Editor’s Note: In recent weeks, accidents have injured non-motor-vehicle-driving users of major local roads, including a bicyclist and a pedestrian killed on Sandy Springs’ Roswell Road and pedestrians injured on Brookhaven’s Buford Highway and Buckhead’s Peachtree Road. The Reporter asked Sally Flocks of the advocacy group PEDS about her group’s vision of safer streets.
If you’re like me, you dream of your community becoming a place where children walk to school, the elderly cross the street without fear, and streets are places where people enjoy chance encounters on sidewalks and at street cafes.
Walkability doesn’t happen on its own. Development won’t necessarily bring it. Making our streets and communities great places to walk depends on us. Together, we need to think small in a big way.
For decades, transportation agencies have made maximizing the flow of cars and minimizing delay to drivers the top priorities.
Would you prefer other goals? Do health, safety and quality of life matter more to you than getting places a minute or two faster?
In the Atlanta region and elsewhere in Georgia during the past five years, the number of people who lost their lives while walking increased an alarming 50 percent. Some 264 people were killed in 2019, the worst in history.
The loss of life was tragic. But the brutal crashes were also predictable and preventable. High-risk roads have a typical pattern: high-speed, multi-lane streets where safe crossings are few and far between. Buford Highway, for example, is the third most dangerous road for pedestrians in Georgia.
The fatal crashes are also symptoms of a region and state that invests far too little in pedestrian safety improvements.
Instead of top-down planning, let’s start from the bottom up. No one knows a street as well as the people who live along it. What kind of place do you want to live in 25 years from now? And what will your grandchildren want 50 years from now?
Issues we hear about frequently — technical expertise and cost — are not the real barriers to walkable communities. Plenty of quality engineers know how to create safe crossings and “right-sized” roads in urban and suburban areas. Transportation agencies spend millions each year. The real issue is how they spend it.
The key to success is community vision and will. One size doesn’t fit all, so be inclusive. Hold meetings at places that are easy to get to, even for transit users and people on foot.
What does success look like? Come in with a blank slate. Leave professional degrees at the door. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that wide streets and speeding reduce our quality of life.
Once your community has identified its values and vision, develop a strategic plan for achieving it. Reach out to others – and consider opportunities, challenges and partners.
Think beyond sidewalks. People walk more when they have places worth walking to.
Would you like to walk to a restaurant or coffee shop? Achieving this may require zoning changes, but don’t be afraid to ask. City Springs, Sandy Springs’ civic center, provides a shining example of the benefits that come with compact, mixed-use development.
Leadership matters. The most successful change agents are those who listen and inspire. Empower a champion to maintain the momentum. You’re building a movement, not just a campaign.
Forget about silver bullets. Change takes time. It also requires relationships. “You vs. them” rarely, if ever, results in good outcomes. Instead, collaboration between community activists, developers, transportation professionals and elected officials is essential.
And never forget, it’s up to the people in your community — and the elected officials who represent you — to identify your vision and values.
Transportation agencies are responsible not for setting the vision, but instead for implementing projects that enable you to achieve that vision.
Seeing progress is a great motivator, so try out a pilot project. Ask an elected official or someone in your public works department for permission to use orange cones or bales of hay to keep people from parking close to a crosswalk. Or try using them to narrow travel lanes or create a traffic circle at an intersection in your neighborhood. Does that get drivers to slow down?
Streets have many uses, only one of which is moving cars. They’re also public spaces, accounting for nearly one-third of the land in our communities.
Working together, we can take back our streets and make them places we love.
Sally Flocks is president and CEO of PEDS, an advocacy group working to make streets walkable and safe.