I must say, it’s pretty darn hard to catch hold of a bicyclist on Peachtree Road.
In the pursuit of journalism, I tried to interview some cycling commuters during morning rush hour to discuss the plan to remove a lane of traffic and add bike lanes to that transportation artery. But bicyclists are quick, nimble, a bit wary and generally hard to pin down.
I tracked one in my minivan for nearly four miles, from the heart of Buckhead to Midtown, watching his cantaloupe-sized calves furiously pump as he headed south. I pulled alongside him but communication was hard because of his ear buds — and because stoplights were merely a suggestion. He ultimately lost me at 17th Street when a loading truck stopped traffic cold, allowing him to chug through the midst of the idling cars.
A couple others did not stop as I shouted out the window that I wanted to discuss important issues of accessibility, sustainability and all sorts of other sensibilities. I guess Atlanta’s bicyclists don’t stop — or even look up — when accosted because they’re accustomed to people yelling at them. I did wave down one, a pleasant software developer named Kevin Arends who bikes six miles to his Buckhead-area job.
“It’s not too bad (on Peachtree) if you pay attention,” said Arends, who plans to keep using the street. bike lanes or not.
The plan to carve out a traffic lane to create bike lanes is one of those issues that turns otherwise normal people into sputtering grumps, or worse, self-righteous scolds.
From the former camp, we have the middle-aged man I spoke with at a Peachtree Road shopping center. The bike-lane plan, he declared, “would be a nightmare!”
“This is a highway with thousands of cars and they want to change everything for a few bicyclists while the rest of us are working 60 hours a week?!”
His name? Are you kidding? he asked. You can’t print that. He’s a merchant and who wants bicyclists mad at you?
Road diet or road choking?
The fit fellows in Lycra shorts have inordinate clout. Only about 1 percent of Atlanta area commuters are bikers, according to Census surveys, (an optimistic number) but planners are increasingly calling to erase traffic lanes to give them elbow room.
Increasingly, terms like “road diet,” or “complete streets” or “road rightsizing,” are thrown about in well-intentioned Orewellian Speak.
Who can have a problem with a “diet?” You can when they cut out perfectly good lanes like they did on Decatur Street a few years back and turned that stretch by Georgia State University into an automotive quagmire twice a day.
“Road choking” might be more precise.
I was paging through a 47-page presentation on “complete streets” from Smart Growth America and only had to click 11 times until I learned (again!) that millennials would rather spend their money on skinny lattés than premium unleaded.
And “right sizing?” Well, that term is a favorite of corporate executives explaining why dozens of their ex-employees are leaving the office carrying their personal belongings in cardboard boxes.
“Rightsizing facilitates street safety,” the Project for Public Spaces says on its website. “Over 80 percent of pedestrians hit by vehicles traveling 40 miles per hour die, compared to less than 10 percent that are hit at vehicles traveling 20 miles per hour.”
I might note that nobody dies if the cars are not moving.
Motorists vs. cyclists
But I digress, we were talking about the plan to turn arterial roads into bike lanes for the 1 percenters (and we’re not talking about Mitt Romney’s 1 percenters.)
It’s hard to talk reasonably about sharing the road because bikers are quick to tell you they have rights, too, that drivers in Atlanta are often nasty, brutish and uncouth in their verbology. Last year, I spoke with several cyclists who had been terrorized by motorists. One had been nearly killed by an SUV’s grill, another had his teeth removed by a closed fist.
When one wonders out loud, however, about the willy-nilly placement of bike lanes over perfectly effective — and crowded — asphalt, then one is met by a terse: “So, you want bicyclists to get run over and killed?”
Bike lanes are not a communist plot, as many allege. But there are times when their installation is questionable. Peachtree is one example. Atlanta has a dearth of good, long arterial roads and traffic is forced on the few that do work. Peachtree is one.
(Atlanta also is kicking around the idea of complete streeting DeKalb Avenue, one of the few effective east-west thoroughfares.)
Originally, the plan was to reconfigure the six-lane Peachtree on a three-mile stretch from the Downtown Connector north to Pharr Road. There was to be two traffic lanes and a bike lane heading in each direction, as well as center-turning lane.
But residents and others cried bloody murder, causing DOT planners to split the baby. Now the right-sizing will be contained to the southern half of that route and the section north of Peachtree Battle Road would have three lanes headed south, two headed north and a center turning lane.
‘It works, but it ain’t pretty’
Edward Daugherty, a landscape architect who lives a couple blocks off Peachtree and has been involved in civic activities for decades, said the road had about 55,000 cars a day in the 1970s and 42,000 now because reconfigured north-south thoroughfares like Northside Drive and Piedmont Road have taken some pressure off Peachtree.
Besides, he says, Peachtree is too busy for the plan to work.
“We’re told (by experts) that road dieting works for roads under 20,000 cars (a day); after that, it’s an unmanageable beast,” he said adding that Peachtree is an efficient, if not sometimes ugly corridor. “DOT’s approach is to look at things like a plumber. They look at volume. And like a piece of plumbing, it might be like a sewer but it performs what it was intended to do. It works, but it ain’t pretty.”
The Peachtree plan is not set but it has backing from City Hall. (UPDATE: In December 2015, the Georgia Department of Transportation announced that the Peachtree Road bicycle lane proposal was dead, killed by a huge community backlash.)
A couple of years back, Mayor Kasim Reed announced the city would double bike-friendly lanes to 120 miles by the end of 2016. The idea is build it and they will come.
One day, perhaps, 2 percent will commute by bike.
Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC