Robert MacPherson, PE


Four reasons why multi-use trails could change Georgia’s transportation landscape
The weather may not reflect it, but walking and cycling are catching on in Atlanta and throughout the Southeast region. The interest in designing and constructing multi-use trails is heating up for four important reasons.

Reason #1: Lack of planning has created roadway gridlock
Land has historically been the least expensive element of development. If you wanted a bigger backyard, a respite from the bustle of city life, a place to start fresh with a growing family, or a cul-de-sac where you could watch your kids while they play after school, the market responded with new side streets, subdivisions, shopping centers, churches, and schools. When those neighborhoods became congested, developers bought more land a little further out and repeated the process, always ensuring that it made economic sense for potential buyers and returned a nice profit for themselves and their investors. Land was the answer and infrastructure was sometimes an afterthought.

By most standards, Atlanta is considered a major city. And it is, with a large portion of Fortune 500 headquarters, pro sports franchises, and rich cultural offerings. But with a city population of roughly 472,000 people, Atlanta ranks as the 39th largest city in America, just behind Mesa, AZ and just ahead of Virginia Beach, VA. By contrast, roughly 5.2 million people in Metro Atlanta live outside the city limits, making Metro Atlanta the ninth-largest metropolitan area, between Miami and Boston.

Moving that volume of people around a metro area with relatively few mass transit options has created the traffic gridlock we experience every day, resulting in Atlanta being ranked 4th in the U.S. in traffic congestion behind only L.A., New York, and San Francisco.

Reason #2: Roads don’t solve every transportation challenge
The response to this congestion has historically been to build more roads, add more lanes, and provide faster commute times to people willing to pay higher tolls. While each option has merit–and all are necessary elements of any transportation planning system–it’s increasingly apparent that simply building more roads won’t solve our gridlock.

As a civil engineer, I could probably make more money if we built more roads. But I’m also a civic-minded civil engineer living in a city I love and believe fervently that we need a more diverse array of transportation options.

Reason #3: Trails bring rural & urban areas together
One of those options is a network of multi-use trails that serve both urban and rural users. A brief review of Rails-to-Trails statistics shows that it’s not just Manhattan or San Francisco where multi-use trails exist or are in demand. One of the states leading in the effort to transform abandoned railroad tracks into biking and hiking trails is that bastion of urbanity–Wisconsin. The Badger State currently has 95 trails and 25 current projects, giving it almost 2,000 miles of trails for public use.

The Southeast can’t yet compete with the Cheeseheads:

  • Florida has roughly 770 miles of trails.
  • Georgia comes in second in the Southeast, with slightly more than 200 miles of trails.
  • South Carolina has 161 miles.
  • Tennessee has 135 miles.
  • Alabama has a mere 85 miles.

Whether you want to commute to work, get in a cardio workout, or view the fall colors, multi-use trails bring city and country folks together.

Reason #4: The public demands it
Even in a region renowned for its obsession with the automobile, things are slowly beginning to change. Mayors, county commissioners, town council members, and urban planners are engaging in serious discussions to expand travel options for their travel-choked constituents. Make no mistake, the single-passenger car is still king in these parts and the Georgia Department of Transportation plans to spend $1 billion annually in roadway improvements over the next decade.

But opportunities such as the recent Amazon II headquarters overture have reminded policymakers that the best transportation plans are multimodal. To attract and retain the holy grail of talent–millennials–regions require options. From multi-use trails and mass transit to rentable cars, bikes, and tolled highways, planners need to mix it up.

To address that, the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) recently released their transportation budget, a quarter of which–$109 million–is directed toward bike and pedestrian projects. “It’s going to be a huge shot in the arm toward completing a true regional bike trail network,” said ARC Executive Director Douglas Hooker.

In Metro Atlanta, change is coming…albeit slowly. Atlanta’s Beltline is the attention-grabber nationally, and deservedly so. It allows walkers, bikers, and boarders opportunities to see a rich tapestry of Atlanta while sampling creamy gelato or an ice-cold craft beer. At Prime, we’re working on trails in Athens, Marietta, Coweta Co., and East Point. According to Ed McBrayer, Executive Director of Atlanta’s Path Foundation, there are more than 35 multi-use trail projects in development throughout Georgia. A few highlights include:

  • The Georgia Tech Parkway in Midtown Atlanta now links Northside Drive, Coca-Cola’s world headquarters, Downtown Atlanta, Centennial Olympic Park, and Georgia Tech.
  • To the north, a path shadowing GA 400 from Buckhead to Sandy Springs is in the works. The Path400 Greenway will stretch from Buckhead to the 400/I-285 interchange and give a high-traffic area an alternative to daily congestion.
  • Where Georgia touches the Atlantic in southeastern Georgia, the Coastal Georgia Greenway is in development. This 155-mile trail will link South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida and is part of a 2,500-mile East Coast Greenway project. The Georgia portion is roughly one-quarter complete.

Are we ultimately going to see returns on these investments? Are multi-use trails truly part of our transportation future? Will they still matter when millennials age and realize that driving is easier on the knees?

I’m optimistic. Not too long ago, my wife and I were in Midtown Atlanta on a beautiful Sunday and had about 90 minutes of downtime between appointments. Rather than driving home and watching 20 minutes of the Falcons game before hopping back in the car and heading back, we did something very different. We went for a walk on the Beltline, an option that didn’t exist five years ago. We loved it and we’re not alone. “Everybody is awakened at this point and realizes trails help a city compete for employers and millennials,” McBrayer says. “[Greenways are] kind of a staple in the quality of life of the new generation; everybody wants one now.”

Which would you rather do: walk, bike, blade, board; or constantly stare at Waze trying to figure out how to leapfrog six miles of congestion? I’m interested in your thoughts on this public investment. Feel free to contact me at [email protected]. And don’t be afraid to pass me on the left.

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