Cover Story: How to ride a bike in Atlanta

The rise of cycling in a bike-unfriendly city

Not long after moving to Atlanta from Denver 20 years ago, Ed McBrayer decided to try a recommended Sunday morning bike ride from Decatur to Stone Mountain. As he rode along busy Ponce de Leon Avenue, his leisurely outing quickly turned into an effort to stay out of harm’s way.

“MARTA buses were passing a few feet from us,” says McBrayer, who’s now executive director of nonprofit trail-building organization PATH Foundation. “I thought, ‘This ain’t a bike ride, this is survival.’”

In past decades, it seemed the only cyclists you’d find on Atlanta’s car-choked roads were spandex-clad gearheads, eccentrics with a death wish, or college kids who couldn’t afford a car.

But times have changed. While we still lag behind such two-wheeled cities as Portland, Ore., or New York, you’ll now encounter every bike subculture and niche imaginable, from fixed-gear hipsters along Edgewood Avenue to office-bound commuters on the Freedom Parkway trail to girls in sun dresses pedaling gliders in Virginia-Highland.

And thanks to the work of bike advocacy groups, the increasing popularity of bike-centric social events and even a more entrenched coolness factor — call it “bike chic” — the city is slowly becoming ever more hospitable to riders.

“The climate has definitely changed,” says Rebecca Serna, executive director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group that lobbies for cyclists’ rights and better bike infrastructure. “There’s a growing idea that cycling in intown Atlanta is a great way to get around.”

Serna and other cyclists are quick to point out, however, that Atlanta’s streets are still dominated by drivers, many of whom mistakenly view the roads as theirs alone. In addition to much-needed courtesy from motorists, more riders to boost awareness and improved bike infrastructure could help Atlanta become a true bike-friendly town.

Eventually, the entire Beltline — a 22-mile loop of transit that will one day circle the city — will become a bike trail, too. In addition to the Beltline’s recently completed two-and-a-half mile trail in southwest Atlanta — and the just-announced Beltline path that will stretch the same distance from Piedmont Park to DeKalb Avenue — the city has plans to build nearly 15 more miles of dedicated and shared bike lanes this year. Connect Atlanta, the city’s first-ever transportation plan approved in 2008, calls for more than 200 miles of bike lanes arranged in an efficient network linking neighborhoods to bike-friendly routes. Three weeks ago, the PATH Foundation finished the draft phase of the spider-like trail network connecting Centennial Olympic Park, the Beltline and the suburbs over the next 20 years.

“Atlanta seems to have conceded that we’re all about the car and that’s not going to change,” Lisa Safstrom, a Reynoldstown resident who cycles every day to her Midtown job as a transportation planner, says. “Unfortunately, the citizens disagree.”