1 of USA’s fastest-growing counties talks bikes

fullsizeoutput_d55I get an email from the Bike/Walk Committee head at a neighboring city’s Sustainability Commission (for whom I had taught a bike skills lunch-n-learn for women). She connects me with the Transportation Outreach Coordinator at Gwinnett County Transit, who wants to promote bikes as part of multimodal travel throughout Gwinnett County, the suburban-sprawled, car-dependent county just north of me (and where I lived for five years when I first moved to Atlanta 27 years ago), which just so happens to be one of the fastest-growing counties in the USA with currently almost a million people from all walks of life. There’s even a technical college there that teaches future film crews (Millenials!) here in what’s become the East Coast Hollywood.

I’m thrilled that Gwinnett County Transit wants to focus on bikes, and happy that I’ve been connected with them since this county is an Atlanta Regional Commission Gold-level Green Community (so major kudos to it) but bikes have not been its focus. The first thought that pops into my mind, of course, is final-mile connectivity, those buzz words for how to get folks to transit more easily via walking, biking, and other means. However, I’m immediately concerned.

I’ve already done a bike audit in the Gwinnett city where I taught that entirely-indoors class and found it 20 years away from what I would call safe-access-for-all, and that’s only if plans for improvement start getting implemented now. Another Gwinnett city I audited for bike accessibility has some exciting things happening, including a stunning trail accessible from its new “downtown” as well as the first bikeshare system in the county, but don’t try to go to a supermarket there for years to come. Many other cities have plans to build paths, and the county Parks and Greenspace plan is impressive, but again, it’s years away (as in, babies not even born yet will be in college when a complete network is usable).

The transit person wants me to sit at a table in October of next year at a seniors-focused event (since she knows I taught seniors-on-trikes in a city that is a Bronze-level Bike Friendly Community in another county) and talk bikes, and perhaps teach a class. I know that there is no way I can recommend to anyone, especially seniors, that they ride bikes (or trikes) in a place where I myself don’t deem it safe to do so yet. I ask her if I can come meet with her in person, and I start my research. I am an optimist, and I believe there must be an honest, authentic way forward here.

I go to the Gwinnett County Transit website for the first time in my life and discover that although there are no passenger trains there yet, there are twelve bus routes. I know nothing about them — where they go, what they make possible. My eyebrow raises when I realize that four of them go to the MARTA* train station in the county where I live (just 5 miles from my home — an easy distance but extremely unsafe bike ride, by the way) and several of them are express buses right to Midtown Atlanta! The City of Atlanta is where I ride most often because there is continually-improved safe-for-all bike infrastructure and it is aggressively pursuing becoming one of the top 10 cities in the USA for biking. These two realities open up enormous opportunities to ride bikes for those who live in Gwinnett County. Since you can use your MARTA Breeze card on Gwinnett County Transit, this also opens up the opportunity for those living closer to/in Atlanta to explore Gwinnett more.

As I delve deeper into Gwinnett County’s amenities, I discover an impressive array of existing parks, many of which already have (relatively short) multi-use paths. Granted, this would be recreational riding, not utilitarian riding, but it’s a start. When I meet at the Gwinnett County seat in Lawrenceville (a 49-minute car drive each way, off highways, during which time I see exactly one male bike rider — on the sidewalk, which is illegal), I’m shown a list of parks that are actually on bus routes. On the way home from the meeting, I stop at two of the parks that I pass — McDaniel Farm Park and Shorty Howell Park — and ride my bike (which I usually have with me in the back of my car).

I think I say “wow, wow, wow” for an hour straight as I explore McDaniel Farm, a restored subsistence farm right in the shadow of shoulder-to-shoulder new and used car lots off a highly-congested road named Satellite Boulevard that rings an enormous mall. I get to thinking that if this is what I can discover in one trip, imagine what is possible to showcase for citizens of Gwinnett and elsewhere if I were to do this, say, once a month.

And that is exactly what I propose — that the county hire me to ride a different bus route one day each month, with my bike, and share photos and stories via a 500-word article published as a guest blogger post on a Gwinnett County blog that can then be used for additional social media outreach with targeted audiences. By the time we get to that senior event, I would be able to show photos and routes, and share trustworthy stories and advice, about what regular everyday folks — including seniors, women, and children — can do right now (not in twenty years) on bikes in this vast county, and beyond.

You want to know what happened at McDaniel Farm? You want to know where to go when you get off a Gwinnett County Transit bus in Midtown, Atlanta? You want to find out how to stop waiting to feel safe, to get exercise, to save money, to improve your health, to explore where you live, to meet people, and to reduce stress on a bike in metro Atlanta? And you want to hear it from someone you can trust, who understands your concerns and will give you the real lowdown from hands-on experience? I want to tell you. Stay tuned.

For other cities, corporations, and organizations who could use someone like me road-testing your realities and shouting out your good news, see my 2018 special offer. And don’t miss this rubber-hits-the-road memoir, Traveling at the Speed of Bike. It’s loaded with news-you-can-use, right now, today.

Note: As I was cropping the photo on the top of this post, I decided to leave in the bathroom sign showing “women” and a wheelchair. Seeing women and those with disabilities in our public spaces, including our streets, indicate whether or not your community provides safe-access-for-all. Isn’t it time we stop cropping them out?

*Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority