Bikes primed for comeback: If Atlanta makes room, expect more pedalers

I know that's what I once thought. But I see things differently these days. I live in Atlanta. And like city-dwellers in most cities, what I see today —- quite literally —- is grayish-yellow air, particularly in the dog days of July/August. Not only that, of course, but I can also smell and taste this filthy air.

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Published January 16, 2007 by Atlanta Journal-Constitution

When calling to mind images of Chinese cities 30 or more years ago, you might remember streets teeming with bicycling commuters.

"Those poor people," you probably once thought. "No Buicks big as a whale, no Pontiac Firebirds, not even a Gremlin."

I know that's what I once thought. But I see things differently these days. I live in Atlanta. And like city-dwellers in most cities, what I see today —- quite literally —- is grayish-yellow air, particularly in the dog days of July/August. Not only that, of course, but I can also smell and taste this filthy air.

And of course we all know about global warming. I'm not fully versed in the science, but I understand the evidence points overwhelmingly to our fondness for internal combustion as the culprit.

I do know this: Thunderstorms and 70-degree days this month —- like we had last week —- were once unheard of in this part of the world, or at least regarded as wildly peculiar. The January boomers we had drew hardly a passing comment.

Progress is not measured merely by the march of technology. Real progress is defined by innovation that meets the needs of the times. All those possessed of sanity will agree that one of the greatest needs of this day and age is the need for cleaner air and a healthier ozone layer. This is true for the planet, and it's no less true for Atlanta.

And so, what was once old is new again. The bicycle.

I have a dream. That one day the streets of Atlanta will look (something) like the streets of Peking in days gone by (to be sure, the city we now call Beijing has "progressed" and is full of internal combustion).

Imagine if you will, an Atlanta with bicycle lanes four and five feet wide, clearly marked with heavy paint, and perhaps alternate surfacing, on both sides of nearly every major street.

Imagine that the best minds in the business of traffic engineering were put to the task of making these bike lanes so visible and safe that even the most casual of bike riders would one day say to themselves: "You know, that looks like fun, it looks safe, and the weather is nice today —- I think I'll take this old bicycle and ride it to work."

There's no doubt in my mind that significant numbers of Atlantans would, if only they could, bicycle the streets of this town. Yes, Atlanta has hills (but bikes have gears), and OK, so the weather isn't always conducive to cycling (but it's better here than many places).

The popularity of bicycling has seen a definite upsurge, and there are bicycles on the market for every pocketbook and level of fitness and skill.

If we built a truly extensive network of well-marked, safe bike lanes, the numbers of Atlantans who would opt to cycle would be more than just "significant." The numbers would be huge.

It's no great leap to imagine the positive impact this would have on air quality, not to mention physical health and the quality of our urban life.

Would it cost a lot to build real bicycle lanes throughout the city? It certainly wouldn't be cheap, as condemnations to widen roads (slightly) in some areas would be necessary to do it right.

Where street-widening is not feasible, I see no great loss in reducing availability of car lanes. Peachtree Road with four or five lanes for vehicle travel rather than six, for example, will work just fine because the presence of true bike lanes —- together with improved public transportation (which is indeed inevitable, given our growth)—- will reduce the percentage of people in cars.

Progress always comes with a cost. This city has certainly spent far more on other worthy infrastructure items than bike lanes would ever cost.

A modest gasoline tax increase could easily cover the cost, while at the same time offering another incentive to pedal rather than drive.

Real progress pays dividends, though. I invite everyone to imagine a future in which the streets of Atlanta look a little bit like old Peking.

Karl Terrell lives in Atlanta.