Even with activists standing shoulder-to-shoulder, blocking motorists from using an entire lane of Midtown’s ever-car-choked West Peachtree Street, rush-hour traffic Wednesday evening seemed to chug along just fine.
That’s part of the point that advocates for citywide mobility improvements—building better transportation infrastructure for non-drivers—were trying to make: Streets can be safely shared by cars, bikes, e-scooters, and other alternative modes of transportation. In Atlanta, though, a decades-old obsession with designing streets to benefit automobiles has left cyclists, pedestrians, and the rest with limited options to traverse town safely.
Niklas Vollmer and Andreas Wolfe, cyclists and staunch proponents of diversifying the city’s transportation infrastructure, organized the activist movement Wednesday, during which Atlanta police helped them cordon off the easternmost lane of West Peachtree Street and turn it into a makeshift Lite Individual Transportation (LIT) lane—a safe, protected channel for cyclists, skateboarders, e-scooter riders, and others.
Vollmer and Wolfe chose this five-lane corridor for a reason: Just over a week ago, William Alexander, a 37-year-old father of two, was headed home from an Atlanta United game on an e-scooter when he was struck by a bus and killed just outside of Midtown’s Arts Center MARTA station. Back in 2015, thanks to the Renew Atlanta bond program, West Peachtree Street was slated to receive what’s called a “complete streets” overhaul, a project that would have sacrificed at least one automobile lane in exchange for wider sidewalks and an LIT lane.
But many projects that were once part of the Renew Atlanta program, as well as those that would have been funded by the TSPLOST (Transportation Special-Purpose Local-Option Sales Tax) approved during a 2016 referendum, were booted from the docket, due in part to rising construction costs and design changes. It didn’t help that city leaders elected to use Renew Atlanta cash to pay for downtown’s controversial pedestrian bridge, a more than $33 million serpentine walkway that arches over Northside Drive and links Vine City to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
After officials revised the Renew Atlanta and TSPLOST project lists to better suit their dampened budgets, only the design phase of the West Peachtree complete streets project is now expected to be funded. “The city council decided not to fully fund the implementation of it,” Vollmer says. “So here we sit, years later, with the tragedy that has happened where we could have had a LIT lane. We’re waiting for the city to actually do that, and they’re culpable [for Alexander’s death] for not funding that.”
Alexander’s death, as well as that of 20-year-old Eric Amis, Jr., who was run over by an SUV in May while riding an e-scooter out of the West Lake MARTA station, has spurred a renewed focus on transportation infrastructure improvements among some Atlanta politicians. “We need to accommodate multiple modes of mobility as the city grows, but we haven’t executed that with the urgency or thoroughness that we need to do if we want to be a livable city,” says Atlanta City Councilman Amir Farokhi. He says short-term (and relatively cheap) changes to streets can make the city safer for all.
Carrying out full-on complete streets upgrades and/or restriping initiatives can be costly and time-consuming, Farokhi says. But while city leaders mull over how to address those desires, some car-clogged roadways could be outfitted with orange, water-filled plastic barricades that would separate car traffic from those using alternative travel options. Additionally, perhaps pedestrian signals at traffic lights could be used to offer cyclists, skaters, and e-scooter users a few seconds head-start before drivers get a green light. “These are things that don’t require any new infrastructure per se; they just take political will and bureaucratic muscle,” he says.
Rebecca Serna, head of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, says the City of Atlanta is on the cusp of adopting what’s called the “Vision Zero” strategy, which, per the organization’s website, “requires rigorous collaboration across city departments and stakeholders to devise data-driven and measurable strategies to achieve the shared goal of zero fatalities.”
But Serna says she wants to ensure that, if and when officials join the Vision Zero movement, it’s more than just a superficial gesture. “It’s easy to agree that no one should die in traffic, but then you have to make hard decisions that come down to trade-offs in order to make that vision a reality,” she says, nodding to road diets, which get rid of car lanes to make way for LIT lanes, among other changes. “For example, you can’t have five lanes of [car] traffic in the most heavily-walked area of a city and call it a day. That’s unacceptable.”
Wednesday’s activism wasn’t the only effort to shine a light on car-centric design—Vollmer and Wolfe also organized a couple of “slow rolls” along DeKalb Avenue, a narrow road stretching from neighborhoods southeast of downtown all the way to Decatur. At those events, dozens of cyclists took a leisurely cruise along the dangerous thoroughfare during morning rush-hour, frustrating some motorists, but proving to many that sharing the road with non-drivers—even a lot of them—doesn’t prevent commuters from getting to work on time.
“We think there’s definitely a will and a way to do all this,” Vollmer says. “It’s just that the city, and the mayor, and the Georgia Department of Transportation need to prioritize it.”