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.