Wanted: Chief bicycle officer, visionary

Biking in Atlanta is a little like walking into a random restaurant wherever you happen to be at dinner time. You could luck into a delicious meal at a hot new restaurant, but you’re more likely to end up reheating a frozen burrito at a gas station. Similarly, on a bike you could happen across the Beltline or the protected bike lane on Peachtree Center Avenue under construction, but nine times out of 10 you’ll end up dodging car doors on West Peachtree or cars parked in the bike lane on Edgewood.

What this experience cries out for is the equivalent of an executive chef to whip up the individual ingredients of Atlanta’s bike network into a full-fledged meal. Despite the growing popular and political support for bicycling, we haven’t had a full-time city staffer spending all of their time and energy making Atlanta bicycle-friendly.

Not yet, anyway.

A few weeks ago, the city of Atlanta and the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition announced an opening for what we’re calling the city’s “Chief Bicycle Officer.” The job is simple yet challenging: unlock Atlanta’s potential to become a city where biking is a safe, respected way to get around.

This innovative position at City Hall is being funded by a five-year challenge grant awarded by the Atlanta Falcons Youth Foundation to the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, with matching funds from the city, which will house the position.

Other cities have long dedicated full-time staff to bike planning. Boston only had 180 feet of bike lane when the city hired Nicole Freedman as the Director of Bike Programs in 2009. As Freedman noted, “Boston was an award-winning cycling city when I started. We had been three times rated the worst cycling city in the country by Bicycling magazine.”

Under Freedman’s watch, Boston launched the city’s popular Hubway bike share program, installed 50 new bike lanes — including a bold new bike lane on Massachusetts Avenue, a major thoroughfare — and cracked down on cars parking in bike lanes. Boston is now a Top 20 Bike-Friendly City and a nationally recognized Bicycle Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclists.

Her success, shared on-stage during the Blank Foundation Speaker Series in 2013, inspired us.

Now, the public-private partnership to fund a Chief Bicycle Officer for Atlanta will have tremendous returns, at a key time in Atlanta’s bicycle history.

We have a new planning commissioner, Tim Keane, who hails from Charleston, a bronze-level Bicycle Friendly Community. A bike share program is slated to open this year that will make 500 bikes available through automated rental stations. And, after years of city bike plans, we’re starting to see cutting-edge bike projects on the ground. Downtown and Midtown are opening protected bike lanes with the potential to attract Everywoman and Everyman, not just the experienced bike commuters who already cycle their way to work.

As a colleague riffed on the seemingly endless popularity of the Atlanta BeltLine’s Eastside Trail, nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.

The Chief Bicycle Officer’s challenge will be to tie these pieces together — the bikeway network, the bikeshare program, partners inside and outside City Hall and the growing network of trails — and make biking a real option for a city in dire need of decent everyday options for getting around.

As a recently published interactive map by Deloitte (www.deloitte-geospatial.com/Rideshare/Atlas) and research by the Atlanta Regional Commission show, more Atlantans could benefit than you might think. More than a half-million commuters in the Atlanta region (556,630 to be precise) live within five miles of their jobs. That’s a 30-40 minute bike ride, not bad compared with Atlanta’s average commute time of 28 minutes. And for the 352,896 commuters within three miles of their employers, it’s even more reasonable.

If those commuters had bike lanes and trails that made biking a more palatable option — or transit with bike share to go that last mile — that could take a big bite out of the morning rush hour.

As bike lanes and trails multiply, biking not just to work but to any nearby destination becomes more practical. Projects like the Beltline are proving more useful for ordinary errands and day-to-day trips than most people realized when it was just an apple in Ryan Gravel’s eye. To realize the Beltline’s full potential to transform how we move throughout the city, we need neighborhood streets that make walking and biking as easy as driving.

Now all we need to do is to find the right person for the job. If you are an experienced transportation planner or engineer who can help Atlanta seize this moment, consider applying. This could be your chance to shape the city of Atlanta into something unexpected and give people real transportation options at a time when Atlantans are hungry for change.

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Rebecca Serna is executive director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition.

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