Bicycle Commuter Diaries: Nearly Car-Free

When my wife and I moved to Atlanta from Portland, Oregon just over four years ago, we simply took it for granted that we’d be able to continue the lifestyle we’d been leading. In Portland, we shared a single car that was used mostly for weekend getaways, while daily errands like grocery shopping, visits to friends, trips to restaurants, and my wife’s work and school commutes were accomplished by foot or on our bicycles, with the occasional light rail or bus trip thrown in as well. The car could sometime sit for weeks without being used.

We made the cross country trip to Atlanta in 2008 so that I could pursue a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from the excellent program offered by Georgia Tech and Emory. Up to that point, I’d been making a living as a professional road cyclist, traveling across the US and around the world to compete. That experience gave me the chance to see some great bicycle infrastructure such as parallel bike roads in central Beijing and protected lanes with dedicated signals across Europe. But I also got to see just how far behind most American cities, including Atlanta, were in providing safe and convenient road space for cyclists.

So it shouldn't have been surprising to learn that our nearly car-free lifestyle would be more challenging here. But we were determined. And, frankly, buying a second car wasn't financially feasible anyway. We found a house in Cabbagetown, where we fell in love with the old homes on narrow streets, along with the easy access to MARTA. My wife found a bus route that was a short bike ride away and took her straight to her new job as a teacher in Dekalb County. I set about trying to find the best possible bike route to Georgia Tech, with MARTA as a backup when thunderstorms threatened. It took some effort, but in time, the car started to see less and less use.

But what’s been most encouraging over the last four years is how many people have been joining us. There’s been a noticeable increase in the number of fellow bicycle commuters that I see on the roads daily, with events like the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition’s Streets Alive and the inaugural Bike to Work Challenge showing even more people how easy it can be to ride a bike in Atlanta. And it seems like city officials are also starting to get the message. A new signal and green bike lane appeared in early October to help connect two previously discontinuous bike lanes where 5th street crosses West Peachtree at Tech Square. Mayor Reed just announced plans for some additional and much needed new bike infrastructure in Midtown. And despite only being open for a week, the Beltline is already overflowing with commuters in the morning and evening.

However, this city still has work to do. The Beltline ends suddenly at Monroe without connections to any existing bike lanes, and there are too many areas where cyclists have no choice but to mix with sometimes unfriendly motor vehicle traffic. But the best way to demonstrate the need for more bike infrastructure is to get out there and use what we have. With a little bit of planning, a person can get just about anywhere in Atlanta by bike, and do so safely. Resources such as the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition’s bike suitability maps and the bike option in Google Maps are great ways to plan routes. Learning to live without complete reliance on a car is extremely liberating. It’s exciting to watch more people in this city free themselves from that dependency. See you on our current and future bike routes.

Doug is a PhD candidate at the Georgia Institute of Technology and is a former professional road cyclist.