanta more pedestrian friendly, transit-focused and bikeable, there are plenty of good ideas that can be implemented fairly quickly. All over the US, cities of a similar age as Atlanta, that boomed during the car era, have established patterns for success that we can follow. And with the Atlanta Beltline (among other great urban developments here), Atlanta has the best kind of pattern: examples of good urbanism in our own city that we can use as guidelines for creating better places.
But what about the suburban, car-dominated landscapes — particularly the older ones that have lost their luster — that are no experiencing the same amount of growth? When in comes to smart growth and good urban development, you have a hard time implementing best practices in a place that isn’t growing. In those places, given the lack of new investment to qualify infrastructure expenditures, the car-centric environment stagnates and has little chance for seeing positive change in the short term.
Kaid Benfield has an excellent, in-depth post about this that I highly recommend:
Americans Don’t Walk Much, and I Don’t Blame Them
He includes suburban Cobb County in the discussion, famous for its walkability challenges due to the tragic case of Raquel Nelson. Benfield points out that great ideas for improving the pedestrian experience and reducing car-dependency in cities, such as raising the price of parking, don’t translate to sprawling suburbs where people like Nelson continue to struggle in a pedestrian-hostile environment:
What the heck can putting a price on downtown parking do for people like Nelson in residential Cobb County or anyone in Woodbridge? Can we have a walkable city where we don’t have a city in the first place?…as the economy allows new businesses and homes to be built in and around the bad stuff, we can gradually make the newer land uses better and more “walk-ready” over time, so that the place can function better for pedestrians when the good stuff reaches critical mass.
Developing better land use in suburban sprawl is a great goal and one that I wholeheartedly support. Ellen Dunham-Jones at Georgia Tech has some excellent thoughts on the matter in her Retrofitting Suburbia book.
But those are long-term goals that will be reached slowly unless there’s a boom of investment in affordable new development in the metro, where good urban places can be built in a new pedestrian-focused context. Could the affordable-housing component in the long-term plans for the Atlanta Beltline, if they come to fruition, serve as a template for the region? Or will the county and city governments of the suburbs end up creating their own bold new plans that help create better places?
Like Benfield, I’m hopeful that positive change in pedestrian mobility will eventually come to Cobb County and other car-centric places in metro Atlanta. But time is a big variable. I can imagine struggling pedestrians hitting a beg button that requests good urbanism, and waiting and waiting.