Apr 18, 2017 | Atlanta, GA
As commuters around metro Atlanta cope with the loss of a piece of I-85, many are now considering alternatives to driving alone in their cars.
Though some motorists are exploring alternative options for the first time, many Tech employees ditched traditional commutes long ago. Given that Georgia Tech is located near two MARTA train stations and in the heart of the city, many employees have other ways to get to campus no matter where they start their journey.
For Richard Noel, a clinical research veterinarian, committing to a job at Georgia Tech was nerve-wracking at first because of the commute he would have from his home in Loganville.
“The conversation around traffic is terribly intimidating,” he said. “I used to work in the suburbs and didn’t have to deal with the drama of traffic.”
Ultimately, he took the job, and he tried transit for the first time through a free promotion from the Midtown Alliance. He usually starts his journey with a Georgia Regional Transit Authority (GRTA) bus, which he can pick up at one of several stops near his home. The bus lets him off at the Five Points MARTA station, where he takes a Gold or Red train to Midtown, and either the Tech Trolley or MARTA 12 bus to his office in the Engineered Biosystems Building.
The trip takes a little over an hour, but it’s consistent, and he can use the time productively since he’s not behind the wheel.
“The value I get on the bus is ridiculous,” he said. “On the way to work, I can check email, triage my desk, and know exactly what direction I’m headed for the day when I get in. When I get home, I have two pre-teen sons, and I can immediately engage with them instead of feeling the need to decompress.”
Lee Helmken, a health educator in Health Initiatives, left her annual parking permit behind almost two years ago when she moved to Midtown. She’s found her new commute of walking and using the Tech Trolley to be much less stressful.
“I’m less stressed when I get home than when I used to have to drive,” she said. “Not being in a car, I get time to de-stress, listen to a podcast, or call friends and family. You get a buffer between work and home, and you’re being more active and walking.”
Helmken has a job that often requires her presence on campus outside regular business hours. She uses SmartPark for when she needs to work particularly early or late. Offered by Parking and Transportation Services, SmartPark is a pay-as-you-go program available for $25 a year, plus $6 each time you park.
“Even when I use SmartPark, it’s less than what I’d be paying for an annual pass,” she said.
Jim Kirk, assistant vice president for Institute Budget Planning and Administration, has been using alternative transportation for 15 of the 17 years he’s been at Tech.
Kirk rides his bike to a Cobb County Transit (CCT) stop near his home in Marietta, then brings the bike with him to campus to get from the bus stop to his office in the Lyman Hall Building. His initial impetus for trying transit 15 years ago was when he had two cars stolen in one weekend.
The addition of biking came as part of his therapy after having knee surgery. He practiced several routes until he found one that felt safe and efficient. That leg of his commute works his body, but the rest of the time rewards his mind. He uses time on the bus to read books, catch up on news, and even sleep.
“I can reduce my blood pressure and leave the driving to someone else,” he said.
Getting the Right Gear
As a senior administrator, Kirk’s role on campus often involves meetings and presentations where he wears business clothing and shouldn’t look like he just biked across campus in the Atlanta heat. For those considering biking, he recommends getting a pannier for the back of the bike that functions like a garment bag for carrying dress clothes.
“Wear shorts and a T-shirt on hot days or extra layers on cold days,” he said. “There isn’t bad weather, just bad clothing — so be prepared with layers or dress down, depending on weather challenges.”
Helmken has an exercise buddy who often picks her up for morning workouts at the Campus Recreation Center. Sometimes on rainy days, co-workers will offer to drive her home, but she has also invested in gear for the commute.
“I bought rain boots for the first time this year because I noticed I was using rainy days as an excuse not to walk,” she said. “And I always carry an umbrella.”
Helmken’s partner is a traffic engineer and transit planner, as well as a Tech alumnus and volunteer with the MARTA Army, a grassroots group started by Tech students, whose members serve as ambassadors and volunteers for the transit system. His professional role and personal values were part of what influenced Helmken to make the switch, but it wasn’t overnight. At first, she still kept her regular annual parking permit.
“I gave myself a grace period to make sure it could work,” she said. “It’s important for people to identify what their needs and patterns are first.”
For cycling, Kirk notes, it helps to keep your bike in good working order just as you would a car. With construction progressing on the bike and pedestrian path along Tech Parkway, campus now has more Fixit stations equipped with tools and air pumps for potential mechanical issues. Fixit stations are located on both ends of Tech Parkway; at Parking and Transportation Services (pump only); on the west end of Tech Walkway near the Skiles Building; and at the Georgia Tech Police Department, as well as off campus at several MARTA stations.
Getting Back Control
Many commuters feel like giving up their car is giving up control, but the way Noel sees it, they don’t really have control anyway.
“You don’t know what you’re going to face when you get on the road, or get to that exit,” he said. “People have anxieties about giving up personal independence without a car, but on transit, you put your headphones in, and you have your personal space.”
Noel’s wife commutes the opposite way for her work at the University of Georgia and often travels for work. But not to worry — Noel is able to make it home for PTA meetings, guitar lessons, or in an emergency, even using transit.
“I can more reliably pre-place my car at a GRTA stop and use transit to get to my kids quickly,” he said.
Overall, Noel has also found commuting via transit to be a financial savings.
“I’m always surprised at how long my deposit lasts on my Breeze card, and that I can make a tank of gas last three weeks,” he said.
Kirk logs his commutes at gacommuteoptions.com, which provides incentives for commuters. He estimates he’s won a couple hundred dollars in gift cards over the years. Combining this windfall with no outlay for an annual permit, and the bike/bus commute is a definite cost savings (as one might expect from someone in budget planning).
Lisa Safstrom, campus transportation planner in Parking and Transportation Services, points employees to Georgia Commute Options as a good starting place. The organization’s staff is available to help with route planning and advice, and they also offer a carpool matching service.
Safstrom also noted that there are hard copies of maps and schedules for all MARTA, GRTA, CCT, and Gwinnett County Transit (GCT) routes serving the campus in the lobby of Parking and Transportation Services, located at 828 W. Peachtree Street. Employees can also purchase discounted transit passes for all systems via payroll deductions.
According to a 2016 campus commute survey, around 54 percent of the Tech community gets to campus by driving alone, but 44 percent of those said their main reason was that they don’t have a carpool partner or group. Beyond that, 45 percent of all respondents said they would use alternative transportation commute options if regional transit were expanded.
With traffic woes exacerbated by the current situation on I-85, many are exploring alternative commutes in the meantime. “There’s value in embracing what’s already there,” Noel said.
For some, the options may seem limited until they take the first step.
“A lot of people see Atlanta as a city where you can only drive to get around,” Helmken said. “There are certainly limitations, but there are a lot of options if you get creative and think about it. The more methods we use, the better traffic will be, and the healthier people will be.”