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Decatur re-envisions transportation safety with new community plans
January 7, 2019
Every day around 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., Decatur’s main streets turn into epicenters of chaos. People driving to and from work create gridlocks, halting traffic. It can take up to five minutes for a single car to get through a single intersection.
According to INRIX, a traffic analytics company, Atlanta’s traffic is the eighth worst in the world. Neighboring City of Decatur shares a similar traffic problem. Decatur’s government is seeking to improve transportation for drivers and pedestrians alike.
Over the past few years, Decatur has made many changes to increase connectivity through PATH and other infrastructure changes in the updated Community Transportation Plan (CTP). According to the CTP, the City of Decatur and affiliated organizations are trying to make the metro area safer and more efficient.
PATH is a non-profit foundation with a mission to “transform Metro Atlanta into the most trail-connected city in the U.S.” through bike trails, walkways and more.
To fulfill their mission, the PATH foundation has helped build over 260 miles of trails in the metro area. In 2016, the PATH foundation created the PATH plan which outlined 9.2 miles worth of bike and walking constructions which will cost upwards of $12 million. In partnership with the architectural group KAIZEN Collaborative and a steering committee of local Decatur citizens, the PATH plan predicts a timeline of 10 years until completion. The plan identifies Commerce Drive cycle track as the highest priority location for further constructions and improvements and will travel through downtown Decatur.
According to Deputy City Manager Hugh Saxon, the PATH plan “is an important element in achieving the core objectives of CTP.”
One such core objective is “encouraging Decatur residents to embrace wellness and an active lifestyle,” Saxon said.
In order to fulfill CTP’s “essential” goal, Decatur has introduce new turns signals, bike lanes, crosswalks, and more. Some initiatives slow traffic in dangerously fast areas and others speed up traffic in slow areas. Saxon is convinced these efforts will have a lasting impact on the lives of Decatur residents and will influence the kind of city Decatur will grow to be.
With the completion of the protected bike lane on North McDonough Street in front of Decatur High School this year, City of Decatur took its first steps towards completely implementing the PATH plan created in 2016.
The PATH, along with a revised transportation plan, serves as the blueprint for the construction of protected bike lanes in Decatur.
“The goal of [the project] is to provide a network of protected bike lanes throughout the city,” Saxon said, “So that people who would not regularly bike on a street or even in a bike path have a protected, safe way to get around the city on a bicycle.”
The PATH plan is part of a larger effort to provide residents of City of Decatur with alternatives to the automobile. Saxon believes the bike lanes will capitalize on Decatur’s 4.2 square miles of area, which he says is an “ideal size” for cycling. The PATH plan estimates that 60 percent of people living in Decatur would bike if given a protected lane and with the proper infrastructure, Saxon is confident that cycling will become a popular and healthy alternative to driving.
“Biking is even easier [than walking], it’s faster and if we give cyclists places to bike where [they] are not in conflict with cars, they are going to be healthier and not rely on automobiles,” Saxon said.
The protected bike lanes, the last of which are scheduled to be completed by 2026, are estimated to cause delays in traffic that have left some worried.
“Every time I meet people,” Saxon said, “there are people who object to losing a vehicle lane to put in a protected bike lane.”
In 2014, a study of Commerce Drive found that certain intersections may face delays of over 50 seconds during “peak hours” of the mornings and over 70 second delays during “peak hours” of the evenings.
“There is the possibility that people will be inconvenienced slightly at those times,” Saxon said, “but I feel like our community is, for the most part, willing to sacrifice some time.”
Ken Rosskopf, a bicycle advocate and law practitioner in Decatur who has helped establish bikeways along the coast in southern California, is less certain of the community’s willingness to lengthen their commute times.
“The motoring (non-cycling) public…would probably view the bike infrastructure as a nuisance,” Rosskopf said. “I don’t think it’s been sold as a traffic reduction/ health benefit.”
But from his own life, Rosskopf understands the importance of well maintained cycling infrastructure. Since Rosskopf was a boy, cycling played an important role in his life. Growing up in Southern California, Rosskopf regularly cycled to the beach or to friends’ houses and relished the independence that cycling gave him.
“It gave me freedom,” Rosskopf said, “Freedom and independence.”
Then, Rosskopf got one of his first jobs delivering papers for the Los Angeles (LA) Times. He rode his bike almost daily on the paper route, a job which he remembers fondly. However, still relatively young, Rosskopf constantly battled asthma attacks when exercising.
“Physical activity was pretty tough on me at that time.” Rosskopf said.
But he kept cycling. He kept riding to the beach, kept riding to friends’ houses and kept delivering papers for the LA Times.
“After working that paper route for a number of months,” Rosskopf said, “I found I was able to ride my bike without breaking into an Asthma attack.”
“That sort of opened up the health benefits of cycling, [previously] unknown to me,” he said.
Now, by practicing personal injury and cycling law in Decatur, Rosskopf believes cycling has a far greater impact than just being a mode of transportation.
“The impact of cycling on my professional life is probably secondary to the real benefits I see from cycling,” Rosskopf said, “the environmental benefits and the health benefits.”
So when Rosskopf talks to his friends who don’t cycle, he tries to get them involved.
“Their overwhelming response is, ‘Oh, it’s too dangerous out there. I don’t want to do that,’” Rosskopf said. “That is the disastrous effect of not putting infrastructure to support cycling.”
But, with proper community education, Rosskopf agrees with Saxon’s assessment that Decatur residents can accept cycling infrastructure.
Saxon believes that public transportation will become a major selling point of Decatur. Already, several new apartment developments have contributed towards the construction of protected bike lanes, which is how Commerce lane got started, Saxon said.
“[Apartment developers] see it as a positive amenity for their residents,” Saxon said. “I think they see [bike lanes] as something that makes Decatur more attractive.”
Though the PATH plan has yet to be fully implemented, Saxon has seen a huge improvement in Decatur infrastructure and the use of alternative modes of transportation in the two decades since the first bike path in Decatur opened, a trend he hopes will continue.
“One of the most exciting things that has happened in the past 20 years is the number of students walking and biking to school,” Saxon said, “and I’m thrilled by it.”
Both Rosskopf and Saxon agree that spending on transportation and cycling infrastructure benefits the city and its inhabitants.
“It’s an investment in the future. You’ve got to think ahead,” Saxon said. “You have to think about the future.”
One of Decatur’s first actions towards a safer transportation system was adding the protected turn signals on the intersection between Agnes Scott, Decatur High School and the railroad tracks.
This may seem like a small change, but the intersection’s complicated configuration in an already congested area creates the perfect storm.
Previously, when a driver decided to take a left turn from College onto McDonough going north, they may have had to wait until the last second before a light changed in order to rush across the street without being hit.
Decatur locals, such as Suzanne Schultz, felt the chaos of turning left in that intersection.
“I was always a bit nervous because the oncoming traffic was usually moving fast which forced me to take the turn quickly,” Schultz said. “I worried about having to take the turn quickly because there frequently would be pedestrian traffic as well.”
Working to change this was a long process for city officials, and adding protected turn lanes for the intersection was a big step. Now, when one turns left within the intersection, they don’t have to feel nervous about turning because enough time is given to do so.
Mayor Patti Garret recognizes that “it’s an awkward turn. It’s difficult to manage. It felt like you always had to run a light to get across the tracks.”
The new signals were created to allow left-turners enough time to turn comfortably, even if the whole traffic system proceeds a little slower.
“An important thing for everyone to understand is that, with a lot of things we are doing are to make the roads safer for everybody, there are going to be some times of congestion,” Garrett said. “It may take a little longer to get from place to place, but overall, it will be safer.”
Her sentiment is echoed in that of Deputy City Manager Hugh Saxon, who acknowledges that the new signals can in fact make “through traffic” progress slower.
“There is a balance between safety and convenience, but generally, slower vehicle speeds are safer for all,” Saxon said.
This may make things slower, but lower speeds mean lower crash rates. According to the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP), a study found that “higher speed limits were associated with an increased likelihood of deaths and incapacitating injuries.”
“When we rush is when we tend to make driving mistakes,” Garrett said.
However, the mid-October addition of turn signals was controversial in the community.
“The initial response [to the turn signals] was people were very unhappy about it because people were unused to the new configuration of signals,” Saxon said.
According to Decaturish, the city went so far as to apologize for the inconvenience that the new signals caused after they were turned on.
“Right now, we are trying to get the signals in and operational,” Saxon said, “and once the state is satisfied that everything is operating as it is supposed to, we will be coming back and studying adjustments that we can make to make it more efficient.”
Since College Avenue, one of the streets that forms the intersection, is a state road, the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) is also involved. According to Saxon, GDOT has to approve changes made to College Avenue. This is a large part of what causes each development to take a long time to be executed, including the addition of new turn signal boxes.
“Our old signal boxes couldn’t hold the necessary software to just add a turn lane,” Patti Garrett said. Thus, a whole new traffic box had to be added, complete with complicated technology that needed to account for more driving options because of the protected turn lanes.
According to Saxon, the new turn signals are a work in progress and will continue to improve. Saxon, Garrett and others at Decatur City Hall are striving to solve this problem overtime.
“It is kind of an art more than it is a science,” Garrett said.