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Lingering Effects

5 Mar
loitering is good

Photo by Flickr user nitrodog

Among the many and varied complaints about urban life in Atlanta, one rarely hears “There aren’t enough people just hanging around.” It’s much more common to hear the opposite (see any discussion of Atlantic Station or Five Points). But places where people of all ages and backgrounds can just spend time during almost any part of the day – without being expected to buy something or pay admission – have long been known by urban planners as vital to successful cities.

Emily Badger at The Atlantic Cities reflects on how being out on the street, especially at night, became something that people in most American cities just don’t do.

“We went to great lengths to discourage the wrong people from hanging around, but this of course discouraged everyone else as well.”

Increased suburbanization and car ownership in American cities during the last 50 years have also meant increased privatization of leisure activities. For people who can afford them, home theaters, gym memberships, backyard playground equipment, indoor malls and chain coffee shops now replace the city centers, public parks and plazas that used to serve as community living rooms. People with other choices for places to spend their time drifted away from the streets. People without those choices stayed. Soon almost the only people hanging around on the street were people with nowhere else to go, leaving the impression that the streets were no place for “regular” people. At that point, Badger says, what would have once been called “lingering,” became “loitering.”

Laws and design standards meant to combat loitering led to the creation of even more uninviting, and thus emptier, streets. People like places where there are other people. Therefore, nobody goes where nobody goes.

Some cities are successfully throwing that trend into reverse with projects like Chicago’s Millennium Park and New York’s High Line. Less wealthy cities will have to get more creative, Badger says, by carving out smaller, cheaper “oases” of public space for lingering. Until then, the streets will remain places where the police keep trying to chase the “wrong” people away, while everyone else stays home.

Distance only gets you halfway there

13 Jan

Because of Atlanta’s lingering tendency toward low-density development, lots of the “cool” places that have cropped up in the last few years are in places that can be inconvenient to get to using transit. The prospect of trying a new gallery, restaurant or store loses a lot of its appeal when getting there requires an hour of walk-wait-ride-wait-ride-walk, especially when it would be a 10-minute drive from your starting point.

So when The Little Tart Bakeshop (LTB) opened at a Memorial Drive location less than a mile from King Memorial Station with Octane, it looked like a rare and welcome exception to that trend. In order to walk from King Memorial Station to LTB, you only have to go South on Grant Street, cross Memorial Drive, then continue walking east on Memorial Drive until you reach The Jane, which LTB is on the south side of.  Sounds simple enough. But it looks like this:

 

Grant Street tunnel

King Memorial Grant Street lot

There were supposed to have been a couple more photos from Memorial Drive, but the camera drew some unwanted attention there and it was starting to look like this post was going to end up being less about a bakery and more about a robbery.

These shots were taken at 6:45 p.m. in January, but even with the addition of sunlight (and subtractration of the guy sizing you up and eyeing your camera), the empty lots, narrow sidewalks, close, fast-moving cars and lack of other pedestrians make it a monotonous, un-inviting walk.

The parking lot behind The Jane was nearly full of cars, as were the lots and sidestreets near the bars and restaurants on either side of it. The lack of people on the street was no indicator of the number of people to be found at the destination. But both on the way there and on the way back, it felt as if a dead possum in the road and I were just about the only ones who tried walking anywhere that night. People are attracted to a space by other people, so if no one walks there, no one will walk there.The Little Tart Bakeshop

Sometimes it pays to walk. Literally.

28 Dec

Found fiveIt would have been warmer to catch the 110 bus from Trader Joe’s to Buckhead Station last night. But then this $5 bill might still be lying in that flower-less flower bed next to the sidewalk.

Not quite as cool as spotting a $20 bill swirling around in a little pile of windblown leaves at the top of an escalator at Civic Center Station about a year ago, but still worth that 15 minutes in the wintry wind.

They’re not kidding

21 Dec

Flat tire at Exit 87

You really should walk around your Zipcar to check that nothing’s wrong with it before driving away. Otherwise you too could end up sitting just short of Exit 87 with a flat tire and hoping that none of the vehicles passing by about 36 inches away are being driven by someone who’s also texting, shaving or eating a bowl of soup.

A reminder:

3 Nov

Sign posted on a bus running the 110 route Tuesday night

Especially if you’re refilling your coffee cup at the same time.

Who knew?

21 Aug

Buckhead skyline

Sometimes the best use for a parking deck has nothing to do with cars.

Taxis and transit: Competitive or complementary?

15 Jun

Diving headlong into an unfamiliar transit system in a new city is some people’s idea of a good time. Boarding the wrong bus or getting off at the wrong station, perhaps ending up miles from the intended destination, are part of the fun of exploration for them.

But most people in the U.S. aren’t regular transit users and probably don’t share that particular sense of adventure. They prefer to get where they’re going with as little deviation and distress as possible.

Most of us have seen cars tentatively scooting down one of the city’s major arteries, hesitating at every intersection, turn signal going on, then off, back on, then off again, the occupants peering at street signs, trying to figure out whether this is the way back to the hotel and why there are no turning lanes.

Somewhere between braving strange streets in a rental car, and deciphering a bus schedule when you’ve never used one before, is the taxi. But are taxis part of public transit or part of car culture? Or both? Or neither?

Line of taxis on Baker street, downtown Atlanta

Taxis line up along Baker street in the early evening, waiting for customers from downtown hotels.

Drew Austin of Where, writing at The Urbanophile, says that taxis are not only part of public transit, they’re the only transit in places where other modes don’t reach. Their flexibility, Austin says, makes them a vital part of the transportation machine:

“It’s easy to forget, but the taxi has always been a critical form of public transportation. In cities without good transit, the taxi is often the only public transportation available. More importantly, mass transit cannot efficiently serve every type of travel that passengers demand, and the taxi is better suited to do so in many cases (think of the bus that never has more than a handful of passengers on board). Low-income city dwellers as well as the affluent rely on taxis where buses and trains don’t suffice. In the United States, where everything is seemingly built for the private car, modes of transportation that improve mobility for the carless are allies, not competitors.”

This topic came to mind yesterday when I had to use a taxi as a bridge between Five Points and Inman Park station after missing a Green Line train to Indian Creek. The next train would only go as far as King Memorial and it would be 15 minutes before service past there. The long headway plus the time to travel to Inman Park would have meant missing the route 6 bus at 12:40 that I needed to get to Emory.

Getting a cab was easy enough. But what it trip it was.

The driver first insisted that Decatur Street ends just past Grady hospital, then didn’t understand that I couldn’t go to just any MARTA station, so I couldn’t get out at King Memorial, which was the first one we passed.

He also gave the impression of not quite believing that there’s any such place as Inman Park Station. Even though I said that Inman Park is at least a mile past King Memorial, he slowed down every block, asking “Is it here?” or “Where is it?” Only after the GPS confirmed that such a place indeed exists was I able to go a full minute without saying “Please just keep going. It’s on this street, on the left. I’ve been there dozens of times.”

Although we did manage to make it to the station just before the 12:40 bus pulled into the bay, that’s one bridge I’m not looking to cross again any time soon.

Heard at the Hearing

23 May

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Given the reactions to MARTA’s proposed fare increase and bus service changes for this fall, I expected that at last Monday night’s 7 p.m. hearing I’d barely be able to wedge myself into a room packed with riders in various states of outrage. But not only was there a conspicuous absence of torches and pitchforks, but those in attendance filled only about one-third of the Fulton County Commission’s public meeting room.

The low turnout – I counted about 75 people – might indicate that the agency’s public outreach needs some work. It could also suggest that many of MARTA’s customers believe the proposed changes are pretty much a done deal, with only the matter of “when” left to be settled.

I was only able to stay for about an hour and 15 minutes of the hearing, so I didn’t hear everyone who came forward to offer comment, but the comments of the approximately 20 speakers I did hear were pretty evenly divided between complaints and suggestions.

Among the most often heard suggestions:

  • Raise revenue by re-negotiating reimbursement rates for transfers from other counties’ transit agencies
  • Sell more ad space on the bus and train exteriors
  • Have MARTA police officers spend more time riding the trains and buses and less time driving the their police cruisers – more security, less gas
  • Don’t leave buses idling if they’ll be sitting in a bay at a station for 10 or 15 minutes and don’t run the buses’ air conditioning on the “blast freezer” setting during the summer
  • Pursue state funding more aggressively

The most frequently heard complaints:

  • Late and overcrowded buses and surly drivers
  • Drivers who, when running far behind schedule, drive so fast to catch up that they blow past riders waiting at bus stops
  • Dark, unsheltered bus stops
  • Closed or out-of-order restrooms at stations

Although the hearing started out with a pretty formal air, by 8:15 it had taken on the feeling of a transit riders’ pep rally, with some audience members applauding and cheering when they found a speaker’s remarks particularly clever or insightful.

The loudest cheers came when a woman prefaced her remarks about the long-standing nature of some of the system’s problems by saying “It’s obvious that no one on this board rides MARTA.”

Although many of those who spoke were adamantly against the fare increase, many others said that the fare increase itself was less the issue than steadily decreasing service and reliability. The cost of most other commodities is rising, so it’s only fair that the same should be true for transit service, they said. But so many years of paying more and continuing to get less, they said, is unacceptable.

Green means “Go”

28 Mar

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The paper is off the windows, the art is up, the furniture is in and the lights are on at Scene Cafe.

These photos were taken Friday night, just after 11:00.  It looks vastly different from just a couple of weekends ago, when I stopped in and talked to the owner, Samuel, while he was working inside. He said that the work stoppage during the summer was because of a death in the family and that the place was just a few weeks from being ready to open.

When I remarked that the building’s yards of glass had stayed improbably intact during his absence he said that people in the neighborhood knew his father – who owned the store that once occupied the building that is now Scene Cafe – and  “looked out for the place.”

Maybe ruin and wreckage aren’t the rule on Pine Street after all.

Signs of life at Scene Cafe

28 Feb
Lights on at Scene Cafe

Work has resumed at Scene Cafe, after abruptly stopping during the summer

The paper covering the windows was back up when I went by tonight, but for the last few weekends, there’s been work going on inside the building that’s eventually to become Scene Cafe (assuming the name hasn’t changed along with the opening date). A November 2010 opening was originally planned for the restaurant/lounge, but the construction workers disappeared mid-summer and the project languished, half-built, until a few weeks ago.

The project appears to have taken a turn into DIY territory, as the only cars to be seen on the lot while work is going on are regular vehicles, no commercial trucks or contractor’s vans. The crescent-shaped window upstairs still doesn’t have glass, but it’s been covered with plywood, and the exterior ground-level area is kept lit at night now. The construction debris container has been taken away, brought back and taken away again.

The brown paper that’s usually over the lower windows was down Saturday night and the downstairs interior was emanating a green glow. It was hard to tell from the outside whether the color was produced by light fixtures or something on the walls. A drink cooler and bakery case could be seen inside about a week ago.

The next time I pass by while people are working inside I’ll get an update on the new projected opening date and find out whether the concept and name will be the same.

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