Earlier this year, Becky Katz was rear-ended by a motorist as she rode her bicycle on a wide street with low traffic.
Katz was thrown into the car’s windshield, shattering the glass with her helmet, and she broke a shoulder socket and wrist. Her bike was totaled. A long-time cyclist, Katz said she had no doubts she would be back on two wheels as soon as she healed.
“Within moments [of being struck] I was thinking, this has got to be better,” she said. “It killed me I couldn’t ride for about two months. As soon as I could buy a new bike I did.”
The traumatic crash galvanized Katz to want to do even more for cyclists in the city to make streets safer, for them as well as motorists. In October she was hired as the city of Atlanta’s first chief bicycle officer.
The Atlanta Bicycle Coalition made the position possible in large part, and received a five-year $250,000 challenge grant from the Atlanta Falcons Youth Foundation to create the job with the city’s promise to add additional funding.
Rebecca Serna, executive director of the coalition, met Katz several years ago as part of the Atlanta Streets Alive planning committee.
“She had really unique and creative place-making ideas for Atlanta Streets Alive, and was a huge asset to the committee,” Serna remembered.
Having Katz as the city’s “bike czar” is exciting, Serna said, especially after the coalition’s lobbying efforts to create the post and its involvement in the hiring process. Also, Katz has the background and skills to ensure she is successful in the new job. She’s also fun.
“I love running into Becky biking to get places, usually in a dress,” Serna said. “Recently we rode to a meeting together in East Point, getting a little turned around in the process because we’re having such a good conversation. It was fun showing up together, both in dresses, on our bikes for a meeting.”
But Katz had been thinking for years before her major crash that the city needed to find a way to protect cyclists braving the city’s roads. When she first moved to Atlanta, she only rode a bike and took MARTA.
“There were certain points where I was like, ‘Why is this difficult right now?’” she said.
One way Katz envisions molding Atlanta into a more bike-friendly city is by just asking people to take shorter trips by bike rather than by car. If you want to go to the local store and buy a bottle of wine or visit a friend two blocks over, a bicycle is a great way to travel.
“Our distances lend itself to community … but when you get on Moreland and you go, ‘Whoa!’ This is a major street I need but it’s scary,” she says. “How do we ensure we can be connected [by routes] that don’t make you feel like a hero or gladiator when you ride them?”
Katz, who previously worked with Park Pride, a nonprofit working with Atlanta’s communities to improve parks, says she is currently focusing on gathering data about cyclists – where they ride, where there are crashes, what roads are stressful to pedestrians and cyclists. Ground counters and sensors are great ways to gather data for cyclists, and underground sensors will be installed at the Atlanta BeltLine Westside Trails.
“Data builds a really strong case for why bike infrastructure can help all users of the road,” she explained.
Mayor Kasim Reed’s promise to push Atlanta into the top 10 of bicycle-friendly cities and the city’s $2.5 million in funding to extend bike lanes from the Eastside Trail to Midtown seems to be putting the city on the right path. But Atlanta’s love for cars cannot be underestimated.
Just recently, the Georgia Department of Transportation removed bike lanes from its plans during the re-striping of Peachtree Road through Buckhead after backlash from officials and residents.
“I think that I understand why people are nervous,” Katz said. “That corridor is essential. Everyone knows that area is precious to our city,” she said.
But having people stop driving their cars is not her mission, Katz stressed. She simply wants to make roads safer for people traveling in all different modes of transportation. And she understands some people who drive everywhere are hesitant when it comes to sharing the road.
“Our goals are very aligned,” she said of cyclists and motorists. “We want safe streets for people to get around in the mode they want to − or have to − get around.
“Our roads are precious. We need to work together, for a healthier, more sustainable and economically viable city. This is the only way,” she said.