Why are pedestrian and bicyclist deaths increasing in metro Atlanta?

Atlantans are walking, biking, and driving on streets that were designed with one goal: speed. That has led to dangerous results.


Bicyclist and pedestrian deaths

Illustration by Sam Island

On February 11, 2016, Alexia Hyneman walked out of an after-school play performance at Grady High School and hopped on her purple bike to pedal to her Morningside home. When she pushed off at the congested intersection of 10th Street and Monroe Drive—a choke point of cars and bicyclists and walkers coming off the Atlanta BeltLine or from Piedmont Park—she was struck by a Jeep Liberty. Roughly 14 hours later at Grady Memorial Hospital, the 14-year-old freshman died.

After the vigils, news stories, and Alexia’s funeral, Thomas Hyneman, her father, spoke with residents and transportation advocates about 10th and Monroe. He was floored to discover that more than 145 collisions involving cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians had taken place along the road in the previous two to three years, making it one of the city’s most dangerous places.

“It was an alarming statistic,” he says. “Local businesses told me horror stories. I talked to a boy who, a few months before Alexia’s accident, was struck by a car. We were lucky we hadn’t had a fatality before [Alexia’s death].”

Across the country, deaths of pedestrians are nearing historic highs, and Georgia and metro Atlanta are no different. According to the Atlanta Regional Commission, the number of collisions involving pedestrians and bicyclists in the 20-county metro region has risen sharply, from nearly 1,700 in 2006 to more than 2,500 in 2015—a 53 percent increase. During the same time period, the number of bicyclists and pedestrians killed or seriously injured by cars increased by 26 percent—“on the verge of a crisis,” says Byron Rushing, the bicyclist and pedestrian program manager at the Atlanta Regional Commission. If pedestrian deaths continue on their upward trajectory, according to PEDS, a statewide pedestrian advocacy group, more than 1,100 additional pedestrians across the state of Georgia could die by the year 2022.

“Our streets are dangerous by design.”

So, what’s causing the increase? People texting behind the wheel or fidgeting with their GPS play a large role, says Rushing. Population growth can explain some of the rise in injuries and deaths but not all. What’s often overlooked is the fact more people are walking and bicycling than ever before around metro Atlanta, where pedestrians play Frogger along high-speed roads like Tara Boulevard and Buford Highway, and in dense intown Atlanta, where multifamily residences have proliferated in response to public demand for walkable lifestyles. Unfortunately, people are walking, biking, and driving on streets that were designed with one goal: speed.

“We’ve spent the last half-century designing city streets for moving cars as quickly as possible,” says Rebecca Serna, the executive director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition. “The problem with this approach is that it leads us to treat traffic fatalities as the cost of being on our city streets—so people who walk, bike, and drive sometimes pay with their lives. Our streets are dangerous by design.”

Earlier this summer, the Atlanta Regional Commission followed the lead of more than 20 cities across the country, including New York, Los Angeles, and Austin, and decided that safety should not take a backseat to speedy commutes. As the metropolitan planning agency that helps award federal transportation funding, the ARC set a goal of reducing the number of traffic-related fatalities—pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists—to zero by 2030.

The move was modeled after Vision Zero, a movement launched in Sweden in the 1990s that urges public officials to use an arsenal of policies and projects to make the roads safer for all users. Those measures can include adding lighting; tightening lanes on certain roads to make room for bicyclists and wider sidewalks (a process called a “road diet”); and installing attractive medians that double as refuges for pedestrians crossing tarmac-wide state roads like Buford Highway.

Sometimes, all the initiative requires is smart and targeted investments in problem areas. According to Atlanta’s transportation plan, just 6 percent of the city’s nearly 2,000 miles of streets are where 71 percent of traffic related fatalities and 42 percent of injuries occurred between 2012 and 2016. They include Peachtree Street, Piedmont Road, and streets in the predominantly low-income—and traditionally underinvested—west side of the city, where even small fixes to roads could yield large improvements.

What sounds simple isn’t easy. A protected bike lane, which separates two-wheelers from automobile traffic, can run from $30,000 to $400,000 per mile—though it is still a fraction of the cost of most asphalt projects. And when budget-conscious policymakers try to trim costs from a road project, property for sidewalks tends to be the first to go. “Almost de facto, the conversation gets pushed toward congestion mitigation and moving traffic, with the implication that those are the most important issues to solve,” Rushing says. Repeat over and over and, voila: You have metro Atlanta’s familiar autobahns.

In addition, says Sally Flocks, president and CEO of PEDS, public officials often fail to prioritize spending on traffic safety projects in search of “nice to haves.” “If they were serious and wanted to say ‘we care about safety,’ they’d put money there,” she says. Atlanta voters in 2015 approved an infrastructure bond that would pay for projects to reduce speeds, accommodate bicyclists, and protect pedestrians. But a reported $19 million of that funding helped build a $24 million pedestrian bridge next to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

And when the prospect of losing a lane along your daily commute—or Waze sending drivers down your side street—becomes a reality, a parochial mindset can take hold. When the Georgia Department of Transportation’s 2017 restriping plan for Peachtree Road ditched an automobile lane to include space for bicyclists to pedal to Buckhead, residents concerned over traffic logjams on side streets quarreled with bicyclists. (The bike lane was scuttled.) Long-on-the-book plans to shrink DeKalb Avenue—the east-west mishmash of suicide lanes, potholes, and metal plates connecting Atlanta to Decatur—into a safer road sparked fierce debates at a public meeting last year. And aside from some minor technology changes, Thomas Hyneman says, Monroe Drive remains dangerous, and a long-planned proposal to reduce the road’s width to improve safety for bicyclists remains on hold, as do plans for ever-congested Howell Mill Road.

Untying this knot requires educating bicyclists and pedestrians on safe walking and biking and teaching residents and policymakers about the benefits of smart street design. In New York, narrowing the width and reducing the number of some travel lanes to add room for bikes caused a negligible delay. Local mayors and county commissioners—from the city center to the auto-oriented suburban edges, where collisions are increasing—have to back up talk with action and cash. Though Atlanta has not adopted the Vision Zero guidelines, it baked the principles into its Safer Streets plan, which the Atlanta City Council is scheduled to consider this month. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said on the campaign trail she supported the goal.

Sweden, where the Vision Zero model began, has not managed to eliminate traffic-
related fatalities. But deaths have decreased 40 percent, making the Scandinavian country one of the world’s safest. New York has reduced fatalities by 34 percent in high-risk areas. Atlanta can change, Serna says, if it wants to. “Atlanta’s culture is not defined by the car,” Serna says. “Atlanta’s culture is defined by the people, the neighborhoods, and our history.”

Increase in bicyclist and pedestrian collisions between 2006 and 2015

Increase in bicyclist and pedestrian fatalities between 2006 and 2015

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Georgia’s rank among states with the most bicycling and walking fatalities

Trips in the metro region that are made by walking or bicycling

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Georgia’s rank among states with the highest percentage of biycylists and walkers

Minimum cost for a protected bike lane per mile

Transit trips that start or end with a person walking

Source: Atlanta Regional Commission

This article appears in our December 2018 issue.