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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A look at Atlanta's first-ever transportation plan (PowerPoint included)

It's another transportation plan, Atlanta, but this one's a different animal.

The Connect Atlanta Plan -- no acronyms yet, thank God -- is a joint effort by Mayor Shirley Franklin and the city's planning department to create the city's first-ever transportation plan. It's being touted as a public-driven, ground-up approach to dealing with not just how cars move around Atlanta, but how people move around Atlanta -- an all-encompassing look at mobility, be it sidewalks, transit, roads and the like. Those involved are hoping the public aspect of it won't just invite participation and result in a useful plan, but that it'll also marry itself to whatever administration follows Franklin's. The nine-month study phase, funded in part by a grant from the Atlanta Regional Commission, aims to gauge exactly what the public wants.

Last week at East Rivers Elementary School in Peachtree Hills, I had a chance, along with other residents, to listen as the team behind Connect Atlanta delivered its first public workshop. (Click here to view the same presentation attendees saw that night. It's a big file, but worth the download.)

"Transportation is the bones of a city," said Paul Moore, a consultant working on the project, to the attendees. He drove home his point with a photo of the skeleton of a tyrannosaurus rex. He'd never seen the dinosaur, he said, but from just looking at its bones he can see that it walked on two feet, ate meat because of the sharpness and design of its teeth, and relied on a tail for stability. He doesn't have to see the scales and eyes, because he already knows how the beast works. It can be applied to a city as well, he said -- the skeleton shows you how it operates.

And "dinosaur" is a good word to use if you want to describe Atlanta's transportation situation. Planners know from the city's layout and residents know from gridlock that it's outdated and inefficient -- it's more a hunchback mutant than it is a finely tuned machine. There are unnecessary appendages, unused routes and shoddy areas of dysfunction designed by spot planning and short-term fixes rather than forward thinking and true mobility in mind. It doesn't work, and it's lumbering, tired and in need of repair.

He continued a PowerPoint presentation to highlight how cities change and why transportation can be either a hindrance or a catalyst for revitalization. Trenton, N.J., once boasted a riverfront park designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the famed landscape architect behind Central Park and Atlanta's Grant Park. Then the city plopped an interstate over it and, in Moore's words, "it never recovered." People got the hell outta town, and now with new mixed-use plans in the works poised to reconnect the city to the water, the city is hoping to beckon them back.

After I-75, 85 and 20 were built, Moore pointed out, Atlanta evolved from a once-bustling downtown, with streetcars, activities, and a pedestrian and transit mind-set, into a drive-work-flee zone. The interstates served their purpose to relieve congestion, but they also provided people with an escape from the overcrowded -- and unhealthy -- cramped living conditions of the city. The far-off lands became desirable, providing the opportunities for privacy and space. And that exodus of intowners, compounded by the cheap price of gas, bred the sprawl we know today.

But all that's changing now, Moore said. The cholera and yellow-fever epidemics brought on by overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions of Atlanta's urban past have been replaced by heart disease and diabetes. The days of cheap and plentiful gas are ending or maybe even over, depending on who you talk to. Creative, young minds are being drawn to cities that are attractive and vibrant, and jobs are following them there. And while Atlanta is seeing a return to city living, it'll have to tackle the transportation problem if it wants the urban resurgence to truly prosper.

"Transportation frames land use and the way in which we spend our days," Moore said. "And since one-fifth of our income goes to transportation, we need to make sure it serves our needs."

To attract investors and better serve the residents, Moore said, the city has to respect them. He highlighted a bus stop on a residential street marked only by a pole. The infamous "gulch" downtown near Philips Arena and the Georgia Dome is shown -- bland, pedestrian-unfriendly environments that fail to create a sense of place and therefore are uninviting. "You can't treat people like this," he said. "People deserve better."

The crowd focused on senior issues and reminded planners that the disabled and elderly need to be taken into account, particularly since the latter is the most rapidly growing segment of the population. Residents wanted to be sure neighborhoods could be preserved. But they also wanted a lot of transit options. And they were also concerned about money, although when it came time to brainstorm in different groups, there was only one idea -- public/private partnerships -- jotted on the board.

Brad Young, a Garden Hills resident in attendance, said he believes that for Connect Atlanta to actually work, the planners must approach the problem on a micro level, focusing on specific areas. "This is a city of neighborhoods," Young said. "What works in Garden Hills doesn't necessarily work in the Old Fourth Ward."

And judging by the public-outreach schedule, that's what they plan to do. The last two workshops are being held tonight and Thursday at Morehouse and in southwest Atlanta, respectively. Click here to access the schedule and see when one is near you. The plan is still in the early stages, so there's plenty of time for input and education. The presentation is astounding, full of history and information, and truly merits a visit.

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