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Finding cycling inspiration in an unlikely place: Atlanta
A dedicated bike signal and two stage turn helps 5th Street bike lane users cross West Peachtree Street.

ON JANUARY 27, I rode my bike from Downtown Atlanta north on Peachtree Street to Midtown. Peachtree is Atlanta's iconic street, but it isn't one that is typically associated with cycling.

Yet there I was, riding along with other bicycle-minded people from around the region, who had gathered for the Alliance for Biking and Walking Southern Cities Advocacy Symposium.

There is safety in numbers and our group was large enough to command a full lane, but travelling on Peachtree by bike was still a thrill.

I’ve lived in Atlanta twice and never thought of the city as a place that was friendly to people on bikes. The hilly topography rules out cycling for some.

Its status as the poster city for metastasizing sprawl, congested freeways, aggressive driving, and poor air quality didn’t exactly help, either.

That didn’t keep people from travelling by bike, however. Donald Stuber said he had an overall positive experience commuting in Atlanta in the 1970s, though it wasn’t without challenges.

“It was a tough time to bicycle but if you survived it was very rewarding,” he said. “One felt like a soldier returning from war sometimes.”

Now reinforcements have arrived, with the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition and its partners leading the charge and turning Atlanta into a vibrant cycling city. They are succeeding in inspiring ways.

The most recognizable and celebrated of these is the Atlanta BeltLine, which is creating “a network of public parks, multi-use trails and transit along a historic 22-mile railroad corridor circling downtown and connecting many neighborhoods directly to each other.”

When it’s completed, it will be like an I-285 for people, not cars. Instead of a dividing line that segregates people into those who live inside and outside the perimeter (or OTP in local parlance), the BeltLine is true to its tagline: “Where Atlanta Comes Together.”

Our group cruised the BeltLine from Piedmont Park to Cabbagetown and found plenty of people cycling, skating, running and walking, even on a cold and overcast Tuesday morning. We also saw businesses that had reconfigured their entrances to welcome customers from the trail.

Among these is the Ponce De Leon Avenue Kroger store, which with a new ramp connecting it to the trail, has shed an unfortunate moniker, the Murder Kroger, to become the BeltLine Kroger.

The Ponce De Leon Avenue Kroger store is connected by a ramp to the Atlanta BeltLine and has been rechristened, ‘The BeltLine Kroger.’
The Ponce De Leon Avenue Kroger store is connected by a ramp to the Atlanta BeltLine and has been rechristened, ‘The BeltLine Kroger.’

A little further down the trail, Krog City Market opened last year in space that originally housed a stove factory and later Tyler Perry Studios. I can report there’s plenty of bike parking (bring your bike inside if you want) and an excellent falafel to be had at Yalla.

Architect and planner Ryan Gravel, whose 1999 master’s thesis served as the inspiration for the BeltLine, said it has become a source of pride for Atlantans. He knows people who have decided to move to Atlanta because of it.

Gravel was among the star witnesses who testified before the group of advocates, making the case for Atlanta’s status as a great cycling city. Others included former City Councilman Aaron Watson and Saba Long, his then manager of public policy and communication, and Jay Tribby, Councilman Kwanza Hall’s “chief of stuff.”

Watson, Long, Tribby and others stressed that cooperative efforts between bicycle advocates, government officials and business owners are necessary to produce real results. Also evident in the Atlanta approach is a willingness to innovate.

The 5th Street bike lane, with its dedicated bike signal and two-stage left turn, is a good example, as is the 10th Street protected bike lane adjacent to Piedmont Park, which was developed through a partnership between the City of Atlanta, the PATH Foundation, and the Midtown Alliance.

Ed McBrayer of the PATH Foundation explains bicycle infrastructure planned for Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park.
Ed McBrayer of the PATH Foundation explains bicycle infrastructure planned for Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park.

PATH Foundation Cofounder and Executive Director Ed McBrayer assured the group of advocates that pedestrian and bicycle projects have become critical components of city and transportation planning.

“Our time has come,” he said.

The same can be said of us here in Savannah. On Jan. 22 the Mayor Edna Jackson and Savannah City Aldermen unanimously adopted a Complete Streets ordinance that will help make our streets safe, convenient and appealing for all users. The ordinance was a cooperative effort of the type recommended by Atlanta leaders, involving city officials, Healthy Savannah, Savannah Bicycle Campaign and other community partners. Now with beneficial public policy in place and a proven record of cooperation, it’s time for Savannah to demonstrate that it can innovate, too.

After all, we’ve done it before. Gen. James Oglethorpe offers us “Enlightenment Design in Savannah and Beyond,” to quote the title of Thomas D. Wilson’s excellent book on the continuing influence of Savannah’s city plan. It’s time for us to reclaim our legacy of innovation.