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Beltline CEO: ‘We’re discouraging casual use’ during coronavirus restrictions

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In Q&A, Atlanta Beltline head Clyde Higgs discusses the importance of keeping trails open—but safe—in unprecedented times

A photo of many people walking along a path near a bunch of trees in spring.
The Atlanta Beltline’s Eastside Trail on March 14.
Curbed Atlanta

Atlanta Beltline president and CEO Clyde Higgs was conducting a media blitz Friday while taking stay-at-home orders as seriously as possible—not leaving his north Atlanta house.

All Beltline programming has been postponed or cancelled, but while governments in places like Cobb County are closing entire park systems, popular Beltline multi-use trails remain open to the public. Higgs is determined that trails remain that way—so long as usage changes in several ways.

Higgs, who was appointed CEO and president in February last year, expounds in the following Q&A.

Curbed Atlanta: Where do we stand right now, in terms of keeping the Beltline accessible to the public?

Clyde Higgs: Our stance right now is that we’re discouraging casual use. If you think about the Beltline and how we originally started, the Beltline is a transportation corridor. This is a place for people that need to get to a medical facility, for supplies or services, for groceries, to get to a job. So we consider that as essential use. That’s our mindset. At the same time, we’re really pushing the tenets of social and physical distancing. We’re really trying to push that message out.

A photo of a man in a suite in front of a huge window.
Clyde Higgs.

So you’re advising against using it for exercise?

Point A to point B exercise [is permissible], and I want people to understand that if the Beltline is really important for them to get on, that the Beltline is bigger than the Eastside Trail. The Southside Trail, the Westside Trail—there’s opportunity to get out there and walk as well.

I’ve been out there, and it is great to get out and not see a whole lot of people. There’s opportunities to get out and still fully embrace social distancing and protecting fellow community members, the city, and beyond.

Two weeks ago, with the advent of St. Patrick’s Day and really idyllic temperatures, at least on the Eastside Trail, you would have thought the Super Bowl was back in town. Are people being more cautious now than the early days of the crisis?

Our team has done a magnificent job in getting the word out about what our intentions are. We’ve ordered 120 signs, about 50 of those have been installed so far; we’re about to do another wave of about 70 signs.

If you look at the basic data, trail usage is actually down slightly compared to this time last year. We want those numbers to go down even deeper. We’re not where we want to be, but it’s going in the right direction.

A woman and man on a bike go along a concrete trail with grass on the side.
The Eastside Trail on Sunday.
Curbed Atlanta

Is there an interesting backstory behind the clever signs going up?

I have to give a big shoutout to my communications team. We all kind of embrace pop culture, and the Beltline should be that place where people feel good, so that original wave of messaging was like, hey, we’re not trying to be the police here, but we do want to get this message out there, to reinforce what we’re hearing on television and social media.

But I think what you will see in this next wave is some more direct messaging about going home unless it’s essential travel, if you don’t need to be here. We’re ramping up the seriousness.

An image with four original signs related to the Beltline.
Examples of signs with initial messaging.

You sound pretty adamant it’s not a real possibility, at least not right now, that the Beltline would be shut down and closed off.

What I’m adamant about is that we are collecting data on a regular basis, and as it stands right now, we are discouraging general use, but we are allowing essential use—medical, grocery, job ones. We’re always collecting information, and I don’t think we’re so intractable that if a new wave of information came out, that we wouldn’t then provide some additional advisement to our partners that help in making those decisions.

What impact, if any, is all of this having on the various Beltline construction projects and extensions underway?

You may remember the [mayor’s] executive order that construction is exempt from that right now, so we have three Beltline segments that are under construction, and they will continue.

That is the hairpin line on the Northeast Trail segment. There is the Southside Trail’s West segment crossing Metropolitan [Avenue] and going east. And there is the Westside Connector Trail into downtown that is in motion. And a fourth project—it’s not trail—but the lighting on the Eastside Trail. For now, those will continue.

On a lighter note, what are you hearing from people in terms of what the Beltline means to them right now, or how it’s helping emotionally and physically?

I’ve heard stories of people that are going through some hardships, and the Beltline just mentally is a place for them to just get out and walk—not congregate—but to get out.

Also, we have a soft spot for businesses along the corridor as well, because the Beltline is a transportation corridor but also an economic development driver for the city. We’re tracking probably 19,000 jobs along the Beltline corridor, so just having some sensitivity to the businesses around the loop is front of mind as well. The team has put a page on our website specifically for businesses to be able to check out key resources—federal, state, and local—that they might be able to tap in to.

You said you’d visited, but have you been actually using the Beltline lately for exercise?

No. I haven't. Not since the mayor put in her latest order. I don’t get out, and I’m respecting that order. Literally I’m in my house, and I also don’t own a car, so it’s perhaps a little more logical for me not to get out there.