Report from Atlanta: Don’t Walk This Way

streetscapeweb2.jpgI can’t get behind Prevention Magazine’s ranking of New York as 39th among the nation’s most walkable cities. But after spending three days in Atlanta for a conference recently, I have no problem understanding why it rates 86th.

Stuck, like most of the city’s legions of conventioneers, in the area around the Peachtree Center, I was astonished by the bleakness of downtown Atlanta’s streetscape. The looming sandstone-colored skyscrapers contained almost no street-level storefronts. OK, there was a Hooters and a Hard Rock Café and a McDonald’s and a few other things, but most of the businesses were either underground or in the massive, often windowless towers.

No matter which way you turned, there was a parking lot or parking garage, and more likely three or four, within sight.

Almost all the streets were one-way and built for speed. The day I got there, the air was so smoggy that my eyes started stinging and I had trouble breathing within minutes of getting off the MARTA train (it turned out that it was the city’s most smoggy day of the year so far).

walkwayweb2.jpgBut most surreal were the pedestrian walkways, tubes that connected tower to tower to parking structure, everywhere you looked. A friend who has lived in Atlanta for six years told me the city encouraged these walkways to protect tourists and convention-goers like myself from panhandlers and street thugs.

Now, there are a lot of lovely things about Atlanta, and I don’t want to imply that I think the Peachtree Center area is all there is to this city. The Little Five Points and Virginia Highland neighborhoods, which I visited briefly, seemed like eminently walkable and lively places (though there’s no way you would walk to them from downtown). I spotted what looked like a really nice cycling trail in a Little Five Points park. While I only used MARTA to get to and from the airport, it worked perfectly for that, and it was clean and timely and inexpensive. There’s a vocal pedestrian activism group, PEDS, fighting for improvements. And the city, which is full of unusually friendly people to begin with, also has what it calls an "ambassador" program downtown — roving uniformed folks who will give tourists directions or just a kindly hello. They’ll escort you to your destination if you feel menaced by those who rove the streets after dark.

It wasn’t anything human that felt menacing to me, however. It was the ponderous architecture, the windswept, empty plazas, the planned environment in which nothing is on a human scale and in which no organic human interaction can easily take root. How sad that this is the face Atlanta’s civic leaders have chosen to show to out-of-towners.

Photos: Sarah Goodyear, March 2006

  • I lived in Atlanta before moving to New York, took graduate classes at Georgia State downtown, and made it a goal to bike around the city as often as possible. I completely agree with your assessment of the barren wasteland known as downtown Atlanta, but I wonder how the city actually managed to place so high on the list of walkable cities. It’s true that there are some really positive pedestrian aspects of Atlanta like the Virginia Highlands neighborhood(where I lived) and the bike trail that you mentioned,PATH, that runs from Little Five Points out to Stone Mountain to the east and from Cobb Parkway all the way to Alabama to the west. In total, PATH maintains over 100 miles of bike trails, and they are always overflowing with walkers, runners, and cyclists on weekends. There are positive signs that Atlanta wants to become more pedestrian friendly. There are plans to convert stretch of abandoned rail line into a walkable green space that runs through much of the city – Beltline

  • d

    I was just in Atlanta too after having not been there for about 7 years. Your description is completely accurate. Atlanta has such a rich – and difficult – history, but they are building at such a rate that the shadows of skyscrapers are blocking out the sun on the porch of Margaret Mitchell’s house.

    An office tower will go up on a lot that once housed a gas station or a tiny strip mall. Is it any wonder then that the traffic is so horrendous? Rush hour runs in every direction, as there is no central area to which people head for work.

    I took this picture while I was there:

    http://flickr.com/photos/planetgordon/395705510/

    Almost none of the things in the picture where there even five years ago.

    It’s a shame, really, because the two things that could make Atlanta a great city – trees and friendly people – are being lost. Trees are being cut down and the people are trapped inside their cars, with little chance for friendly interaction.

  • And don’t forget Atlantic Station® – Life Happens here. Their Web site makes it look like a logo-crazed mockery of city life. But they are trying to make a multi-use space, in their own corporate-branded way, and that’s better than nothing. (Next time, try building the “station” close enough to walk to the subway!)

  • P

    D- In fact, I think things are improving rapidly in Atlanta (of course no one interested in transit or walkable communities should step outside of the city limits!)

    Midtown was a series of parking and vacant lots 20 years ago. Since then thousand of units of housing have been built there. Yes the density is making traffic unbearable- but that’s the only way that viable transit solutions (this does not include MARTA) will develop.

    Sarah- you definitely picked out the bright spots of Atlanta: not surprisingly they were all streetcar neighborhoods. And the bike path you noticed was likely the result of a success protest by the neighborhood to prevent the routing of an expressway in-town. Unfortunately the old homes were demolished but the wacky park and paths were the result.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I can’t speak for Atlanta, or any of the top ten cities except for Raleigh. But I have been to Raleigh, three or four times. I didn’t think it was a nice place to walk at all. Downtown is full of one-way arterial streets, and the sidewalks are narrow. I saw hardly any other pedestrians there.

    It seems pretty clear to me that the Prevention editors are thinking of walking as a chore that people do to keep in shape, or as a recreational activity, not as a form of transportation. Raleigh certainly has a lot of pretty parks full of walking trails, but you need to spend a lot of time sitting in traffic (in your car, naturally) to get to them; the buses are lame and the commuter rail is ten years behind schedule. The highways are ten-lane deathtraps. Ugh.

  • d

    To be fair, and to counter my own comment, Atlanta is experimenting with a bus along Peachtree Street, the main thoroughfare through downtown and midtown, where many new condos have gone up. The hope is to convince people to use it for short trips to eliminate the use of cars for that purpose. If it’s successful, it may be replaced with a trolley.

  • L

    I actually think Sarah’s description of Atlanta was too kind.

    I live in Midtown and I’m counting the days until I move back to NYC.

    It’s cheap and the weather’s nice, but the built environment is so awful that it’s difficult to enjoy what the city has to offer.

  • da

    Ugh, I loathe “lifestyle centers” like Atlantic Station.

    The tagline should read:

    “Life® Happens here”

  • P

    Atlantic Station is weird but Atlanta doesn’t have many examples of mixed use communities to learn from.

  • Ed Ravin

    I visited Atlanta a few years ago – my favorite observation was that even the street signs on some blocks were set up for cars only – they were mounted overhead, in the center of the traffic lanes. At one intersection of two one-way streets downtown, pedestrians standing on the wrong corners couldn’t tell what the street names were – the street signs were only visible to motorists approaching the intersection. The perfect example of what happens when planners think that only cars matter…

  • john

    Downtown Atlanta sounds alot like downtown Tampa. Tampa’s downtown is a lifeless, empty wasteland. Even during rush hour, there are practically no pedestrians on the sidewalks. There is no mass transit, so everyone must drive into the city. Massive, hulking parking garages dominate block after block. There is not a single fine dining restaurant in the downtown. The streets are very wide and mostly one way. Crossing them on foot is not advisable.

    Compare this to a very walkable downtown like Philadelphia. There, the streets are very narrow which makes crossing extremely easy. The sidewalks are full of people, so you don’t feel alone or isolated. There’s many outdoor cafes that adds to the number of people around. In nicer weather, bars and restaurants will remove the front windows so that as you walk by you can really see in, hear the music, smell the food, see and hear people. I thought that downdown was extremely people-friendly.

  • atl resident

    I think you have to be fair. Atlanta is a young city. Northern cities were basically built before cars. The vast majority of Atlanta was built after the introduction of the car.

  • P

    Fair enough- there is no question that the older parts of New York City are far more pedestrian friendly than the newer areas. But by the 70’s and 80’s other young cities like Portland were turning away from the highway and suburb model- it is only since the Olympics that Atlanta has any movement toward livable streets and only in the last 5 years that those improvements have started to pay off.

    Sadly, the 70,000 people who move to the Atlanta region each year are moving exactly for cheap large houses. It’s not until they get there that they see that they’re spending hours behind the wheel.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Atlanta was rebuilt in the 1860s, right? It’s not much “younger” than New York. They may have had a boom in the past twenty or thirty years, but downtown is almost 150 years old.

    What’s that you say? Most of downtown is newer than that? Why would that be? Because they tore down all the old pedestrian-friendly infrastructure? I see.

    Again, I don’t have any experience with Atlanta, but every city I visited in North Carolina had tons of streets without sidewalks, or with sidewalks only on one side (the side would sometimes change mid-block). Many of these streets were built recently, but I was disturbed to discover that others had vestiges of the old sidewalks that had been either torn up or left to be overgrown by grass.

    Atlanta, Raleigh and most other Southern cities have built hundreds of miles of streets in the past twenty years. They had every opportunity to create a relatively pedestrian-friendly environment like New York, Bronxville or Paris. They could at least have paved sidewalks as in some of the less pedestrian-friendly Western cities like Denver and Albuquerque, but the didn’t do that.

    The people who built contemporary Atlanta, Houston, Oklahoma City and similar cities could have chosen a pedestrian-friendly design, but their priorities were elsewhere. Why is it unfair to point that out?

    Honestly, I don’t think that any city that allows right turn on red can count as one of the “best walking cities.”

  • atl resident

    Touché p Touché

  • P

    Angus- it’s fair to say that Atlanta has cannibalized much of it’s downtown but the downtown it had in 1940 supported a metropolitan area of 400,000 not the 3 or 4 million that live in the area today. If Downtown Atlanta kept up with the population growth of the area it would have destroyed much more of the existing city.

    New York hasn’t had to accommodate that kind of growth so recently and had the ‘advantage’ of doing so at a time before zoning and when resident opposition to, say, having a 50 story building built next door was much weaker. (Atlantic Yards logrolling notwithstanding)

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    P, I think in your argument there’s a false dichotomy between infilling downtown Atlanta and the sprawl that was actually built. There are other options, including constructing a number of high-density cities on the farmland that used to surround Atlanta, like the “Villes nouvelles” in the Paris suburbs.

    I recognize that the political climate in the postwar USA is different from the climate when most of New York was laid out, and as I understand, a lot of Long Island is just as sprawly as metro Atlanta. But it sounds like it still deserves to be the 86th most pedestrian-friendly city in the country.

    In any case, Albuquerque in no way deserves to be #17. Prevention‘s methods are deeply flawed.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I just took another look at the rankings, and right after NYC is Scottsdale, Arizona, at #40. Scottsdale? You know they didn’t try to walk anywhere in Scottsdale.

  • Mordecai

    @14: How much of the “anti-pedestrian” design you mention was produced by very deliberate attempts to exclude or isolate people too poor to own cars? I think this probably plays a larger or smaller role in setting many of the priorities being discussed here. (Of course, it’s usually discussed in terms of “crime prevention” or “quality of life”).

    If this isn’t addressed explicitly, then I suspect there will be an added element of mystification present in the discussion, and in planning decisions.

  • atl resident

    angus- “Again, I don’t have any experience with Atlanta,” That’s absolutely ridiculous. Yes Atlanta was burned in the 1860s but if you do your history or if you were born and raised in Atlanta as I was you would know that there was no economic expansion of Atlanta until around the 1940s-1950s. Don’t just say stuff if you have no idea what you are talking about.

  • atl resident

    By the way angus I was just pointing out a fact that Atlanta is different and that we must be fair. Its nothing wrong with pointing out that Atlanta is not a pedestrian friendly city. All I am saying is that since Atlanta has basically designed to move people to and from the suburbs to work. Most people only go into Atlanta to work so why build elaborate walkways when no one uses them? Isn’t that a huge waste in time and money?

  • d

    It’s a chicken and egg sort of thing, although most people here probably think they know which came first. There are no walkable spaces in a downtown area, so people desert the downtown, leading to more infrastructure for cars, leading to less walkable spaces, leading to more people deserting the downtown…it goes on forever.

    But it’s not just Atlanta’s downtown that’s like this. Look at the Perimeter Center, Lenox/Phipps (two major shopping malls almost across from each other with virtually no way for a pedestrian to access one from the other), or even most of Buckhead, one of the more established areas of Atlanta. Even most of the subdivisions and housing complexes are built without sidewalks. Go to Alpharetta and you see nothing but strip malls. Crossing the street involves getting in your car and negotiating a series of traffic lights, turning lanes, or jug handles.

    Atlanta proper is actually very small and the area around it is made up of a series of independent counties. I remember in the 1990s that some of the counties absolutely did not want to work with the city to extend MARTA because it might bring certain “undesirables” from the city to the ‘burbs. Now those decisions are coming back to haunt these counties as their residents choke on traffic.

  • Emilie

    I’ve lived in Atlanta all my life and love it. Yes our roads suck, but no one really lived down here until the 1970’s. So really we are kindof “young”. If you only knew it like I did then you would grow to love it too.

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