I 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 CafÃ© 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).
But 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