How I respond to “Atlanta is a car town, not a cycling and transit town” criticisms

A commenter on a recent post of mine mentioned a couple of pretty common criticisms about expectations for growth in cycling and transit in Atlanta. The sentiments were from the “Atlanta is a car town and it always will be” school of thought. I don’t believe this is true. Here’s my response.

Getting more Atlantans on bikes

First, I’ll address the commenter’s criticism in terms of cycling growth:

“I am still skeptical that there will ever be a significant number of bicyclists riding to and from jobs here in Atlanta. Why? Well, number one, the weather! It rains far too often, and it is too hot far too often for most people to be dependent on a bike to get them to and from work.”

PATH Parkway in northwest Atlanta

Yes, Atlanta will never be Amsterdam with its percentage of trips taken on bike, but there’s a place between the status quo and “Amsterdam” we can occupy. If we focus on the gains we can make, not on the idealized utopia we can’t achieve, we can make a lot of progress.

Look at New York City. It has more rainy days per year than Atlanta, and it gets really hot and really cold as well, but they have much, much more cycling than we have. According to a NYT article this year: “New York now has more bike commuters than any other American city, according to an analysis of census data by the League of American Bicyclists.”

One reason I’m hopeful: the growth in protected lanes here. Clear data shows a direct relationship between protected bike lanes and significant growth in cycling traffic. We’ve added some of them to city streets, and more are planned.

In fact, as the AJC recently reported, a newly opened bike/ped path in northwest Atlanta called PATH Parkway (it runs from Northside Drive to Centennial Park and was funded jointly by Georgia Tech, the City of Atlanta and the PATH Foundation) is winning national accolades. That kind of praise could have a positive effect on the political and neighborhood leaders who have a large say in what gets done with our roads:

PATH Parkway at Georgia Tech topped the PeopleforBikes list of the 10 “most impressive new links” around the country. The 1.5-mile off-street path — the only Georgia trail to make the list — is in the company of networks in New York, Texas, Minnesota, Washington, Minneapolis, California and Indianapolis.

Another reason to be hopeful: the growth of bike share. After a soft launch of 100 bikes, Atlanta’s Relay bike-share program expanded this year to 500 bikes. Speaking anecdotally, I’m a big fan of the service and I’ve been impressed with the number of Relay riders I see around Downtown.

Getting more Atlantans on transit

The commenter added this about transit in Atlanta:

“I also think you will never get more people on MARTA as long as it has the reputation for being less safe than driving in one’s own vehicle. I don’t know how that problem is solved. Maybe put more cops at MARTA stations and have more cops doing patrols on the MARTA trains.”

Peachtree Center MARTA Station

People can get fooled into thinking transit in Atlanta is unsafe because of a few high-profile murders they heard about that took place in or around MARTA stations or bus stops. But people also get exposed to news about the down sides of car-dependency, such as the fact that the US has the highest per-capita car crash death rate in the world. And as the AJC reported, dozens of people might die on I-285 alone in a given year, and Georgia traffic deaths are on the rise.

Meanwhile, MARTA has seen a 27 percent decline in violent crimes in the past five years, thanks in part to the installation of about 10,000 security cameras. To believe that transit is more unsafe than driving, you really have to turn a blind eye to the dangers of driving and have a bias against transit. But considering that Atlantans overwhelmingly passed a MARTA referendum in 2016 that is now funding the system’s expansion via a new tax, I can’t believe that too many locals have that bias.

Transit studies show that ridership grows when access improves and when service improves. A redesign of bus routes is also a factor in increasing ridership, and that could very well end up happening in Atlanta with the money collected by the new tax.

So really, there are a lot of reasons for being optimistic about growth in cycling and transit use in this city. Atlanta is only a “car town” in your mind, when you view the city through a windshield perspective.