Can we take an arts walk in the City of Atlanta, or anywhere in the region? Thankfully, we have a few organized arts walks, including Castleberry Hill on the second Fridays of each month, Westside Arts District on the third Saturdays, and Downtown on the first Fridays.
I happen to believe that a good walking city is also more likely a good arts city — a city with a higher Walk Score is probably more likely to have higher rates of participation in arts activities. And it’s with that in mind I took a look at the project list for the upcoming regional transportation referendum with a different eye than what I’ve seen presented by supporters of the referendum.
Jargon alert: Yes, you’re about to see some transportation-related jargon. But I think it’s important for those of us in the arts community to understand what will happn, should T-SPLOST pass, and how that will likely affect all of us. So I’ll do my best to keep this analysis from diving too deep into the woods. Or, you can just skip to the conclusion.
If you take a look at the Project Fact Sheets listed on the official site for the TIA T-SPLOST, you’ll find 157 pages of information about each project on the list. That’s one page for every project.
The Final Report, however, lists all 157 projects in a mind-numbing tabular format. You’ll see on the table that every project is listed as “Roadway,” “Transit,” “Aviation,” or “Bike/Ped.” And the numbers you see are a little bit deceptive. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not purposefully deceptive, but it’s worth taking note what’s happening. According to these mind-numbing tables, out of the 157 projects, 136 of them are listed as “Roadway” projects. But take a look back at the fact sheets, and you’ll see that out of those 136 projects, 88 of them also have a “Bicycle/Pedestrian” component.
What this means: most of the projects listed as “road” projects also include enhancements to make the place more friendly for bicyclists and pedestrians. The streets will be more complete. When you read the existing literature making the case for the referendum, you won’t see anything about “complete streets.” Referendum proponents figure that the term is a bit too jargony for use in a publicity campaign. In a nutshell, it means many of metro Atlanta’s streets will be redesigned so that they also serve pedestrians and bicyclists, not just motorists.
But will those streets also serve the arts so that artists and arts organizations can better serve metro Atlanta? The University of Pennsylvania Social Impact of the Arts Project published a report examining the factors involved in what it takes for cultural districts to form naturally. In the introduction to the report, the researchers pointed out:
While the arts are commerce, they revitalize cities not through their bottom line but through their social role. The arts build ties that bind — neighbor-to-neighbor and community-to-community. It is these social networks that translate cultural vitality into economic dynamism.
So the real question for the arts community is not whether the referendum will directly serve the arts, but whether the projects on the list will provide some of the ingredients necessary to facilitate more culturally vibrant neighborhoods throughout the region. According to the Social Impact of the Arts report, diverse neighborhoods tend to be more actively engaged in the arts. And according to research published in the American Journal of Public Health, walkable neighborhoods tend to score higher on social capital indicators.
Just from a cursory review of the plan and related research, it’s certainly reasonable to conclude that the transportation referendum will be of benefit to the cultural life of the Atlanta region.
More important than any of this is whether there is a coherent vision reflected in what feels to many like a hodgepodge of transportation projects. I believe there is, but it exists within a political reality that metro Atlanta is a very big ship. To turn the ship toward any vision will take a very long time, and more big initiatives like this.
There isn’t a single project, no matter how big, that will completely fix everything wrong with our current transportation system. But the list of projects in this referendum reflects a vision of Atlanta in the future that will offer more options to all of us. Whether you prefer to drive, walk, bike or ride there, this referendum takes us a step closer to offering an honest choice.
Note: The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author, and should not be construed as an official position of C4 Atlanta.