Yesterday when I was riding my Best of Atlanta Loop (see maps in Bonus Resources*), I came upon this sign and I knew exactly what it meant — that no one has changed this practice yet. I had it on my list of things I would do as Chief Bicycle Officer of the City of Atlanta (a job for which I applied but never got an interview — see below** for my list of things I intended to do, if someone else wants to take them on).
In order to appreciate what’s happening here, you really need to read the backstory, which I wrote on my other blog almost two years ago to the day. Bottom line: This is wrong, but it won’t change until the contract is changed. Is anyone on top of it?
Last Stand at the Taxi Stand (originally published in July, 2016 on Foodshed Planet)
So I’m riding along on the brand new John Portman Boulevard protected cycle track in downtown Atlanta (the newest protected cycle track in the USA), which is heralded as the final connect-the-dots between Freedom Parkway and Centennial Olympic Park. It’s a big deal that could make bikes as transportation in the city really cross the tipping point as a viable option — and could catapult Atlanta into the big leagues as a city serious about access for all. (Didn’t Mayor Reed set a goal of becoming a USA top-10 bike city by 2016? That’s now.)
Except . . .
I see cars coming straight for me.
I had heard wind of this already. Folks on the excellent Bike Commuters of Atlanta Facebook page have been howling about this for days, about how the part of the bike lane in front of the Apparel Mart/America’s Mart/whatever they call that place (where buyers come and make deals with wholesalers before any merchandise makes it way to stores all over the country) has become a nonstop taxi stand, and that police officers have been doing nothing about it. A sign says “temporarily closed” about the bike lane, and other verbal communication has indicated the bike lane isn’t open yet. Although it’s open for taxis. What the hell was going on? I wanted to see for myself (as is my habit).
So I’m just sitting there on my bike (the taxis had no passengers and were just idling so I wasn’t even in their way, as if I could be in their way in a bike lane when they are in front of me, but I digress . . . ), just thinking about what to do next. I’m shooting photos, of course — well, really the same photo, over and over again — and I’m wondering what will happen if the cab in front of me actually gets a passenger. Will I hold my ground like that guy in front of the tank in Beijing or the woman last week in that protest photo, her dress flowing? I’m trying this all on for size, this “iconic photo of woman on bike with Little Blue Bike Bell,” this “last stand at the taxi stand” when a guy comes over to me, all official-like, and asks what I’m doing.
“Well, I’m just kind of sitting here in public space,” I say.
He tells me the lane isn’t open. We get to talking. His name is Jeff Gravitt and he’s a mucky muck of some sort at the mart place (he’s also a cyclist who has never once ridden his bike in downtown Atlanta — he told me he’s afraid). Turns out there’s a deal on the books where the mart place can close the lane to bike riders about four days every month, ongoing. This is because they have a permit for Class A Events on those days, which means these events exceed a certain threshold of economic impact to the city, so, like, they are worth more than public access for all.
“We wouldn’t even have approved this bike lane without the deal,” he tells me.
“You wouldn’t have approved the use of public space . . . for the public?” I say, implying that since when do private companies get to make that decision.
Anyway, so basically the taxis win and I lose (without even a famous photo of my resistance). However, as I ride away, it becomes clear to me — it all comes down to two questions for the city:
1. When does the contract with the mart place expire? That would be when the public could make a difference in the terms of a new contract. Every other scream and yell right now is simply a waste of the nonrenewable resource of time. This deal is done. This piece of the road has been privatized with tax dollars and is no longer a bike lane.
2. Do private entities get to “buy” bike lanes moving forward, and, if so, how does that align with the city’s voiced commitment to equity regarding all aspects of bike access?
Ouch. This isn’t going well. Poor Becky, the city’s new (and first) bike czar, inherited so many messes. If the city can agree to give transparent truths, I’m sure the bike community will rally around helping her be successful at dealing with current realities while creating a better tomorrow. But let’s get things out in the open, ok? Because right now, if what Jeff Gravitt told me is true (and maybe it’s not), we’re getting sold some disappointing goods.
I hope, for the sake of the country, that the stuff they’re selling at the mart is better.
* Update: I removed my maps and am instead offering a Sustainability-in-Action Bike Tour through Bicycle Tours of Atlanta.
** What I Intended to Do As Chief Bicycle Officer
Showcase and share the extraordinary economic, environmental, and social resiliency benefits of bike riding in the City of Atlanta to the larger region, country, and world through the power of storytelling (I already sing Atlanta’s praises in my book, Traveling at the Speed of Bike, and that’s just the start of what I have in mind);
Make substantial pedal strokes forward on ambitious plans that represent global best practices tailored to our unique conditions to create a more complete network for ages 8-80, including perfecting final-mile connectivity from mass transit;
Address choke points (it’s time to separate the bike riders and pedestrians on the Eastside Trail, like they do in NYC and LA), current contractual limitations (those blocked cycle tracks during park events and Mart weeks), and other daily impacts (including street harassment and motor vehicle violence) so that the existing investment in bike access results in a network that is reliable and dignified at all times;
Expand the inclusivity of bikeshare to pilot-test adult tricycles and ebikes to embrace those with mobility limitations (due to health, heat, or hills!), and further explore bike accessibility for road users who are vulnerable for a wide range of reasons;
Create an innovative mobility lab in partnership with other agencies/organizations (and potentially sponsored by corporations), that would serve as a hands-on, immersive, rubber-hits-the-road learning and resource center for the entire metropolitan Atlanta region, and beyond, as municipalities everywhere are updating and advancing transportation plans and public works projects;
Build “bike playgrounds” as well as a permanent or portable Safety Town in partnership with other organizations/agencies where schoolchildren can learn how to navigate our cities through multiple modes of transportation;
Develop an app, perhaps in partnership with a university, that includes bikeshare, bike shops, bike co-ops, used-bikes-for-sale or trade, and donated bikes; suggested routes (including multimodal solutions) and available bike parking (such as at retail businesses); upcoming bike-friendly events, meetups, tours, classes, and volunteer opportunities; and more ways to support bike-related and other businesses/organizations while enabling anyone who lives in, works in, or visits Atlanta to access and use a bike.
See here for links to buy my book, Traveling at the Speed of Bike, on Amazon in all global markets. I’m an indie author and your support is greatly appreciated. A portion of proceeds from the sale of all books is donated to help more women and girls ride bikes. Currently, that means funding my ability to do Basic Bike Skills Classes for Women.