An Atlanta mayoral forum this week about the city's bicycling infrastructure turned into a discussion on race and the lack of transit options and economic development in underserved parts of Georgia's capital.
The candidates, speaking at the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition meeting, unanimously praised the benefits of bicycling as a transportation alternative — especially on the city’s traffic-clogged streets. But several cautioned enthusiasts not to think that the subject has universal appeal, especially in poorer communities, such as some parts of southwest Atlanta, which is largely African-American.
“In the most challenged communities, if you don’t have grocery stores, if you don’t have basic amenities, when you start talking about bike lanes, it’s almost an insult and a slap in the face,” said Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall. “We got to be honest about that.”
Said candidate Laban King, “To the black community, a bike lane is a symbol of gentrification that’s about to come.” he said.
The conversation comes as the city grapples with balancing the needs of growing numbers of well-to-do newcomers — attracted to economically rebounding neighborhoods in Midtown and Old Fourth Ward — with poorer residents in West End or southwest Atlanta where many have yet to experience the nation’s financial resurgence.
Atlanta City Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms said complicating the issue is the idea that everyone has access to a bike. For many in poor communities, owning a bicycle is a luxury.
“While I agree in concept with the expansion of bike lanes, there are so many layers before we can even get to that in many of our communities,” she said.
State Sen. Vincent Fort and Michael Sterling, former director of the Atlanta Workforce Development Agency, said part of the issue is lack of communication. Too often residents are told by City Hall what is in their best interest, instead of being asked what they think.
That happened recently when the predominately black community along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive rejected a plan to build bike lanes near the intersection with Northside Drive, Ford said. In areas where the street has four lanes, the plan was to narrow them to two lanes with a bike lane on either side.
“You have to engage the public,” he said. “When you have a plan and you want the community to adopt it, you can’t just drop it off, you have to engage them.”
The panel of 12 contenders found other areas of agreement.
Former Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard and Atlanta City Councilwoman Mary Norwood said not to forget the role that MARTA could play. Both said the city needs more buses and an expansion of the frequency in which they run, especially in underserved communities.
Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell, former city of Atlanta COO Peter Aman and former Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves talked of creating a willingness in Atlanta to experiment with different ways of making cycling work in the city. Cities such as Chicago and Berlin, which have successfully integrated bike lanes because of infrastructure investment, could serve as a blueprint for what could be done here.
“I want Atlanta to be the beta-test city,” Aman said. “I want Atlanta to try things that other cities frankly have not tried.”
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