Maddening traffic on Ponce: what to do?

Here’s an email I received from a Decaturite who wants to know if anyone’s looking into reducing car congestion on Ponce de Leon Avenue, which connects Decatur to Midtown Atlanta.

QUESTION

“I was wondering if you had any information and/or links about widening the stretch of Ponce de Leon from Moreland to Decatur. I recently moved to Decatur and the morning rush into Atlanta is maddening. Surely the cities are aware that it’s a massive problem to only have one way in and out of Decatur. (Dekalb Avenue is an option for those going south of the city, but not through Midtown.)”

The City of Decatur is a very in-demand place to live (one that’s been acclaimed on many levels) and Midtown has a high density of office towers, so there’s a considerable amount of travel between the two.

ANSWER

That section of Ponce is a state road, state route 278, US-29. So any changes to it will be the work of the Georgia Department of Transportation. GDOT and the Federal Highway Administration conducted a safety audit on that road a little over a year ago with an eye on improvements. You can read about it at Decaturish.

The bad news: Widening the road for any significant length is likely out of the question due to the tight right-of-way in some spots. Redesigning it for safety is the DOT’s priority. Also note that studies show that widening a single road does not solve congestion problems for commutes in the long term, due to the “induced demand” effect on traffic. You can read about that at WIRED.

Transportation planners are really in a pickle when it comes to serving the need for commuter routes between Decatur and Midtown/Buckhead. There’s a dearth of east-west roads for that commute, and no MARTA train between Decatur and Buckhead.

BUT…all is not grim for car commuters on Ponce. That safety audit did identify some fixes, which were published in a GDOT document last year. Here’s a look at some of the recommendations:

As you can see, some of these things — improving visibility of signals, inproving turning movements and trimming vegetation — will likely improve the safety of the driving experience, which could likely result in the car commute here being at least bit less stressful. And thankfully, there are some improvements for pedestrian safety as well.

If we could find a way to work a bike path into the route as well, that would be extra aweseome, but I don’t see anything about that in the report, unfortunately. Also note: a MARTA train ride from Decatur Station to Midtown Station takes only 25 minutes, according to Google Maps.

EDIT: In hindsight, I could’ve done a better job at anticipating the potential for the critical comments that have popped up on my Facebook post about this, and in framing the conversation in a more sympathetic voice.

Yes, there are MARTA trains that will get you from Decatur to Midtown, but how is that trip to and from transit? How expensive is transit versus driving if parking is free at your destination?

There are many reasons why someone drives to work in Atlanta that have nothing to do with aversion to public transit. My family has ended up using our car much more often than we thought we would, for instance, because of the demands of our son’s after school activities which take place all over our car-centric city.

People drive because the built environment encourages it, because of the availability of cheap parking, because sidewalks may be missing or in bad shape or blocked from construction, because streets to and from transit are unsafe for walking, because of the lack of MARTA discounts at the office versus parking price…

In essence, if perfectly sane people choose to drive to work in Atlanta traffic instead of taking MARTA — that’s a wake up call to all of us. We need to make sure we’re chipping away at the many stumbling blocks that prevent transit (and particularly walking TO an FROM transit stops) from being the most convenient, safe and affordable choice.

Darin Givens is co-founder of ThreadATL, an urbanism advocacy group in Atlanta.

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