June 2009
Charles at Large: A fifth-generation Atlantan explains the city

Hit-and-runs, bicycle safety, and ninjas


Q: I’ve been thinking about commuting by bicycle. Are our streets safe for cyclists?

When I was eight years old, I was hit by a car while riding to a friend’s house in Midtown. It was a bright summer day, and I was blithely pedaling uphill, beside the curb, wearing a helmet. There was a noise behind me, a telephone pole in front of me, and then an impact. I came to my senses next to my bent Schwinn, covered in blood. The car was gone. I spent three days in intensive care with a fractured skull. So the short answer: Life happens, and bikes don’t have air bags. The longer answer is more nuanced.

In 2007, 254 bike crashes were reported in metro Atlanta, which resulted in 107 injuries and two fatalities. Of these crashes, nearly half took place in Fulton County. According to the Georgia Department of Transportation, bicycles are involved in less than a quarter of one percent of all Georgia traffic crashes, but they account for one percent of all traffic-related fatalities. But biking—especially helmeted—remains nearly twice as safe as driving, according to a 1998 study of comparative risk. Rebecca Serna, executive director of the Atlanta Bicycle Campaign, rides 3.9 miles to work every day on a steel touring bike. “As a bike commuter,” she says, “I can vouch for it being both feasible and occasionally more exciting than I’d really like it to be. Most of my close calls are predictable, though. It’s important to know your route and the dangers it poses.”

Those dangers, more often than not, aren’t cars: Roughly 20 percent of bike crashes involve automobiles, according to Serna, while half involve curbs, potholes, and the like. These can be avoided through basic safety training, such as ABC’s Confident City Cycling classes, offered twice monthly between April and June. Atlanta currently has just thirty miles of bike lanes and twenty miles of hard-surface trails. Once the Connect Atlanta Plan—which includes a network of 220 miles of lanes and sharrows within the city—is realized, biking will be even safer.

Q: I saw kids doing a cross between martial arts and freestyle-walking in Piedmont Park the other day. Are they ninjas?

Did they have throwing stars and Chuck Taylors? Or were they wearing board shorts and calling each other “ninja dudes”? Without a few more details, I can only give you my best guess. But because ninja culture has cooled off a bit since Japan’s Edo Period, they were probably practicing parkour (from the French parcours, which means “route”), also known as “free running.”

Invented by Frenchman David Belle in the early 1990s, parkour nimbly straddles the divide between movement and meditation by making efficient, aerobic, improvised use of the urban landscape—think scaling staircases and jumping between roofs. Most major cities in the U.S. now have parkour groups with modest followings of traceurs—they trace Belle’s footsteps—who engage in moves such as the “cat leap” and the “wall run.” The Internet is rife with stomach-clenching parkour videos that you can watch if your ninja friends, who might belong to Atlanta’s Team Parlous, suddenly disappear.

Got an Atlanta question? E-mail Charles Bethea at askcharles@atlantamag.emmis.com.

Originally published in the June 2009 issue.