The Street of Dignity: Community Makes Progress on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive

Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. currently ranks among the top three most dangerous streets on the Atlanta High Injury Corridor list, according to the draft Atlanta Transportation Plan. But thanks to the leadership of former Mayor Kasim Reed and former Councilmember C.T. Martin, communities along Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. will start seeing improvements that honor the history of the street and Atlanta’s Civil Rights legacy - and save lives in the process.

Reed and Martin were buoyed by community members who have spent the last 10 years working on redesigning Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. to match the vision and aspirations of the neighborhoods along the corridor. Part of this vision is to make this iconic street safer for people biking, walking, and driving, all while improving access to jobs, transit, and economic opportunity.

“We want this to be in King’s honor because we are proud of his achievements,” Councilmember Martin said in a statement released on March 23, 2016. “This is the signature street of America. More than 100 residents supported this legislation and they should be commended for their efforts.”

For some community members, these changes can’t come soon enough. Just last month, a pedestrian was killed when a car lost control and jumped the sidewalk near Mozley Park. This marks the seventh traffic-related fatality on this street since 2006.

Mozley Park (Current/Proposed)

It may have come as a surprise when, during the first meeting of the new city council on January 2nd, former State Senator and Atlanta Mayoral candidate Vincent Fort questioned the motives behind redesigning Martin Luther King Jr. Dr.

“When you get bike lanes in working people and poor communities, it is an indication of gentrification. It is a gentrifying force,” said Fort who upbraided city council for including bike lanes on a recent bid for the 7.2 miles long east-west corridor. “We should not put any policy in place, whether it be affordable housing, transportation, or parks, that further gentrifies and makes our city more unequal.”

For some communities, bike lanes are markers of gentrification because residents don’t know if they’re being built for them or for the people moving in. (To learn more, please attend The White Lanes are Bike Lanes Book Club hosted by Civil Bikes on March 26th.) But Fort failed to mention those bike facilities, as part of the overall improvements, were the outcome of residents’ wishes, developed over the last 10 years in order to create a safer, more walkable, and more bike-friendly street.

One-third to one-quarter of residents in Council District 3, District 4 and District 10, which border Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr., either take public transportation, walk, or simply don’t drive to work. Analysis conducted for Walk Bike Thrive!, the Atlanta Regional Commission’s plan, found that 22 percent of residents in the Atlanta region live in areas with high poverty rates or high minority populations, yet 37 percent of bicycle crashes and 42 percent of pedestrian crashes occur in these areas. This means that low-income communities bear a disproportionate brunt of traffic safety burdens.

Both “Safe Routes to Transit in Metro Atlanta,” published by PEDS, and the forthcoming Atlanta Regional Commission’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Action Plan highlight the urgency behind designing streets to protect vulnerable road users.

If we want public transit, walking, and biking to become real alternatives to driving in Atlanta, we must address traffic safety. But we must also work to reconcile what traffic safety looks like in communities vulnerable to gentrification so that community members lead the process and envision what their neighborhoods look like.

Aware of these dynamics, Councilmember Ivory Lee Young, Jr., who represents District 3, delivered a thorough and thoughtful response to Fort:

“Related to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, there was a Livable Centers Initiative (LCI) funded by ARC over 6 years ago that led to an application that went in for funding to do streetscape improvement along that public corridor. There was a lot of advocacy from previous Councilmember C.T. Martin, to expand the scope of that [project] not just from Northside Dr. to Booker T. Washington High School, but from B.T. Washington and Ollie St. all the way to Adamsville. So there is a substantial scope of work through the LCI went through a very public process of engaging what the improvements ought to be.

When funding became available, services were procured to then determine what the design concepts would be. Those design concepts went through a number of public iterations in terms of public engagement.

Your voice is a valued voice on not just the issue of gentrification. [Mayor Bottoms] is raising $1 billion on affordable housing, a voice like yours ought to be a constructive and positive force at that table to help engineer how an investment like that gets spent. I look forward to working with you personally - you and I - but also [look forward to] your continued engagement in this very constructive - in this larger conversation about gentrification - because it’s a priority for many of us.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. is bigger than bikes. Overall improved traffic safety and mobility, which emphasize biking, walking, and transit, are critical elements that support a grander vision for this historic corridor. As then-Councilmember Martin said in his statement, “It is very gratifying that the city is about to move forward with one of the most historic and providential actions it could take in regards to our Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, better described as ‘The Street of Dignity.’”

Dignity is what this project will bring to people who use this vital corridor every day. Every single person who uses the road, whether biking to MARTA, walking to the bus stop, driving to work Downtown, or treading the same path Martin Luther King Jr. himself walked more than a half-century ago, deserves safe passage on this iconic street.

For an in-depth update on this project, please check out Maggie Lee’s article in the Saporta Report: Linear park, partial road diet in works for MLK.

  • There is a two-way protected bike lane with a concrete median from Northside Dr. to James P. Brawley Dr. The roadway is this section will be reduced to 1-lane in each direction with a center turn lane alternating with a median;
  • Between James P. Brawley and Ollie St., there is on-street parking on Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. and no bike lane. People on bikes who want to continue in a lower-stress bike facility are expected to use James P. Brawley Dr. to get to Lena St;
  • Then at Ollie St. the bike connection picks back up with a standard bike lane (paint only, no protection) that goes until Ralph David Abernathy Blvd. and I-20, where it turns towards West Lake MARTA.
  • There is a 12’ multi-use trail on the north side from Peyton Rd. to Lynhurst Dr. and an 8’ path on the south side by Westview Cemetery. There appear to be gaps in this section which should be addressed by community members and Councilmember Boone.

Thank you to community members, former Councilmember Martin, Councilmember Young, Councilmember Boone, and city staff for making this project possible. Stay tuned for updates.