From this morning’s train commute: three levels (out of four) inside the Five Points MARTA station, Downtown Atlanta.

From this morning’s train commute: three levels (out of four) inside the Five Points MARTA station, Downtown Atlanta.

Tags: Atlanta

Biking on paths & mixed streets in Atlanta: a culture shock

I took a nice 8-mile bike ride through the city this weekend. That’s not terribly far for hardcore cyclists, I know. But for an out-of-shape guy on a small-wheeled folding bike with only one speed, it’s a haul — particularly on hilly terrain and in the heat and humidity of summer weather that’s overstaying its welcome

I got a chance to experience various degrees of bike infrastructure during the ride. There were streets with wide sharrow lanes, ones with proper bike lanes, ones with no bike lanes but quiet enough to travel safely, and ones without any level of cycling safety — where I cowardly rode on the sidewalk (as long as no pedestrians were on it) to avoid a pedaling panic attack. 

And then there were the ped/bike paths: the Atlanta Beltline and the PATH trail. With no cars in the mix, these are safe places to ride and walk. And though a I appreciate them greatly, particularly in the way that they allow new cyclists to practice riding in a danger-free zone, there’s a significant culture-shock type of experience that comes from shifting between these paths and mixed-traffic streets. 

The path experience is a calm, peaceful ride (slightly less so during the weekend-afternoon crush) that lets you take in the view. Above, notice the serene setting of the Northeast Beltline, top, and the tree-lined entrance to the PATH at Boulevard, bottom left. The other pic shows a new access point between Edgewood Avenue and an in-construction extension of the Beltline below. 

As soon as you exit a path and hit the street, though, your brain is on high alert, watching for fast cars and always thinking of the next move a few yards ahead. Dangers present themselves constantly in the form of cars entering the road from driveways and parking lots, and from doors opening on parallel-parked cars. And with the regular presence of cars illegally parked in the new bike lanes on Auburn & Edgewood Avenues, high alert mode pays off. 

Could it be possible to correct the disadvantaged status of bikes on Atlanta’s streets a bit? Perhaps by removing some of the advantages given to cars?

In an excellent piece on the relationship between cheap automobile parking and alternative transit use, Matthew Garbett recently wrote: “parking lots and the built environment they create…will not simply disappear because the BeltLine is completed and transit in the city is expanded.”

This is true. Cycling activity is working its way into intown streets that are often dominated by cars, even when the neighborhoods have all the hallmarks of a walkable urban place. Most of those cars zooming by are on their way to easy parking, making the mobility choice an easy one for drivers.

Think about the proposed transit-oriented, mixed-use developments that will be adjacent to MARTA stations. The developers of these TODs are mandated by law to construct (at great expense) the same number of automobile parking spaces necessary for similar projects in transit-lacking neighborhoods on the fringes — significantly undercutting the potential for these to be havens of transit and cycling mobility.

This is the world we’re cycling into. And though those safe paths make for a smooth ride part of the way, eventually we’ll need to make the connecting, mixed-traffic streets significantly more inviting for cyclists, and that will require making it harder to provide those easy parking spots for the cars that are blocking progress.

Incredible sunset and clouds tonight, as seen from Centennial Park, Downtown Atlanta. Sharing this view in a nice public space with random strangers — and then walking a few blocks home afterward — that’s what city life is all about.

The clouds over Atlanta today were really cool.

The clouds over Atlanta today were really cool.

Tags: Atlanta

Broad Street at lunchtime today #Atlanta

Broad Street at lunchtime today #Atlanta

Tags: atlanta

"[Furguson] was simply the place where a flashpoint exposed the tragedy of American inner-ring suburbs, conspired against by large-scale migration and development trends…the suburban sprawl machine that created the inner-ring suburbs in the first place continues to expand, making newer, more desirable places even further from downtown."

The death of America’s suburban dream : The events in Ferguson, Missouri reveal the ‘resegregation’ of America’s once-aspirational inner suburbs, which – far from the social utopias they were meant to be – have become ethnic enclaves: white in one pocket, black in another | The Guardian, 9/5/2014

The rail transit infrastructure of Metro Atlanta: stunted by sprawl
This is a 1990 comparison of Barcelona and multi-county Metro Atlanta, showing the difference between a sprawling land use and a compact one. I posted a previous version of this image a couple of years ago, but Streetsblog has an updated version this week that includes rail transit lines in red.
From Streetsblog:

Urban densities are not trivial, they severely limit the transport mode choice and change only very slowly. Because of the large differences in densities between Atlanta and Barcelona about the same length of metro line is accessible to 60% of the population in Barcelona but only 4% in Atlanta.

When I look at this image, what I see is two things:
1.) a mass of 2.8 million people (Barcelona) in an area compact and walkable enough to be served well by transit
2.) a mass of 2.5 million people (Metro Atlanta) in an area so sprawled out and unwalkable — due to its largely car-centric form — that most of it can’t be served well by transit.
The relatively minor amount of rail transit in Metro Atlanta is, in my opinion, entirely justified. I differ with many people on this point. Without a concurrent plan for building greater densities of population in a format that accommodates safe pedestrian and cycling mobility, I don’t think that there should be an extension of rail transit in the metro. 
Rail infrastructure is incredibly expensive to build. Stretching it out into the car-centric nether regions of Metro Atlanta, where rail stations would be built into an urban fabric dominated by suburban sprawl and that offers safe travel to cars alone, would be a bad move. We’d end up with park-and-ride stations of the type that MARTA is finally getting around to undoing, via new transit-oriented-development plans to convert parking lots into housing.
And worst of all, we’d be spending public money on a transportation system that supports a sprawling, unwalkable environment. We’d be subsidizing the problem instead of offering a solution — and that would be a lateral move for the metro’s built environment when compared interstate infrastructure. We’ve already subsidized sprawl enough with our public money and I’m not eager to donate more to that cause. 
When there is a metro-wide initiative to retrofit suburban sprawl into more walkable forms via infill and rezoning — reversing the car-sprawl damage of the past — then I think it will be time for talking about rail expansion. The key is getting to a place where a significant number of people can safely walk or cycle to rail stations instead of driving to them.
[I’ll add a caveat that there are a couple of nodes of walkable density within the current radius of MARTA’s rail service area that could sensibly be served by rail stations, like Emory University; but without other nearby nodes that could be served by the same new rail line, that would be an overly-expensive expansion to make.]

The rail transit infrastructure of Metro Atlanta: stunted by sprawl

This is a 1990 comparison of Barcelona and multi-county Metro Atlanta, showing the difference between a sprawling land use and a compact one. I posted a previous version of this image a couple of years ago, but Streetsblog has an updated version this week that includes rail transit lines in red.

From Streetsblog:

Urban densities are not trivial, they severely limit the transport mode choice and change only very slowly. Because of the large differences in densities between Atlanta and Barcelona about the same length of metro line is accessible to 60% of the population in Barcelona but only 4% in Atlanta.

When I look at this image, what I see is two things:

1.) a mass of 2.8 million people (Barcelona) in an area compact and walkable enough to be served well by transit

2.) a mass of 2.5 million people (Metro Atlanta) in an area so sprawled out and unwalkable — due to its largely car-centric form — that most of it can’t be served well by transit.

The relatively minor amount of rail transit in Metro Atlanta is, in my opinion, entirely justified. I differ with many people on this point. Without a concurrent plan for building greater densities of population in a format that accommodates safe pedestrian and cycling mobility, I don’t think that there should be an extension of rail transit in the metro. 

Rail infrastructure is incredibly expensive to build. Stretching it out into the car-centric nether regions of Metro Atlanta, where rail stations would be built into an urban fabric dominated by suburban sprawl and that offers safe travel to cars alone, would be a bad move. We’d end up with park-and-ride stations of the type that MARTA is finally getting around to undoing, via new transit-oriented-development plans to convert parking lots into housing.

And worst of all, we’d be spending public money on a transportation system that supports a sprawling, unwalkable environment. We’d be subsidizing the problem instead of offering a solution — and that would be a lateral move for the metro’s built environment when compared interstate infrastructure. We’ve already subsidized sprawl enough with our public money and I’m not eager to donate more to that cause. 

When there is a metro-wide initiative to retrofit suburban sprawl into more walkable forms via infill and rezoning — reversing the car-sprawl damage of the past — then I think it will be time for talking about rail expansion. The key is getting to a place where a significant number of people can safely walk or cycle to rail stations instead of driving to them.

[I’ll add a caveat that there are a couple of nodes of walkable density within the current radius of MARTA’s rail service area that could sensibly be served by rail stations, like Emory University; but without other nearby nodes that could be served by the same new rail line, that would be an overly-expensive expansion to make.]