Dear Decaturish – Is Decatur a place to drive through or a place to live?W. Ponce De Leon Avenue. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt
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Recently, the city of Decatur has gotten some negative attention for a long-standing plan to place a small stretch of Commerce Drive on a road diet. The road diet idea has been around for a decade, with actionable plans in the pipeline for at least three years. But last month, an AJC editorial writer devoted a column to the plans, describing Commerce Drive as an I 285 for Decatur. He expressed frustration that people won’t be able to drive through Decatur as fast as he’d like, castigating the “People’s Republic of Decatur” for slowing them down.
But isn’t it the right of people who live in and near Decatur to make the city the way they want? In a large-scale survey, 77 percent of Decaturites said they would like to see safer facilities for pedestrians and people on bikes even if those facilities might lead to slower motor vehicle speeds and greater congestion.
The City of Decatur has long placed its bet on people versus automobiles, making a series of decisions that seemed at the time to be risky but have turned out to be prescient. In the early 1980s, as shopping malls were built throughout America, people believed that the key to a vibrant downtown was an enclosed shopping area with plenty of parking. Like many cities, Decatur fell under this spell. Plans were made to raze old buildings and construct a mall. Fortunately, citizens and leaders decided on a different course, putting together a plan to renovate the existing downtown, which had been built for a world of people walking and taking trolleys. It seemed a risky decision at that time, but that plan worked, setting the stage for the flourishing revitalization that continues today.
In the late 1990s, the city made another bold plan: it decided to remodel its MARTA rail station, making it the core of a new Decatur Square. This was a time when transit was widely looked down upon, with cities and neighborhoods instead investing in wider roads and more parking. But Decatur’s citizens and leaders pushed ahead with the plans, despite fears and opposition, and once again their vision was vindicated. Today Decatur Square is seen as a model for urban development throughout North America.
Decatur’s leaders and citizens have long understood that car-centered growth has serious drawbacks. People want to live in places where they can walk and ride transit and ride bikes. This means calming traffic. In 1995, the city initiated a series of streetscape plans, reducing car lanes, widening sidewalks, and adding bike infrastructure. The most recent large-scale project occurred in 2011, when the city put the main thoroughfare through downtown on a road diet, reducing West Ponce de Leon from two lanes in either direction to one lane in either direction. People predicted gridlock and a strangling of business, on the theory that drivers would avoid the city and take patronage elsewhere. Instead, the opposite happened. People felt more comfortable walking and biking, and the businesses along Ponce thrived. Motor vehicle traffic on West Ponce is certainly slower, but it flows, and it’s a pleasant stretch of roadway to drive along, so long as you leave the freeway mindset behind.
So today, when people complain that slowing traffic on a small stretch of Commerce Drive will cause mayhem, gridlock, and economic misery, we can point to a long and successful history of streetscape renovations. Yes, traffic may slow down some, but it will not seize up. On the contrary, driving may become more pleasant. Whenever you have two traffic lanes in one direction, someone is always trying to pass you to get ahead, leading to higher speeds and greater frustration. A good road diet, with ample turn lanes, may be slightly slower, but it is also smoother and more predictable.
The city of Decatur has flourished because its citizens have adopted forward-looking urbanism, knowing that allowing cars to speed through neighborhoods and city centers does not lead to prosperity. On the contrary, wide roads and fast traffic divide cities and cause them to decline.
Decatur residents have a right to make the city they want, and the Commerce Drive Road Diet is in line with their vision.
As for those who wish to speed past Decatur, they will still be able to. Most of Commerce Drive will remain two lanes in either direction, skirting downtown and connecting with other arterials, including College Avenue and Columbia Drive.
But I hope that people won’t rush through. I hope instead that they’ll drive into the city center and enjoy the calm, the people walking, the kids on bikes. I hope they’ll get out of their car and have a coffee or some ice cream. I hope they’ll stay and take a stroll. If they do, they may come to understand what Decatur’s leaders and citizens have long known: cities flourish when people are able to enjoy walking around in them.
– Tonio Andrade