Archive | February, 2013

Five Reasons I’m Optimistic about Atlanta

25 Feb

Happy Monday,

Living as an urban enthusiast in Atlanta can be difficult.  Apparently parks, museums, walkability, safe cycling routes, good food, fun pubs, and cultural diversity are things that most people around here seem to not enjoy.  Because of this, it’s easy to get discouraged in this town.  To help myself out of the doldrums, I devised a list of 5 things that make me hopeful for this city.

1) The Downtown Streetcar is Moving Forward

The City of Atlanta is installing it’s first streetcar line 64 years after the last streetcars were removed from Atlanta streets.   The streetcar lines connects Centennial Park, Fairlie-Poplar, Downtown, and the Old Fourth Ward at the MLK Center.

I am hopeful that this project is a success.  A successful streetcar line would lead to further expansion, more connection points to MARTA, connection to the Beltline, and eventually a true streetcar system for the City of Atlanta.  Such a system would provide a level of car-free mobility that Atlanta hasn’t seen in over half of a century.

The task is tall however.  Much of the area where this streetcar is to be installed is blighted, and there is heavy risk in staking this much capital in an “up-and-coming” neighborhood .  If the streetcar proves unsuccessful in improving the economy and livability in the service area, especially the areas within a few blocks of the interstate, then naysayers will cite that failure as hard evidence that Atlanta is not fit for streetcars.  On the other hand, if the streetcar is successful and makes a large positive economic impact on the downtown communities, then it will be impossible to deny that a streetcar network should be expanded throughout the city.

As an aside on this topic, I must admit that I’m worried about headways.  First impressions are important for new systems.  If people are unsatisfied with their first trip, then they may never give the system another chance.   Because of this, I am worried about the reported 15 minute headway projected for this project.  One streetcar every 15 minutes is not very frequent.  With such a short rail line, I would more likely walk than wait 15 minutes for service.  It only takes 2 streetcars to operate at 15 minute headways on this line.  The City of Atlanta owns 4 street cars.  In order to make a solid first impression, these streetcars should operate at no more than 10 minute headways.  If ridership is low, then headways can be increased.  

2)  Marta Releases Real-Time Data

Back in October, MARTA released its real-time bus data and the GTFS schedule data for its buses and trains.  Since then, the real-time bus feed has been continually refined and improved by the hard-working people at MARTA in order to give consistent and accurate updates about bus locations.  I know of several 3rd party developer teams who are working to release apps that take advantage of this data.

In the coming weeks, I hope to see good apps hitting the market.  Real-time bus data will have a dramatic effect on the practicality of MARTA.  We all know that many of MARTA’s routes suffer from very long headways.   Some buses operate at 40-60 minute headways, even during peak weekday hours.  In addition to the long headways, the buses are often late or early depending on the notoriously unpredictable Atlanta traffic.

It is very stressful to be waiting at a bus stop, with no shelter, no sidewalk, on the side of a 7 lane highway, in July heat or February freeze and wondering if the bus is ever going to show up.  Is the bus 10 minutes late or did it come early?  Well, real-time data can’t fix all these problems, but at least you would  know where the bus is and when it is coming.  Then you don’t have to wait at one of our city’s lovely dignity-free MARTA stops while being stared at by every driver passing you by.  You can walk out to the stop moments before your bus arrives and forget all the extra stress and associated nonsense.  If the bus is going to be 10 minutes late, I would rather spend that time inside the Starbucks.

3)  Cycling Infrastructure is Improving

Atlanta is getting some good momentum on the bicycle infrastructure front.  There seems to be a consensus among advocates and city politicians and planners that Atlanta needs to seriously embrace bicycling as a legitimate mode of transportation.  This is evidenced by current and upcoming bicycle projects that will connect important and practical locations around town.

For instance,

  • Ponce de Leon is getting separated bicycle infrastructure this summer.  This will allow bikers to easily travel from Peachtree St. and the North Ave MARTA Station to the Beltline, Ponce Market, and the Whole Foods shopping center.
  • 10th Street is also getting separated infrastructure to safely move bikers between Midtown and the Beltline.
  • Juniper Street is getting a total overhaul.  The overhaul will lead to fully separated bike paths, intersection improvements, and vastly improved sidewalks.  It will be a great walkable complement to Peachtree Street one block to the west, and it will also serve as a much needed southbound bike route through midtown.  I don’t have a link to the project page, but the image above is from an open house held earlier this month describing the project.
  • In addition to these projects, a host of other projects that extend far beyond midtown, and totaling $2.5 Million, are described on the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition website.

4)  Start-Up Culture in Atlanta is Gaining Ground

The Atlantic: A Visual Guide to Atlanta’s Startup Scene

OK, this is the one entry of the five that is not transportation related.  Efficient transportation and a vibrant urban setting are impossible and useless without a strong economy and jobs for Atlantans.  I would love to see a strong start-up culture here.  Atlanta has a lot going for it in this area.  We have great universities (e.g., Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Emory, the schools at the Atlanta University Center).  Atlanta is affordable.  It is much more affordable to live an urban lifestyle in Atlanta versus other similar cities.  We have a ridiculous airport that makes Atlanta a great place to base a national or international company; it’s easy to get anywhere from here. And, we are also home to more than our fair share of Fortune 500 companies.

Atlanta seems to have the necessary pieces for a strong start-up scene and that is being recognized around the region and country.  More start-ups were funded in Atlanta last year than any other southern city. (We don’t count Texas because they aren’t real southerners.)   With the ongoing success of ATDC, FlashPoint, Atlanta Tech Village, Hypepotamus, and countless other start-up accelerators and services, I expect Atlanta’s tech start-up scene to start making more and more noise nationally and internationally.

5)  BeltLine Popularity is Out of Control

Nobody goes to the BeltLine anymore.  It’s too crowded.  

beltline

The popularity of the East Side Trail shows just how much latent demand there is for walkable places in this city.  So much so that some people are beginning to fight over the limited pavement space on the EST, for instance, the guy discussed in this article in Curbed.  Overcrowding is a problem.  But it’s a good problem to have and much better than the alternative.  It’s oddly refreshing to hear people griping about Atlanta traffic that does not involve cars.  It’s actually kind of mind-blowing.

This popularity of this section of the BeltLine has led to the stores and restaurants adjacent to the BeltLine to transform what used to be their rear entrances, parking lots, and dumpster sites into welcoming patios and front entrances to accommodate this new source of customers.  What used to be vacant industrial sites around the East Side Trail are now prime real estate for Atlanta’s latest awesome amenity.

The popularity of the BeltLine and the reaction of the adjacent businesses gives me hope that more similar developments will also be well received.  The East Side Trail is just a small start for building a thorough network of practical cycling and walking paths in Atlanta.  I hope that this section of the BeltLine will eventually have transit connecting it to the downtown streetcar and potential midtown streetcars in the future.  Can you imagine having a streetcar circuit that connected the East Side Trail, the downtown streetcar, 10th street, 14th street and the West Midtown area on Howell Mill?  That relatively small circle would be a fantastic streetcar network for midtown and downtown Atlanta.  I might be dreaming a bit, but it’s fun to  imaging having that type of car-free connectivity in Atlanta.

In other news…

  • Rebecca Serna of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalitions responds to Melissa Carter‘s ill-informed anti-cyclist diatribe.
  • Apparently car rental taxes are being considered to fund transit in Atlanta.  I’m not sure where I stand on this issue, but I do know that it’s absurd that the current rental car tax is used to pay for the Philips Arena.  What in the hell does me renting a car to drive out of town have to do with the Atlanta Hawks?
  • Some new high rises are suggested for Midtown.  Whoopeedeedoo!
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I don’t like driving. Does this make me a bad American?

18 Feb

I like to live in walkable areas.  I like bicycling to get groceries.  I like living near parks.  I like sidewalks and bike lanes.  I don’t like driving out of necessity.

Because I like these things, I have been called a hippie liberal.  I have even been called anti-American.  It’s probably because I live in Georgia.  I have been told that walking, biking, and transit are bad for  the economy and that paving over cities to make room for cars and parking is good for the economy.  We will all be better off if cars are given more and more of our valuable urban real estate.

I’m not an economist.  I don’t like walking and bicycling because they are good for the economy or even because they are “green”.  I just like them because I enjoy them.  However, many people, notably Randall O’Toole of the Cato Institute equate driving with prosperity.  He argues that driving is good for the economy and driving more will improve the economy.  Mobility is the key here, and accessibility is less relevant.   Take a look at the graph below for evidence.  The data here is from Randall O’Toole’s 2009 book Gridlock.  It shows per capita GDP and average miles traveled by Americans between 1800 and  2000.  From this data, he basically concludes that smart growth is bad and that we should live in a car-dominated society or else face economic catastrophe.  This is because driving cars more miles leads to a more productive populace.

It’s hard to disagree with graphs like this.  Except for the minor detail that correlation does not equal causation, it seems evident that my hippie, urban-elite, liberalism is going to destroy America.  So I have actually been down on myself a lot for the past couple of years since reading his book.  I don’t want to be a bad person.  I just want to ride my bicycle and walk instead of driving, and I want others to be able to do it too.  (Notice the wording here anti-urbanists conspiracy theorists.  I said “be able to” not “force to”.  I’m not a dictator)

Because I feel guilty for destroying our American way of life, I am always looking for evidence that indicates that maybe I’m not such a bad person after all.  I know.  It’s like an alcoholic looking to justify his behavior.  Anyway, today was a good day for me because I read an article in the Atlantic Cities.  The article, called Cars and Robust Cities are Fundamentally Incompatiblemade me feel like a less terrible person for advocating against handing over our cities to the automobile.  

The article reports a study of cities in New England that have either limited parking or increased  parking since 1960.  The results are very weird because they seem to indicate that limiting parking and building more accessible places may not be the job killer O’Toole had me believing.  Jobs and income have actually grown in the cities that limit parking faster than the other cities.  Now I know that this is just a small study with a small sample size, but it does possibly indicate that maybe there is more to GDP and productivity than merely how many miles we each drive.

The arguments that I hear most often against transit, bicycle infrastructure, and even building walkable areas is that those projects will impede automobile travel.  It is widely believed that impeding automobile travel will have strong negative effects on the economy.  Like a said, I’m not an economist.  I just like living in pleasant areas away from hordes of exhaust-belching, noisy, and aggressive automobiles.  If living in pleasant areas destroys America, then I have serious problem.  But somehow I think that building smart cities doesn’t destroy economies.  I’m actually inclined to believe the opposite is true.  If anyone out there, who is smarter than me, knows of more studies that compare rail, bicycle, parking, pedestrian, or automobile infrastructure and economic indicators, I would like to read them.  I won’t be able to continue working to build nice places until I know that I am not simultaneously destroying our society.

Education, debates, demos, and discussion at Transportation Camp South

12 Feb

This past Saturday, TransportationCamp South took place at Georgia Tech.  Innovators from around the City, State, and Region came together for one day of discussions, demos, and education related to transportation in the South.

TransportationCamp South is the latest iteration of a series of TranportationCamp “un-conferences”.  At these un-conferences, people show up with ideas that they want to discuss, demos they want to show off, or debates they want to lead.  They promote these ideas by posting them on large post-it notes, and a very small team of organizers very quickly compiles a schedule of hour-long sessions taking place in a dozen different rooms throughout the day.  If your topic is picked for a particular round of sessions, you lead that session.  If not, you get to attend one of the other awesome sessions selected.  It is essentially a crowd-sourced conference. 

The conference attracts civil and transportation engineers, city planners, computer programmers, advocates, officials, and general enthusiasts of transportation issues.  All these people with varied backgrounds mix and mingle at a wide array of sessions that you won’t find at most conventional conferences.

Photos from TransportationCamp South.  Find these and more on Facebook

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Session topics cover a wide array categories such as technical demos of real-time transit tracking apps (like OneBusAway, which hopefully will be available in Atlanta very soon), history reviews of freeways and transit in the South, a debate of the role and impact of autonomous cars in urban transportation, and more whimsical topics like “MARTA Pickup Lines”, which sounds silly but is actually a group of transit advocates promoting transit use through humorous and often sardonic social media events called TransitThursdays.  I don’t do Twitter, but I may have to start this week.

Some cool stuff that I got to see and learn:

I now know that the reason that there is so much green space around Freedom Parkway and Inman Park (see the areas inside the orange lines).  It’s because hundreds of homes were bulldozed to make way for an interstate that never came.  Guess who put a stop to that interstate…it was Jimmy Carter.  Guess where the Jimmy Carter Library is, at the intersection of these interstates that never happened.

I got learn more cool history, like the reason that Gwinnett and Clayton have representation on the MARTA board.  It’s because in 1965 they voted YES to the MARTA Act.  The MARTA Act created an agency to plan future transit in Atlanta.  In 1971, Clayton and Gwinnett vote NO to actually funding the transit plan.   So Clayton and Gwinnett are still on the planning board but have no MARTA service because they don’t want to fund it.  Cobb has always been in the NO category.

There was also a demo of some cool apps resulting from MARTA releasing their real-time bus data.  OneBusAway, which was developed at the University of Washington for transit in Seattle, is being tested at Georgia Tech.  I’m hoping that it will be available publicly in Atlanta sometime soon.  It is only a matter of time before a variety of real-time tracking apps are available in Atlanta.  See the image below for a preview (click to enlarge).

I also learned that self-driving cars are going to let us have our cake and eat it too.  Forbe’s says by 2040 self-driving cars will dominate the roads.  This means that anyone who wants to live way out in the country and still work in the city will have a no-hassle commute.  It also means that all the parking and dangerous cars in city-centers will be removed to build Jane Jacobsian paradises.  Finally, transit Utopia.  Or maybe none of that will happen and we’ll live in gridlock hell because toddlers will all of a sudden have cars just like kids have cell phones today.  Who knows?  It was great to hear opinions on how self-drivings cars will impact safety, transit/highway use, land development and vehicle ownership.  Do we really need to own cars once they can drive themselves?  I say NO!  Others say YES!  Maybe we can both win.   Attendees of this meeting decided to continue this discussion with monthly meet-ups.  If you are interested in talking about impacts of self-drivings cars in Atlanta and want to be ahead of the game, drop me a line.  

Bottom line, TransportationCamp South was a fun and educational event.  Far more happened than I care to write about here.  If you want to learn more about it, check out the Facebook page and keep an eye out for TransportationCamp South 2014.  

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