Could Atlanta be new Amsterdam?

Atlanta is on the road to becoming a bike-friendly city

The quiet unveiling of a new bike-sharing program at Georgia Tech last week provided an occasion for the usual self-promoting speeches by corporate types and grip-and-grin photo ops with elected officials.

But if the little-publicized event leads to the successful results its champions are rooting for, it could come to represent one of the more auspicious of a recent series of watershed moments in Atlanta’s fitful, foot-dragging development into a bike-friendly city.

Flanked by city officials, the founders of viaCycle — several of whom are Tech grads — unveiled the Atlanta-based start-up company’s high-tech system that allows customers to rent bikes on the go by using their cell phones. By dialing the rental hotline and punching in a code, university students, faculty and staff can remotely unlock the GPS-equipped, Amsterdam-style bikes from a handful of drop-off points around the campus.

Both viaCycle and City Hall are hoping to expand the program beyond Georgia Tech into neighboring Midtown and downtown.

As Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms, who attended the kickoff, explains, “Encouraging Atlantans to get out of their cars is a focal point of many of the initiatives of Connect Atlanta, the city’s first comprehensive transportation program.”

An initiative created by Mayor Shirley Franklin in 2009, Connect Atlanta envisions the city adding 95 miles of rail and bus routes, as well as 200 miles of bicycle lanes that would, when combined with the Beltline and the proposed Regional Transportation Plan projects, create a regional network of bike paths.

Like many visioning plans, Connect Atlanta is a template in search of funding — but current trends and commuters’ increasing willingness to leave the car at home seem to be working in its favor. Just in the past year, a growing list of bicycle-centric transportation projects are serving to chip away at Atlanta’s unenviable status as a city of traffic jams.

In recent months, sharrows — the painted markers reminding motorists that roads are for bikes, too — were installed on Marietta and Wylie streets downtown. Construction for new bike lanes is imminent, under way or already completed for 5th Street, Collier Road and Peachtree Road in Buckhead. The city’s first buffered bike lane, separated from car traffic by a running hump, is under construction along a mile of Juniper Street between 14th Street and North Avenue, its multi-million-dollar tab being picked up by the Atlanta Regional Commission. And work has begun on the Atlanta Beltline’s eastside bike trail, which will snake between Piedmont Park and DeKalb Avenue and is scheduled to open in April.

Also, the downtown streets slated to be torn up for the new streetcar connecting the King Center and Centennial Olympic Park will be retrofitted to include new bike lanes. Livable Buckhead, a private nonprofit, has been busy raising funds and getting necessary approval to build an $8.5 million biking and walking trail up a section of Ga. 400. And the Council has already approved an extension of the Freedom Parkway trail to run downtown through Harris Street.

And those are only the most concrete, definitely-gonna-happen plans. The proposed network of bike trails that the PATH Foundation and Connect Atlanta could eventually add to the city’s and metro Atlanta’s landscape are much more extensive.

Why the sudden interest in cycling? Credit an intersection between the interests of sustainability and economics.

“A number of people on the Council are interested in promoting bicycle activity and promoting Atlanta as a bicycle city,” says Councilman Watson, who recently oversaw the passage of four bills that would provide resources for additional bike trail resources, passing the funding over to the PATH Foundation to manage the construction. Being an avid bicyclist himself who recently rode all the way from Atlanta to Alabama, lent urgency to his actions: “I absolutely want to see, in my experience on the Council, the Silver Comet Trail on the west connected with the Freedom Parkway trail in the city.”

Joshuah Mello, Atlanta’s new assistant director for transportation planning, calls Connect Atlanta the catalyst that revitalized Atlanta’s bicycling infrastructure. The ARC’s Livable Centers Initiative projects, which utilize federal transportation aid dollars, have also enabled the creation of bike lanes along Peachtree Street and Ponce de Leon Avenue.

“The main message is that we’re developing enhanced projects within the city to ensure that bicycles are successfully integrated in the projects,” Mello says.

Rebecca Serna, executive director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, cites an increase in the number of local college students as another factor in explaining the rise in Atlanta’s bicycling improvements. There’s also Mayor Kasim Reed’s goal to turn Atlanta into a top-10 city for sustainability, and the fact that several Council members — including Watson, Lance-Bottoms and Kwanza Hall — are cyclists and interested in improving the city’s cycling conditions.

“Folks are really starting to see that biking in Atlanta is practical,” says Serna. “Having that political and public support for these things is key.”

While many of the improvements proposed by the Connect Atlanta plan will probably have to remain a gleam in a bike fanatic’s eye, the changes already under way represent a significant turnaround for a city that Bicycling magazine listed as one of the worst cities for cycling as recently as 2006. At last count, the city had just over 30 miles of bike trails.

Bicycle commuting in Atlanta has more than doubled since 2009. The benefits of lessening the city’s car-dependency include cutting pollution, increasing physical fitness and providing access to jobs for people who can’t afford to drive.

As Lance-Bottoms points out: “You’d be hard-pressed to find anything more affordable than riding a bicycle.”