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Gridlock Guy: The urbanist view on street design

Last week’s column on e-scooters galvanized plenty of reactions. Most people emailed in with their ire about scooter riders and their leaving the electric devices all over the place like litter. But one Twitter exchange took a more defensive approach. User and reader Marian Lou wondered why faulty street design wasn’t part of my list of grievances. She suggested to her followers that Darin Givens from ThreadATL be allowed some time to share his views. Givens and I were both intrigued by the idea. 

» RELATED: GDOT completes Cedar Ridge Road Bridge replacement two days early

I wanted to learn exactly what street design problems existed and how fixing them would improve the commute, so I reached out to Givens, who co-founded ThreadATL. This organization is a group that advocates for smart design and planning policy in the City of Atlanta. 

Givens started his advocacy after harrowing experiences pushing his son in a stroller on Ponce de Leon Ave. in Virginia Highlands. Sidewalks were in bad shape and drivers turned angrily in front of them in crosswalks. He moved into the City of Atlanta from Cobb County. 

"I thought when I moved to the city, it would be pretty easy to get around," Givens recalled, thinking that walking in the city certainly would be easier than even using mass transit. "And I found out that just wasn't the case and that drivers were often pretty hostile to people who were not in cars."

So Givens started studying urban design as a hobby and began understanding what policies work in other cities. Then he began pushing for these types of plans in Atlanta. One of the biggest problems Givens sees is simply with the inefficient use of space on and around the roads. "We cannot widen these streets really any more, because there are buildings up against them. So what we need to do is rethink how we use the width of these streets."

Givens noted the undoubted spatial efficiency of putting 50 people on one MARTA bus, which takes many vehicles off the roads and out of parking spaces. But ThreadATL's main focus is even simpler: optimizing street design to allow for safer pedestrian and bike-use. Overall, they want to reduce trips in cars. 

Let's stop there - you've probably heard this urbanism train of thought before. Reducing car trips by taking to mass transit is a great goal in Atlanta, but the citizens and MARTA still have a lot of changes to make to make MARTA more viable to many. Givens and his group espouse another transportation strategy that gets less press. 

"I feel like the biggest thing we can do is to reduce car speeds in this city, one way or the other," Givens said, stating he and other advocates in this realm think all city street speed limits should lower to 25 miles per hour. "The lower the speed you're going in a car, the less of a chance you have for that impact with a pedestrian or e-scooter or bicycle rider to be a fatal impact." 

We cover that concept every back to school season, as AAA data shows that pedestrians are far more likely to die at a 35 mph impact than 25

Givens thinks the city could be better stewards of transportation funds. Instead of spending $33 million on the Northside Drive pedestrian bridge, he said they should spend money on smaller street improvements, such as narrowing vehicle lanes.

"Wider car lanes generally result in higher car speeds. In narrower lanes, drivers can drive more slowly and carefully." This adjustment, Givens said, would then allow for construction of bike (and e-scooter) lanes without taking vehicle lanes away or impossibly widening the roads. 

Givens looked out his condo window onto Ralph McGill Blvd., as he talked. He said the road is four, wide lanes and passing vehicles take advantage of that space. "Every night, I mean, it's like they are drag racing out there. Cars are just flying out there. And this is a street that my son walks on." Givens' point is that narrowing lanes will reduce those speeds, make the road more multi-modal (different types of transportation), and make the environment safer for pedestrians. 

Givens and ThreadATL not only appeal to local leaders and administrators, but also neighborhood associations. Some of those neighborhood groups have been vehemently against bike lanes and other more urbanist measures, because of the traffic they fear such changes will create. Atlanta's adherence to car culture could be the biggest obstacle to reducing car trips and trying new ways to commute. But there are difficulties in making the switch. MARTA doesn't go a lot of places and can take longer than driving. Bicycle lanes don't exist in many areas, making rides less safe. And riding a bike in general is not everyone's cup of tea. Walking takes a longer time and more energy and sidewalks are not in great shape at all. 

This is why Givens thinks that Atlanta could better spend transportation money and divert more to building "complete streets" with narrower lanes, bike lanes, smart traffic lights, HAWK pedestrian signals, and more. Having these would at least encourage people to make some changes more easily. 

In this same vein, Georgia Commute Options' "Cear the Deck" campaign this week urges employers to sign up and allow employees to work remotely or to promote carpooling. They do this in an effort to reduce single vehicle occupancy. Last year's campaign yielded over 1,200 parking spaces saved. 

The efforts and passion of Givens and people and organizations like him are necessary. Atlanta simply cannot grow and only cater to cars. Both the economy and the environment demand us to be inventive with our travels. But we have to be willing to take that risk. On another note, we cannot only advocate for travel outside of cars. The new and the old have to coexist to move the most people, the most safely, and in the least amount of time. 

» RELATED: Work at I-285 and Ga. 400 means traffic hassles in north metro Atlanta

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxinc.com.

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