To a motorist going north on Buford Highway, the seven-lane swath of concrete is usually a commuting dream -- not too many traffic lights, rarely enforced speed limits, ample opportunities to find a place to eat.
But those who not only live along the ethnically diverse corridor – but venture from cities as far away as Marietta to find day labor there – already know what the statistics confirm: Buford Highway is the most dangerous roadway for pedestrians in Georgia.
According to the pedestrian-advocacy group Pedestrians Educating Drivers on Safety, 88 percent of traffic fatalities on Buford Highway are pedestrians. Three or four people are hit by cars on the roadway every year.
Areas of the roadway are pocketed with improvised sidewalks and dirt footpaths that are pounded by daily walks from apartment complexes. Hoofing your way to bus stops requires a tightrope walker's dexterity – pedestrians have to walk one foot in front of another on curbs dangerously close to traffic. Crosswalks are separated in some areas by more than half a mile, forcing many residents to execute a seven-lane dash to reach the other side or linger in the turn lane.
Last year, a diverse group banded together under the wonkish-sounding Buford Highway Corridor Overlay Task Force moniker. The members include DeKalb County Commissioners Jeff Rader and Kathie Gannon, the Georgia Department of Transportation, the Centers for Disease Control and Georgia Tech's Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development. Their mission: to turn a well-traveled but poorly organized roadway from a car-heavy interstate reliever into a pedestrian paradise.
Their vision is to tame the corridor, while keeping its charm. They want to convert miles-long turn lanes into tree-lined medians that are pedestrian-friendly. They want to drop the speed limit from 45 mph to 35 mph.
Planners also envision a more mixed-use look for Buford Highway in the future, moving it away from the strip-mall roller coaster that defines the area now.
Top on the task force members' to-do list, however, is Buford Highway's name change. For one, they think "highway" denotes traffic and speed. They also want a name that reflects the area's diversity.
"We want to recognize this place as an area with a character of its own," Rader says.
Ideas being bandied about include everything from simply replacing the "highway" with the more lazy-day "boulevard" or "avenue" as well as eschewing "Buford" altogether and going with "International." Buford Highway is a state road, and any name change would have to be decided by the General Assembly.
Prior to I-85, Buford Highway served as a link from Atlanta to smaller cities such as Buford and Doraville to the north. It exploded during the '80s with the arrival of immigrants, refugees and migrant workers and the attraction of available affordable housing. With their arrival came the international bonanza of options that now makes the stretch of road a stomping ground for regional gourmands and a daily milieu for locals alike.
Rader says Buford Highway is the only corridor in the metro area where public transit turns a profit, and that's because the immigrant population largely depends on MARTA. "The population of that area is way ahead of the infrastructure," Rader says. "The corridor has evolved to be auto-oriented. But the people who live around there generally rely on public transit or walking."
Construction on the improvements, which will stretch from Sidney Marcus Boulevard to Dresden Drive, is not scheduled for another two to three years. And the plans are not final. DOT planners – who were initially hesitant to slow the traffic on Buford Highway – may mirror the improvements on the northern portion of Buford Highway in 2000 that included button-activated pedestrian crossing devices and waiting areas in the median for those who cross the street.
Although the pedestrian areas in the median allow walkers to battle only three lanes of traffic at a time rather than seven, the button-activated crossing devices haven't been as effective. Although they are planned for two popular destinations – Plaza Fiesta and Northeast Plaza – the performance of the devices is being reviewed by the DOT.
"It's not working as well as we wanted it to work in that northern segment," says DOT spokesman David Spear. "If there's anything we can do about it to enhance the southern segment, we want to. We've had too many accidents and that's just not right."
Michael Orta of PEDS goes as far as to say the devices have proven to be a waste of money. Orta says motorists have become desensitized to the devices, and treat the flashing lights that warn of pedestrian traffic with indifference. And many pedestrians are unable to read the signs and unfamiliar with the aggressiveness of Atlanta drivers; they step out to cross the road with a false sense of security.
The idea of converting the center turn lanes into pedestrian-friendly medians has received some push-back from local businesses. Orta and Spear say there is fear that medians will deter customers from accessing their locations. While that may be true for drive-by businesses such as gas stations and fast-food joints, PEDS and DOT cite studies that say medians have no effect, positive or negative, on business. Consumers will visit destination businesses, such as Plaza Fiesta, median or not.
"This is only going to make the area more attractive for businesses," Orta says. "You know what hurts business? Death and injury. This will make the area safer."
Fingers are crossed the new look for Buford Highway will also cause drivers to slow down. "People come speeding over the hill and the next thing you know, there's a mother with two kids there," Orta says. "These people don't have wings, after all."