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A wild, important year in review: Atlanta mobility edition

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What 2019 had in store for trains, bikes, and anything else but automobiles was remarkable

A picture of e-scooters lining a sidewalk in front of a crowd of people at a MARTA station.
Maybe 2020 will bring the answer to Atlanta’s e-scooter predicament.
Sean Keenan, Curbed Atlanta

It doesn’t take a traffic expert to figure out that Atlanta still holds motorists in higher regard than the likes of cyclists, e-scooter riders, and pedestrians. But that doesn’t mean the city isn’t making changes to better the lives of Atlantans who prefer traveling options beyond automobiles.

Atlanta has, in fact, come a long way in the past 345 days. The plans public officials laid out for the future during the wild year that was 2019 could inform the transportation habits of generations of Atlantans and commuters to come.

For instance, it’s been less than a year since Atlanta lawmakers made their first stab at regulating the city’s most popular new mobility option, e-scooters. Hard to believe, maybe, but true.

E-scooter madness

Introduced by a company called Bird in May 2018, the two-wheelers have become nearly ubiquitous in Atlanta, and their riders have proven hard to tame.

Atlanta City Council officials attempted to batten down the hatches of the e-scooter regulations a few times this year, but it wasn’t until multiple riders died in collisions with motorists that they, as well as Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, kicked reform efforts up a gear.

In July, Bottoms halted the permitting of all new e-scooters—there were already about 12,000 devices licensed in town—and August brought the infamous nighttime ban, a still-effective law that mandates dockless vehicle providers shut down their scooters at 9 p.m. (Atlanta witnessed its first e-scooter operator cease operations soon after the ban was enacted.)

A photo of a man on an e-scooter crossing a street in Atlanta. Shutterstock

While a quick glance at Atlanta’s scooter-littered streets might suggest the changes haven’t been enough to curb worries of sidewalk crashes and blockages, the hoopla over e-scooters seems to have spurred an intensified interest in something called LIT lanes (a high-brow nickname for bike lanes that stands for Light Individual Transportation).

By August, it seemed clear that Atlanta led major U.S. cities in e-scooter-related fatalities; in September, Bottoms unveiled a $5 million action plan to boost the city’s mobility network.

A map shows where city officials plan to install bike lanes and other alternative transportation infrastructure in the future.
Blueprints for the $5 million mobility action plan.
Courtesy of City of Atlanta

Let’s get LIT

The relatively vague game plan promised some 20 miles of intown streets would be reimagined in a way that prioritized alternative modes of transportation, not just for cars. It even came with a guarantee the city would triple its stock of protected bike lanes.

Some mobility advocates, albeit welcoming of the new commitment, felt stung that it took outrage about the new kid on the block—the e-scooter industry—to incite a sense of urgency in evolving to accommodate non-drivers.

After all, earlier this year, students at Midtown’s Grady Memorial High School rallied in favor of “complete streets”—transportation infrastructure improvements that sacrifice automobile infrastructure in exchange for LIT lanes, wider sidewalks, and more—inspired in part by the 2016 death of freshman Alexia Hyneman, who was hit by a car while crossing the street near school.

A picture of people biking on a crowded howell mill road.
Atlanta Streets Alive events throughout 2019 showcased how streets could be utilized if cars didn’t rule the road.
Atlanta Bicycle Coalition

That activist effort, of course, was far from the only push for complete streets: Cyclists this year have made a habit of riding down the treacherous DeKalb Avenue during morning rush-hour in a bid to bring awareness to the fact that shared streets can be safe.

Elsewhere, such as in Midtown, complete streets initiatives have moved forward this year. Local leaders in March began mapping out plans to give West Peachtree Street a “road diet,” which means ditching a car lane for alternative transportation facilities.

Additionally, Midtown officials and the City of Atlanta have teamed up to create a complete street out of a section of 5th Street, between Williams and Myrtle streets. Construction is slated to launch in 2020.

A rendering shows a street with one car lane in each direction, flanked by a protected two-way bike path and wide sidewalks.
The vision for 5th Street.
Midtown Alliance

The 0.6-mile 5th Street project survived the chopping block that befell the TPLOST and Renew Atlanta programs, both of which were found to be severely underfunded and in need of reorganization.

Many complete street projects, however, were kicked to the curb when program officials finalized the project lists in March.

But in November, the City of Atlanta (finally) created its own department of transportation, with Josh Rowan, the former general manager of the Renew Atlanta and TSPLOST programs, at its helm.

The introduction of the new DOT meant the Renew Atlanta and TSPLOST operations, as well as any other transportation-related responsibilities at City Hall, would fold into the new department. Plus, the announcement came in tandem with the unveiling of a plan to spend more than $200 million on mobility infrastructure projects.

The One Atlanta Strategic Transportation Plan lays out a three-year framework to reach Vision Zero—the goal of having zero traffic fatalities or serious injuries—by way of bike lanes, sidewalk improvements, and other bike- and pedestrian-friendly upgrades.

The More MARTA, the merrier

Now that the city has its own DOT, the potentially $2.7 billion More MARTA transit expansion program is expected to be expedited, MARTA CEO Jeff Parker told Curbed Atlanta last month.

The program promises almost 30 miles of light rail lines, 13 miles of bus rapid transit lines, and improvements to MARTA’s existing infrastructure, like bus stops and train stations.

More MARTA’s sweeping project list was green-lit by agency officials in October 2018, and they approved a timeline for the endeavor this past June.

The city’s first-ever bus rapid transit line, which would connect downtown to the Beltline’s future Southside Trail, is inching closer to realization. MARTA leaders recently sent updated plans for the route to the federal government to ensure U.S. officials were willing to provide a $12.6 million grant to help fund the revised blueprints.

Should that go according to plan, MARTA would need to obligate funds for the project by next September in order to secure the federal funding, and the circuit could be operational by 2024.

A map shows a proposed route and an alternative option for the turnaround for the planned BRT route.
The northern part of what could become Atlanta’s first BRT route.

Another big-ticket transit item on Atlanta’s road map is light rail expansion.

City of Atlanta and Beltline officials recently announced they’d secured a $2.8 million grant from the feds that will help fund studies to determine how to link downtown’s underutilized streetcar system to the Beltline on either side of the city.

Construction of those connections, however, isn’t expected to kick off until 2025. Still, progress is progress.

The Atlanta Streetcar passes through downtown Atlanta in 2015. Curbed Atlanta

But Atlanta isn’t the only metro city that’s warming up to the idea of mass transit; the historically transit-averse suburb of Gwinnett County, just months after voters shot down a referendum that would have linked heavy rail lines to the area, has launched a committee to study the implications of welcoming MARTA.

Even Cobb County is kicking the tires of mass transit within its borders, weighing a referendum of its own that could go before voters in 2022.

Bigger, better Beltline

Back at home, the Beltline project has come a long way since January.

In July, nearly seven years after the first leg of the Eastside Trail opened to the public, construction crews wrapped work on extensions to the popular trail segment, which now (finally) links Midtown’s Piedmont Park to Reynoldstown’s Memorial Drive.

Just weeks later, in August, Beltline officials opened up the much-awaited Southside Trail as an interim hiking path, and earlier this month, they announced a builder had been secured to pave the path from University Avenue to Pittsburgh Yards.

The gravel Southside Trail, as seen from a former railroad tunnel.
The Southside Trail, now an interim hiking trail.
John Becker, Atlanta Beltline Partnership

In fact, this winter, three different, significant pieces of the Beltline and offshoot connecting trails are expected to be under construction, officials have said. That work is anticipated to bring the popular multi-use trails closer to the likes of the Proctor Creek Greenway, Buckhead’s PATH400, and the new Peachtree Creek Greenway in Brookhaven.

Just think, all of this—and more—happened in less than a year.

It could be decades before Atlanta is renowned for its public transit and mobility options. But if 2019 is any indication of where we’re headed, we’re on the right track.