How to take back our streets

If you’re like me, you dream of metro Atlanta becoming a place where children walk to school, the elderly cross the street without fear, and streets are places where people enjoy chance encounters on sidewalks and street cafes.

Walkability doesn’t happen on its own. Development won’t necessarily bring it. Making our communities great places to walk depends on us. Together, we need to think small in a big way.

For decades, transportation agencies have made maximizing the flow of cars and enabling people to drive as fast as possible top priorities. Even in our urban areas, roads suited to long-distance travel are common. Transportation professionals often design projects, announce them to communities, and defend them from criticism.

Add a step to the process. Would you prefer other goals, even if they increase traffic congestion?

Do health, safety and quality of life matter more to you than getting places a minute or two faster?

We’re raising the first generation of kids who are likely to have shorter lifespans than their parents. Do you want to turn this around?

Instead of top-down planning, let’s start from the bottom up. No one knows a street as well as the people who live along it. What kind of place do people in your community want to live in 25 years from now? And what will your grandchildren want 50 years from now?

Issues we hear about frequently — technical expertise and cost — are not the real barriers to walkable communities. Plenty of quality engineers know how to create safe crossings and “right-sized” roads in urban and suburban areas. Transportation agencies in metro Atlanta spend millions each year. The real issue is how we spend it.

The key to success is community vision and will. One size doesn’t fit all, so be inclusive. Hold meetings in places that are easy to get to, even for transit users and people on foot. In many communities, it’s valuable to meet with people where they already are. Shopping malls, churches, transit stations and college campuses are just a few examples.

What does success look like? Come in with a blank slate. Leave professional degrees at the door. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that wide streets and speeding traffic reduce our quality of life.

Once your community has identified its values and vision, develop a strategic plan for achieving it. What will it take to make your community walkable, livable and lovable? Reach out to others – and consider opportunities, challenges and partners.

Think beyond sidewalks. People walk more when they have places worth walking to. Single-use zoning – with homes separated from retail and employment centers – is an experiment that failed. Would you like to walk to a restaurant or coffee shop? Achieving this may require zoning changes, but don’t be afraid to ask.

Leadership matters. The most successful change agents are those who listen and inspire. Empower a champion to maintain the momentum. You’re building a movement, not just a campaign.

Forget about silver bullets. Change takes time. It also requires relationships. “You vs. them” rarely, if ever, results in good outcomes. Instead, collaboration between community activists, developers, transportation professionals and elected officials is essential.

At the recent Golden Shoe Awards Celebration, PEDS recognized the Inman Park Neighborhood Association and city of Atlanta for working together to develop a transportation strategy for parts of Inman Park and the Old Fourth Ward. This is a historic area that is growing rapidly as the Atlanta Beltline inspires new development. Thanks to a year of community meetings, neighborhood activists developed strategies that will help make their vision a reality.

Why not try the same in your community?

Seeing progress is a great motivator, so try out a pilot project. Ask an elected official or someone in your Public Works Department for permission to use orange cones or bales of hay to keep people from parking close to a crosswalk. Or try using them to narrow travel lanes or create a traffic circle in an intersection. Does that get drivers to slow down?

Streets have many uses, only one of which is moving cars. They’re also public spaces, accounting for nearly one-third of the land in our communities. Working together, we can take back our streets and make them places we love.

Sally Flocks is president and CEO of PEDS, a pedestrian advocacy group.

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