Making Buford Highway a Great Place

Atlanta native and author, Mark Pendergrast, will be in the Atlanta region  May 20 through May 25, 2017 to discuss  City on the Verge,” his new book about the future of Atlanta. Check out meeting locations and dates, and pick one that works for you. 

Pendergrast has it right: For people who walk, communities in the Atlanta region are on the verge. When I started PEDS in the mid-nineties, pedestrians weren’t even on the region’s radar screen. Since then, making streets and communities great places to walk have become high priorities at the local, regional and state levels.

The subtitle, “Atlanta and the Fight for America’s Urban Future,” says a lot. Many people are not on board, and people who live in car-dependent neighborhoods or have long commutes often resist change. For many elected officials and transportation professionals, reducing delay to drivers continues to be what matters most.

Like cities and states throughout the country, Atlanta has adopted a Complete Streets policy and committed millions to Complete Streets projects. Yet adopting a policy is just a first step. Implementing policies is where the real work begins.

We can count on transportation professionals to install sidewalks and curb ramps on Complete Streets projects. But all too often, safe crossings have been an afterthought. Likewise for travel speed and signal timing.

In 2013 the Georgia Department of Transportation began installing sidewalks, median refuge islands and high-tech beacons on a 2-mile stretch of the Buford Highway. The road has three lanes in each direction, a two-way left turn lane and just 24,000 cars a day. Given that, converting two lanes to sidewalks would not increase traffic congestion. Even so, GDOT refused to implement a road diet, with engineers claiming it needed to keep three lanes in each direction in case an “incident” occurred on I-85, the interstate that parallels it.

In late March, a section of I-85 near Piedmont Ave collapsed, forcing many people to use MARTA or rely on alternate routes to get between where they live and where they work. I look forward to receiving data about traffic volume on Buford Highway during the six weeks the interstate was closed. Did having six through lanes on Buford Highway instead of four have sufficient value to justify increasing risk to people who walk 365 days a year?

How we design our roads is not just about how we want to live. For many people, it’s also about whether they or their loved ones will live. Research shows that for each additional pair of through lanes, the risk of pedestrian-vehicle crashes doubles. It also triples the risk that the crash will be fatal.

This raises an ethical question. If transportation professionals know that fewer people will die if they reduce the number of travel lanes, how can they justify failing to do so?

Buford Highway is notorious for being one of the nation’s most dangerous roads for pedestrians. But it’s also beloved for its tremendous diversity and for the wonderful restaurants and shops lining its borders.

Among the most promising signs for the highway’s future: Marian Liou founded “We Love BuHi,” which has attracted hundreds of people to experience the wonderful restaurants and other features of the community. I’m optimistic that the impact of Marian’s creativity, enthusiasm and organizing will be as valuable to the future of Buford Highway as Ryan Gravel’s has been for the City of Atlanta.