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Friday, August 27, 2010

On Luckie Street

I've starting riding my bike as part of my regular commute to work.

For most of the past eight years, I have strung together three modes of transportation - foot, bus, and train - in various combinations. Sometimes I would walk to a bus stop, ride the bus to one of two train stations, take one train into Downtown Atlanta, change to another train to Midtown, then walk to my office at Georgia Tech.  Sometimes I would start by walking directly to the train, or sometimes I would end by riding a shuttle bus from Midtown onto campus, but then still have something of a walk to get to my office.

Years ago, I tried adding bicycle into the mix: ride to the station, take the bike on the train, change trains downtown, then ride from the train to my office. The thing is, the routes I followed are dominated by the short-but-steep hills that are typical of Atlanta, a fact pointed out to me this past summer by an employee of a local bike shop. Coming on to campus, I would ride - slowly, gasping - straight up Bobby Dodd Way, past the stadium. I came to think of it as Heartbreak Hill.

I also found I had to deal with elevators, which wasn't so bad at the two ends of the train commute, but could be a real problem when changing trains at Five Points during the morning rush.

After a couple of weeks of effort, I gave up and went back to walking to the bus stop.

Since then, I've learned some tricks.  There is a much more level route from my house to one of the train stations, and there is fairly level route to Georgia Tech from a station on the same line.

So, I arrive in Downtown Atlanta and emerge from underground into the midst of the CNN Center, Phillips Arena, and the Georgia World Congress Center.  I wind my way out of that particular thicket, skirt by Centennial Olympic Park, and find myself on Luckie Street, alongside the Georgia Aquarium.  A short ride up Luckie Street, past the headquarters of Coca-Cola, brings me to Tech, very near to my office.

I've only been cycling to work for a couple of weeks now, and then not every time I come onto campus.  Still, I've started thinking about how odd it is to be a cyclist in urban traffic.  It has, so far, been far less scary than I thought.  I'm using less-traveled streets, for the most part, and they are also streets on which drivers seem to be accustomed to driving at lower speeds and paying attention to their surroundings.

Or maybe I've just be fortunate, so far, not to have had any serious trouble.

Still, as a cyclist, I have an odd relationship with the cars around me.  On the one hand, I am legally their equal, with just as much right to use the commons as anyone else.  In fact, my attention was draw recently to an argument, by "cycling lawyer" Bob Mionske, to the effect that my right to the road is higher than that of any of the motorists around me:
Where the roads are dominated by the automobile, it is because they have been usurped. Many motorists—specifically, those who refuse to share the roads—mistakenly believe that their possession of a driver’s license gives them a superior claim to the road. These are the motorists who exclaim that, “Until cyclists are licensed and insured, they don’t have a right to the road.” In fact, the right to travel is an ancient right, now recognized as one of our constitutional rights, and the roads are the commons, open to all for travel and other uses. Rather than signifying a superior claim to the road, a driver’s license merely grants the holder the revocable privilege of operating a motor vehicle on the commons. Because other road users are not required to be licensed (and that tacitly means this right cannot be revoked) their right to use the roads is in fact superior to that of the motorist.
Even if this argument is sound, though, the fact remains that automobiles have usurped the road, and the whole infrastructure of travel has been engineered to serve cars. Case in point: the intersection of Luckie Street and Ivan Allen, Jr., Boulevard. On the map, below, I would be coming up from the south on my way to work.


View Larger Map

The problem here is that the light for northbound Luckie Street will only turn green if there is a car sitting at the intersection waiting to go through. Cars that drive up to the intersection and turn right generally do not trigger the change.


View Larger Map

So, on several occasions now, I've found myself sitting at the intersection, waiting through several cycles of the light - southbound, then east- and westbound left turns, then east- and westbound through traffic, then southbound again - but the northbound light never changes. Luckie Street is never so busy at that time of the morning that I can count on a car to come along and rescue me.

That's the thing: for me to follow the rules of the road, waiting at the light just like any other vehicle, I need for there to be cars on the road. I'm still car-dependent!

(But then, there wouldn't need to be traffic lights if there weren't so many cars on the road. But then, the roads would not be as nice to cycle on if they weren't built to keep motorists comfortable and happy. And so on.)

So far, I've found several less-admirable solutions to that particular problem. One is to cheat a little, riding up on to the sidewalk to use the pedestrian push-button. Another is simply to wait for traffic on Ivan Allen to clear before running the red light.

This is just a little thing, I suppose, but little things like this can make a big difference in the experience of a place, and in its usefulness to its inhabitants. I may find that, in the long run, cycling in Atlanta is an accumulation of little annoyances and little injustices.

But perhaps I should say, instead, that I hope cycling in Atlanta turns out to be nothing worse than that.

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