By Ethan Davidson
Originally published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on May 6, 2014.
Something is happening in Atlanta. On the surface it doesn’t seem extraordinary, but upon further reflection, it is. When you visit the Atlanta BeltLine’s Eastside Trail, two miles of what will be a 22-mile streetcar transit and trail corridor — particularly on weekday afternoons and on weekends — thousands of people are walking, biking and jogging.
These are thoroughly ordinary activities that are already familiar to users of the Silver Comet Trail or Stone Mountain, but the cumulative effect on the culture of Atlanta is new — and it is having a great impact on how people view and interact with this city.
Atlanta’s reputation as a car town is legendary. Borne out by various traffic studies and rankings conducted over the years, Atlanta’s driving culture is a known quantity. But another culture is emerging, one with a decidedly different feel and appeal: a pedestrian and bicycle culture that is inspiring people by the thousands.
Recent news coverage in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has called the Atlanta BeltLine “Atlanta’s New Playground” and “A Crowd Favorite.” And we have data to back it up. According to electronic counters, the Eastside Trail attracts up to 3,000 users on weekdays and up to 10,000 users on weekend days. That means the Eastside Trail is on track to see 1 million users this year.
And it’s only a fraction of what will be built over the coming years, starting with new connections to Historic Fourth Ward Park, Edgewood Avenue, Ponce City Market, Ponce de Leon Avenue, the City’s bikeshare program, and new trail segments on the east and west sides of the Atlanta BeltLine.
The BeltLine crowds demonstrate the demand for great public spaces and active transportation in the city. They also represent a new and growing kind of social interaction, and a new etiquette is beginning to emerge. As a native New Yorker, pedestrian culture is deeply ingrained in me. Instead of “rules of the road,” I was raised with “rules of the sidewalk and subway.” It goes something like this: Walk fast, find the most direct route to your destination, do not block movement and always, always, be aware of your surroundings.
The Atlanta BeltLine is starting to create something of this ilk, but it goes more like this: Stay to the right, don’t clog the trail, ride slowly on your bicycle, pick up after your dog and watch out for kids on foot, bikes and scooters.
Most people are adapting to this new etiquette, but the biggest complaint we hear is about those who have not. Dog owners who do not pick up their pets’ waste are public enemy No. 1. Cyclists who treat the trail like a highway without regard for pedestrians are up there, too. While these are real concerns, the mere fact that the most common and consistent complaints are about etiquette, and not a myriad of other potential issues, is a very positive sign for the BeltLine and for the city.
Last month, the Atlanta BeltLine Inc. responded to this phenomenon with a “Southern Charm” campaign. Volunteers stood on the side of the trail with signs with lighthearted messages such as “Slow Down, Sugar,” and “Sweet Peas at Play.” Another sign read, “We saw that y’all, pick it up” (accompanied by a graphic of a person picking up after their dog). We encouraged people to take pictures and use the hashtag #beltlinecharm to promote the campaign.
The reception on the trail was very positive, with many people interacting with volunteers, posing for pictures with the signs and sharing them on social media with comments like, “I love these!,” and “New sign idea: ‘Put a bell on it’ Great work you all!”
The etiquette campaign was an experiment of sorts as we work together to figure out this new culture, which will continue to evolve over time. As we build out all 22 miles over the next several years and introduce streetcar transit into the corridor, the crowds and the culture will spread, creating a new sense of community and place throughout the 45 neighborhoods of the Atlanta BeltLine and beyond.
Ethan Davidson is director of Communications and Media Relations for Atlanta BeltLine Inc.