18 February 2016

The Bike Czar In A Black Dress

In the past decade or so, cities all over North America and Europe have tried--sometimes in misguided ways--to encourage more people to ride bikes to work and school, for shopping and for fun.  Lanes have been built, share programs started and commissions and committees organized or appointed--and organizations consulted--for insights into what would lure people out of four-wheeled vehicles and onto two-wheelers.  In some cities, these efforts have been followed by (if not resulted in) rapidly-increasing numbers of cyclists.

Atlanta, it seems, has not been one of those cities.  Nearly three years ago, Mayor Kasim Reed set a goal of making  his city one of the most "bike friendly" in the US by this year.  Much to his credit, he has worked hard toward that goal in a city with some of the worst traffic and longest commutes in the nation.  But,  a torrent of anti-bike backlash caused the Georgia Department of Transportation to remove bike lanes from its plans to re-stripe Peachtree Road, one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city.  And the bike share program, scheduled to begin before the end of 2015, now won't launch until this coming summer.

On the other hand, Dogwood City has just made a bold move that no other community--no, not even Portland or Minneapolis--has ventured.  One of the problems in most cities is that bicycle lanes and other infrastructure come under the purview of the local Department of Transportation or its equivalent.  Because there are many more motorists than cyclists (yes, even in the Rosebud and Mill Cities) and because bicycle infrastructure commands relatively small sums of money, bicycling is usually not a high priority in most DoTs.  In most places, there is not a full-time planner, engineer, organizer or lawyer who deals exclusively or even mainly with cycling-related issues.  Thus, there is neither an advocate nor an ombudsman for cycling in most places.

It looks as if "The Big Peach" might have solved that problem.  Last month,  the city hired Becky Katz as its first Chief Bicycle Officer.  The Atlanta Bicycle Coalition made the position possible, in large part, and received a five-year grant from the Atlanta Falcons Youth Foundation to help fund it.  The city has promised to add additional money.

Becky Katz

I knew nothing about Ms. Katz until I read about her appointment today.  If nothing else, she has firsthand knowledge of what cyclists in "The Big A" face:  She is a cyclist who, last year, was rear-ended by a motorist while she was riding on a wide street with low traffic.  The impact tossed her onto the windshield, where her helmet shattered the glass and she broke a shoulder socket  and wrist.  Her bike was totaled. 

Within two months, she'd bought another bike and was on it, even more determined to make cycling safer and more accessible in her city.  "Within moments [of being struck], I was thinking, 'this has got to be better.'"  She also realized that making streets safer for cyclists would also mean making them safer for motorists.

Since becoming the city's bike czar in October, Katz has been focusing on gathering data about cyclists--where and when they ride, where there are crashes and which roads are most stressful to cyclists and pedestrians.  "Data builds a strong case for why bike infrastructure can help all users of the road," she explains.

It may also--I hope--Atlanta avoid some of the mistakes other cities have made.  If it does, the delay in starting the bike share program or cancellation of bike lanes on Peachtree Road may turn out to benefit the community of cyclists in the Empire City of the South.

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