AJC EXCLUSIVE: Slower streets are safer streets. Is Atlanta ready?

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AJC Video: Here are 5 things to know about what you should NOT do while riding e-scooters in Atlanta.

While heading to the Atlanta City Council meeting on Monday, I tried a little test: I drove 25 mph down DeKalb Avenue.

The old road that parallels the railroad and MARTA line is an efficient arterial route to downtown, although the middle “suicide lane” causes some drivers to pucker up.

Driving 25 mph along that route makes motorists behind you pucker up too, especially when your direction is limited to one lane. I could sense the guys in the construction van behind me weren’t happy. And I imagine the mood of the six to eight cars queuing up behind them was the same.

Traveling 25 felt like I was oozing, barely crawling. I finally sped up because I didn’t want to delay construction progress in our fine city. And I felt like a jerk.

I drove that speed to get a feel for it because there are increasing calls for the city to mandate that more roads have a speed limit of 25 mph.

In fact, the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, according to its website, wants the city to "legislate a 25 mph speed limit on all streets within the City of Atlanta." That's right. All streets.

Earlier this month, Rebecca Serna, the group’s Bicyclist in Chief, told the council that a 25 mph limit would be good — as a start. “We’re working with our state partners to give you more flexibility to reduce it even further to 20 mph, which is truly a safe city speed,” Serna said, later telling me that 20 would be for neighborhood streets.

For that matter, 15 mph would even be safer. Or how about 10?

Rebecca Serna is executive director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition. (HANDOUT)
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Rebecca Serna is executive director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition. (HANDOUT)

It may seem astonishing that something like that could even be in the realm of possibility in Atlanta. But a stretch of Boulevard near Grant Park went to 25 mph a couple of years ago, and the calls are getting louder and more common.

The deaths of four riders of e-scooters in three months — three of them in Atlanta — have caused some real reckoning about speed and safety and bike lanes. (The driver in one death was charged with speeding. In another, the scooter ran a red light.)

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms recently halted scootering after 9 p.m. and before 4 a.m. because all four deaths occurred in the dark, when it is harder for drivers to see those on a scooter. The mayor also capped the number of scooters at its current 12,000.

Two cyclists arrive for a rally on July 24, 2019, in Atlanta on West Peachtree Street, near where William Alexander was hit and killed by a bus on July 17th while riding an e-scooter. Rally organizers were demanding that the city prioritize protected bike and scooter lanes. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL
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Two cyclists arrive for a rally on July 24, 2019, in Atlanta on West Peachtree Street, near where William Alexander was hit and killed by a bus on July 17th while riding an e-scooter. Rally organizers were demanding that the city prioritize protected bike and scooter lanes. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

She also plans to go on a building spree of new bike lanes, to "use temporary barriers, painted demarcations, and any tool we can find to complement our growing network of 118 miles of dedicated space for bikes and scooters."

It remains to be seen how many of those will be “protected lanes” demarcated by a small curb or pylons. Also unknown is how they will affect traffic, and what the reaction will be from various neighborhoods and the driving public. The plan will be rolled out in the next month or so.

Recently, I called the bicycling public "the one percent." That's about how many people in Atlanta commute to work via bike. (A 2017 report by the League of American Bicyclists puts it at 1.2%.)

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Now, the biking public and the new urbanists might be a relatively small group, but they are an insistent bunch and have been chipping away at what they call the city’s “car culture.”

And they have a friend in Atlanta planning czar Tim Keane, who said the introduction last year of e-scooters and other such devices — coupled with the deaths — is forcing the issue of street safety at a stronger and more hurried clip.

“Cities have to make their streets safe; but Atlanta is not known for that,” Keane said. “These (accidents) will help change our streets even faster.”

Incidentally, federal figures show that driving, walking and riding a bike are twice as safe as they were in 1975.

The introduction of scooters has also built in (sort of) an auxiliary constituency for the Spandex crowd, which gives them more heft, more lobbying power.

According to Keane, the city has six months of data this year that shows people took 2.9 million trips on dockless devices (mostly scooters), racking up 3.1 million miles. He says studies estimate 30 percent of scooter riders would have used a car, meaning the devices cut 870,000 car trips this year, although that feels optimistic.

Bicyclists and scooterites are vastly different groups, however. Bicycling is more intentional: People own bikes. They decide to use them on a particular day. They have helmets, reflectors, bright clothing and knowledge of what they are doing. They also have more of a physical say in what they are doing — i.e., pedaling.

Scooter riders, as I’ve noted, are mostly random smartphone-toting folks who often just jump on the contraptions and ride.

“The riding experience is new to most people,” said Keane, who uses scooters downtown. “You can go 15 miles per hour quickly without knowing how to stop.”

Yes, that can be a problem. And you might be going faster than cars, given the new hoped-for speed limits.

Keane is a fan of slowing traffic down.

Nima Daivari, the community affairs manager for Lime scooters in Atlanta, said people are simply getting used to the feel of riding, just like the city’s infrastructure is still trying to accommodate them. People, he said, are more often incorporating the contraptions into their commutes and daily interactions.

“It’s just like it was in the first decades of cars,” he said. “There were no turn signals, no stop signs, no drivers’ licenses. The world is constantly developing.”

Next year, the city will revise the permitting process and probably cull the scooter herd from the current nine companies to three or four. There needs to be fewer companies but more scooters overall, said Daivari, supposing that his firm will be one of the purveyors.

On Monday, Aug. 26, at 6 p.m., a “mobility and safety” Atlanta town hall meeting will be held at City Hall. Subjects to be thrashed out: Scooter numbers, scootering at night, building more sidewalks, creating more bike lanes, and reducing car speeds.

Jump on your micromobility device and head on down.