LISTEN: If you’ve ever gotten a flat tire from a rusty nail, you know roads are full of unseen hazards. GPB's Peter Biello speaks with "Atlanta Magnet Man" Alex Benigno, who's dedicated to picking them up before you do.

"Atlanta Magnet Man" Alex Benigno shows the metal he picked up en route to GPB's studios.

"Atlanta Magnet Man" Alex Benigno shows the metal he picked up en route to GPB's studios.

Credit: Peter Biello

If you’ve ever gotten a flat tire from a rusty nail, you know roads are full of unseen hazards. One Atlanta man has taken it upon himself to do something about those hazards:  Alex Benigno, also known on Instagram as Atlanta Magnet Man. Using a bike trailer equipped with magnets, he canvases Atlanta roads, picking up all manner of debris.

Alex Benigno spoke with GPB’s Peter Biello.

Peter Biello: So why did you start doing this?

Alex Benigno: During the pandemic, I was an essential worker, and I was picking up nails and screws with my tires. And I realized that if I'm out here alone (mostly) and I'm picking up all these nails and screws, that means that everyone else's tires are picking up all these nails everywhere. And I think the catalyst to get this project started was when I went to the Kroger on Howell Mill (Road) one morning and I saw a five-pound bag of screws had fallen off of a contractor's truck on the driveway. And I was like, oh, man, I hope somebody does something about this. And I came back around lunchtime and I saw that everything was still there and realized, okay, by the end of the day, if this hasn't been done, I'm going to take care of it. So I borrowed a broom and dustpan and a little magnet sweeper from work. And I went there and I picked up everything, and I realized, okay, well, I've got to get my idea rolling because these things are everywhere, and no one's taking care of it.

Peter Biello: And then you affixed to the back of your bike a few different versions of what is essentially a trailing magnet facing the ground. If you scroll through your Instagram, you see these photos of not just nails — you expect nails and screws and stuff — but ... cables; metal cables. I don't know what these are, why they're on the road, what they could have fallen off. Giant clumps of metal. I can't tell what they are. All of this in the street?

Alex Benigno: Yeah. It's everywhere.

Peter Biello: You even found a bullet.

Alex Benigno: Steel case bullet. And it was hilarious.

Peter Biello: I mean, have you found something that was particularly surprising to you?

Alex Benigno: Well, there was a very large crane hook just on the side of the road. I picked it up by hand, but it's just like, what is this doing? How'd this fall off the back of a truck and nobody noticed for however long it's been there?

Peter Biello: You've got a mission statement on your Instagram pinned to the top, and part of it is: "We are better than this. We can lift these nails and screws from our streets and prevent them from taking that which we hold most dear: our time, our money and our precious tires. Join me and we can fight this fight together." That's what you've written as a mission statement. Do I get the sense here that you're speaking metaphorically, that this is about more than just picking up loose bits of dangerous metal?

Alex Benigno: Yes. This is something that anybody can do. And it takes somebody, too, who wants to do the work, to do the work, to get this kind of stuff done. And it's unfortunate that however our society has gone where this isn't being taken care of and that someone like me has to come along and say, "I'm tired of this job not being done. If no one's going to do it, I'll do it." That's kind of my philosophy in a lot of things. When I see a little problem or something, something where I can help, I like to do it, try to do little things to alleviate unnecessary suffering that benefits everyone. It's just kind of a thing that motivates me.

Peter Biello: Have you heard from the city of Atlanta about what you're doing?

Alex Benigno: Not yet. I know a lot of people have been trying to get the city of Atlanta to contact me or do something, but I want to tread carefully, to see, because I think there's a lot of potential to possibly get some sort of funding involved so that I can try to get other people in other parts of the country and other cities who also want to do this, to get the resources they need to do it, because it's a pretty easy thing to do that anybody with a little bit of technical tinkering can do.

Peter Biello: Well, there's a link on your Instagram to your GoFundMe. Last check, I think you're about two-thirds of the way to your goal.

Alex Benigno: Yeah. So I think I'm at $2,800 now out of $3,500. 

Peter Biello: OK, so what are you gonna use that money for?

Alex Benigno: ... A bike lane sweeper. I've already ordered it. It should be here in middle of March. And it's the same thing as a trailer with a spinning brush. It's battery operated, can pick up gravel and all sorts of other debris and glass and stuff from the roads. And my goal is to go through all the bike lanes, because so many of our bike lanes are covered in glass and gravel and stuff, and that's pretty much all the debris in the road ends up in the bike lane. And I'm just tired of getting flat tires.

Peter Biello: Yeah. Have you been getting flat tires on your bike while you've been out collecting metal?

Alex Benigno: Yeah, I did, I did last Tuesday downtown.

Peter Biello: Oh the irony.

Alex Benigno: Yeah.

Peter Biello: Well, let me ask you, because Atlanta's famous for those giant metal plates. How does your setup handle those plates? Do you just get stuck on the plates?

Alex Benigno: That's one of the reasons why I think, like the maintenance crews can't just stick a magnet sweeper on the back because they go over a metal plate or a little or a manhole cover or the little, the water meter plates are in the road. They'll just suck those up or anchor themselves down to them. And I have in all of my trial and error — lots of errors — I have gotten myself stuck to manhole covers. And one day, I wasn't paying attention. I went too slowly over a manhole cover, and I anchored myself to the manhole cover. And it —

Peter Biello: In the middle of the street?

Alex Benigno: The first time was — luckily, I wasn't on the street, but it did take me a while to separate myself from the manhole cover. But there was one day a few weeks ago. I was in Collier Road, it was at night after work. I didn't see the manhole cover and I took a turn. I went over the manhole cover. Eight magnets stuck to the manhole cover. And this is during rush hour traffic. And I had like 20 seconds of time and I would run out the street, get on my hands and knees, try my best to scrape these magnets off this pure iron cover.

Peter Biello: How expensive are these magnets? Was that worth it?

Alex Benigno: They're one inch by one inch by half inch, and they're $16 each.

Peter Biello: OK.

Alex Benigno: And they're really, really strong.

Peter Biello: Seems like you're working full days and you're doing this on your lunch break. I don't know if you do it on the way to and from work as well. That sounds exhausting. Are you exhausted?

Alex Benigno: I sleep really well. I'm in the best shape of my life. It's great exercise on this bicycle, and it's amazing.

Peter Biello: I'm probing for a downside here. Alex. I'm not seeing one. We should all be out there with magnets on our bikes!

Alex Benigno: Well, I guess the only thing is, because the way the setup is, I don't have anything covering the magnets. Except maybe I'll put some cloth over the magnets to help pull everything off. But those little tiny, hair-sized pieces of steel from tires, that hold tires together. Those are everywhere. And they will sometimes stick through the tape that I have on my gloves and poke my fingers. And it's just like, that's pretty painful. And that's pretty much the only drawback. But I like lifting up and taking all the stuff off the magnets and doing the work to do it. It's kind of relaxing.

Tags: roads  Atlanta  Atlanta  traffic