Multimodal past: what can Atlanta learn from circa-1912 streets?
As the saying goes, you can’t judge the need for a bridge by the number of people who swim across the river. Likewise, you can’t judge the need for multimodal streets in Atlanta by the number of people who bravely navigate a heavily car-centric environment without a car. But it’s possible that we can get a little info about how people would potentially use Marietta Street (and others in Downtown) without a car if it wasn’t as river-like and exclusionary to them.
Above is Marietta Street in Downtown Atlanta, 1912. Automobiles, horse-drawn carts, streetcars, pedestrians, and bicyclists are all sharing the space. It was a highly imperfect system, but it does give us a glimpse of what these city-center streets can look like with multiple modes of transportation.
One assumes that the speeds were slow enough at the time that this could happen (relatively) safely — news articles about horrific levels of automobile deaths tend to not show up until the 1920s when speeds were higher.
Designing today’s intown streets primarily for maximum speed and flow of cars — that’s what makes this level of interaction difficult now. Modern design also helps to make car trips the dominant force in our urban transportation habits, which robs us of the potential to develop a safe, inviting, 21st Century variety of the multi-modalism on display in this pic.
This is not nostalgia or retro-planning, it’s about learning
I want to clarify that I’m not looking at the past with rose colored glasses here. There were certainly many safety problems with Downtown streets in 1912. My intention is to use this photo as a way to show the multiple ways that people want to use streets in a city, and how the slower speeds (and, yes, also the chaos that comes from limited laws for street safety) enabled this scene.
Urbanism is not about nostalgia or a return to me pre-automobile past. But there’s no denying that the past can inform the future. There’s value in looking at the multi-modalism of the past in Downtown streets and using it constructively as a means of highlighting the overly-car-oriented design of these streets today.
Here’s that same section of Marietta Street today. The lanes seem to say “cars only” in their design. Opinions will vary, but I personally did not feel comfortable riding a bicycle on this street when we lived a couple of blocks away.