Walking The Walk

If you drive in Atlanta, you’re used to watching out for the other drivers. And, increasingly, you’d better get used to watching out for pedestrians.

It’s unnerving to drive through Atlanta’s intown neighborhoods on a nice spring evening when the runners are out. Just as the skies are darkening, here come the folks who hurried home, changed into their running gear and hit the streets full of energy – so full, in fact, that they don’t always cross at intersections or wait until the lights change or even wear light-colored clothing to make themselves visible.

But it’s downright scary to drive certain stretches of Buford Highway in DeKalb and Gwinnett counties, where jaywalking is common.

Earlier this year I was driving on Buford Highway near North Druid Hills Road – to attend a public meeting on transportation safety, as a matter of fact – when a young man darted out in front of several cars and sprinted over to the other side of the street. Fortunately, he was fast enough and the cars were slow enough so no harm was done. The incident was just this side of heart-stopping, but not nearly as frightening as the everyday sight of young women pushing babies in strollers and holding on to toddlers as they make their perilous way across six lanes of traffic.

The runners in Virginia-Highland are enjoying themselves; the immigrant families crossing Buford Highway are simply trying to get where they need to go without injury. No question, people ought to cross at intersections and wait for the light. But the reality is, they don’t. Intersections along Buford Highway are pretty far apart. Adding a mile to your walk – on a roadway where the sidewalks are sketchy or nonexistent – probably seems as risky as trying to jaywalk and certainly more time-consuming.

I find it easier to muster sympathy for weary mothers than I do for impatient exercisers; but effective transportation solutions have to take all pedestrians into consideration, whether they are on foot by choice – for the sake of their health, for the sake of the environment – or out of economic necessity.

The public meeting I attended was sponsored by the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), which presented recommendations from its Buford Highway Multimodal Corridor Study. (The project web site is www.atlantaregional.com/mmcs.) The ARC, responsible for planning in the metro area, has undertaken two such studies – this one on Buford Highway and another on Tara Boulevard in Clayton and Spalding counties.

When the meeting started, there were perhaps 17 people in the audience, including residents of nearby neighborhoods, representatives from cycling organizations and some DOT folks. Conspicuous by their absence were any representatives of the immigrant groups who live, work and shop along the corridor. It doesn’t take a planning genius to figure out why they didn’t show up. Given the current political climate and all the attention immigration issues are getting, locally and nationally, there’s no reason immigrant residents – whether they are legal or illegal – would feel comfortable showing up at an official meeting.

Nonetheless, the planners did a good job of presenting the results of their study and responding to questions. They indicated that focus groups during the information-gathering process had involved the nearby Latin American Association. But there were no mothers with strollers speaking up at the meeting, offering opinions on whether any proposed enhancements like improved intersections or new sidewalks or mid-block crossings would be utilized and, therefore, effective.

As new communities are planned, more and more attention is given to the needs of hikers and walkers and bikers – as it should be. But it’s fairly easy to get input from those folks, who have no reason to fear speaking up.

Fortunately, Buford Highway pedestrian safety is drawing attention from a number of individuals and entities. Some of them have joined an informal task force put together by DeKalb Commissioner Kathie Gannon. The group includes representatives from the DOT, from ARC, from DeKalb County, from the cities of Doraville and Chamblee, the Latin American Association, the CDC and others; all are looking for ways to make the corridor safer. That’s a hopeful sign. But solutions are complicated and expensive and not quickly achieved.

Meanwhile, if you have to drive Buford Highway, the best advice is to slow down and keep your eyes open.

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