Making metro Atlanta a great place to walk

Sally Flocks is president of PEDS, an Atlanta-based advocacy group for pedestrians.

Walking is a great way to connect with others, make new friends and have fun. It’s also good for business and for our health. Given that, leaders in the Atlanta region deserve a sincere thank you for accomplishments that are making communities here great places to walk.

Twenty years ago, people who walk were not on the region’s radar screen. Few drivers stopped for people using crosswalks. The city of Atlanta lacked retail, and Peachtree Street was lined with surface parking lots.

It took over 50 years of auto-oriented development and road building – and billions of dollars – to create a region as hostile to pedestrians as ours had become.

Many challenges remain. But as I step back and reflect on the bigger picture, I’m struck by just how much walking has moved from the margins into the mainstream.

The 1996 Summer Olympics showed us what a delight our region can be when people leave their cars at home and take back the streets. The presence of other people even made us feel safe listening to outdoor concerts downtown and riding MARTA late at night.

Many wondered: what can we do to make walkable communities a long-term reality?

Connectivity, compact mixed-use development and good urban design are essential elements of places where people enjoy walking. During the 1990s, visionary leaders – each with overlapping missions – emerged and dedicated resources to making that happen.

Michael Dobbins, Atlanta’s new Commissioner of Planning and Community paved the way. The standards he developed for wider sidewalks and pedestrian-oriented buildings were a big step forward.

Meanwhile, the Midtown Alliance reached out to stakeholders to develop and build support for a new walk-friendly vision for Midtown’s commercial area. Changes have been astounding. An area where surface parking lots accounted for 75 percent of the land in Midtown’s commercial district has become a place with thousands of new residents, hotels, office space and retail. Wide, attractive sidewalks are filled with people who now have destinations worth walking to.

Decatur, a small city with an historic downtown and well-designed and programmed public spaces, sparked the imagination of many. The city’s work is incredible on many levels: compact, mixed-use development, wide sidewalks and comprehensive Safe Routes to School and Active Living programs. Leaders in other cities wondered: can we be the next Decatur?

The Atlanta Regional Commission deserves much of the credit for enabling communities to transform lifeless spaces into thriving activity centers. Since its start in 1999, ARC’s Livable Centers Initiative has committed $500 million to helping others link transportation improvements with walk-friendly land-use strategies. To date, 112 activity centers have benefitted.

Educational institutions also took action. Until recently, Georgia State University was a campus where viaducts and bridges separated students from the streets. Leaders at GSU worked closely with Central Atlanta Progress to change that. Doing so enabled students to become the lifeblood of downtown Atlanta.

Georgia Tech developed Tech Square, which connected the campus to Midtown for the first time in over 50 years. Doing so has attracted jobs and created a vibrant street where people love to walk.

Momentum continues. The Atlanta Beltline’s multi-use trails, parks and public art have inspired pedestrian-friendly development and are a magnet for people on foot. Meanwhile, the region’s walkable urban places are attracting a growing share of new office space and retail.

Walk-friendly land use and good urban design are just two pieces of the puzzle. Human factors matter as well. People won’t walk much if it isn’t safe to do so.

Walking and public transit have been my primary modes of transportation for decades. So from my perspective, what Atlanta needed most was fewer speeding cars and more drivers stopping for people who were crossing the street.

Eager to make that happen, leaders at PEDS organized crosswalk demonstrations, generated media attention to people who walk, and inspired transportation agencies to expand their safety toolboxes.

It’s working. Together, high-visibility crosswalks, in-street crosswalk signs, median refuge islands and high-tech beacons are prompting far more drivers to stop for people in crosswalks.

More and more partners are now on board — far too many to name. Working together, they’re transforming our urban centers into places where the cleanest and healthiest form of travel is emerging as the one that people value most.

At our Twenty Years Strong celebration in January, PEDS will salute a handful of Walking Superstars who have propelled two decades of walk-friendly change. Walking is on the move. May the force stay strong.