The city of Atlanta’s transportation chief defended the new 25 mph default speed limit at a recent Buckhead meeting where he also said he won’t be carrying out an early pandemic proposal to shut streets for increased open space.

Josh Rowan, commissioner of the Atlanta Department of Transportation, appeared at the Aug. 4 meeting of Neighborhood Planning Unit B. Jason Kendall of NPU B’s transportation committee raised the speed limit and street closures issues.

25 mph speed limit

In April, the city adopted a “Vision Zero” traffic plan that seeks to eliminate traffic deaths and reduce crashes and serious injuries. One provision is a 25 mph speed limit on all city streets unless otherwise posted.

Kendall said the transportation committee was concerned that the 25 mph speed limit might slow traffic on main corridors too much and increase neighborhood cut-through traffic — a big issue in Buckhead. He said the committee suggested picking and choosing streets for the 25 mph limit rather than the broad, “magic wand” approach of making it the default limit.

“I think the speed [issue] is a bit of a distraction,” Rowan said, claiming that the average traffic speed on Buckhead’s Peachtree Road during usual rush hour was already far lower at 12 mph.

He said most traffic back-ups in rush hours are caused by crashes, not speed limits. Reducing traffic speeds and “conflicts” — places where vehicles may cross paths — are strategies that reduce crashes, he said.

Rowan said the city is looking at ways to be “pinching down” neighborhood streets to be harder or less attractive to use as commuter-traffic cut-throughs.

Pandemic street closures

The idea of temporarily closing streets had some momentum early in the pandemic during shelter-in-place orders. The concept was creating more room for people to bike or walk with social distancing. In May, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms ordered the DOT to come up with various transportation plans related to a partial pandemic reopening, with the street closures on the list. The order also sought to give Rowan the power to make “administrative changes” to execute the plan.

The concept seems to have fizzled, but Kendall said the NPU B transportation committee was curious about the status of the idea. He said the response was that such closures could be good during the pandemic, but it was unclear when and how they would end. Kendall told Rowan there also was concern that the order “sort of gave you this almighty power” to make such decisions.

Rowan, it turns out, was not a fan of the street closures and said he “vehemently rejected that idea.”

“I wasn’t going to support this sort of neighborhood sovereignty movement” where only locals could use the shuttered streets except for deliveries, he said. “You’re not going to see a lot of the arbitrary closure of streets.”

Nonetheless, Rowan said, DOT did study a couple of unspecified streets for such closures. The finding was that the closures could not maintain business deliveries and Fire Rescue Department access.

Rowan said that for expanding ways for people to get out and about during the pandemic, he prefers the “tactical” rapid installation of sidewalks on streets that need them.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.