Not long ago, Atlanta Magazine’s website featured a good post on a new online service called ATLtransit (atltransit.org) that provides an interactive trip planner for getting around the metro using its array of disconnected transit systems. From that post:
We tested the ATLtransit trip planning service. It was not exactly a success. The unification tool is a great concept, but the pilot program underscores the disjointed nature of Atlanta’s regional transit providers
…I have traveled for six and a half hours, an estimated three and a half of those on buses and trains. According to Google Maps, taking a car would have saved me two and a half of those hours…The website is a good concept with horrible execution (not unlike metro Atlanta’s transit as a whole).
I have a significant complaint about one little phrase here: “horrible execution (not unlike metro Atlanta’s transit as a whole).”
This is a sentiment that shows up often when people write and talk about transit service in Metro Atlanta — that it needs to be expanded to reach all the places where people live and thus compete more fully with car transportation. To which I say: tough luck, Charlie. The many places in the metro that are dominated by unwalkable carsprawl set their low-transit destiny in motion long ago, and nothing short of a massive effort to retrofit suburbia for walkable infill and to repair its road disconnectivity will change that.
High quality transit is not going to be possible all throughout an urban environment that is built so specifically for the movement and storage of cars. Particularly within one that is as low in population density as metro Atlanta.
Population density: how low can you go?
Metro Atlanta is the least densely populated large metro in the US. This status is not the result of population loss, it’s the result of incredible population gains (and as recent data shows, we’re still gaining) that happened within a sprawling, land-hogging, car-centric pattern. In fact, the horizontal spread of the metro’s housing and commercial developments has pushed its boundaries out so far that it may end up becoming part of a sprawling mega region that stretches all the way to Raleigh.
This is not the way human populations grew prior to modern cars, when we had to make our places easy to get around on foot, on bicycle, within rail stops and through various slower transportation options. Buildings needed to be closer together. Car-centric development allows you to build homes miles from grocery stores, and grocery stores miles in yet another direction from offices. What it *doesn’t* allow you to do is walk between those places, or even to a bus stop, easily and safely.
Transit in a tough spot
It’s quite unfair to claim that routes for mass transit systems are executed poorly when you don’t make note of the fact that the development pattern around them is centered on single-passenger cars. With wide lanes and wide shoulders designed to move as many cars through as fast as possible, and with large surface parking lots fronting buildings, the roads of our sprawlvilles are very clearly intended for one use.
Any sidewalks or bus stops that find their way inside this development style are destined, by no fault of their own, to be an afterthought when it comes to serious mobility.
The mass transit systems of Metro Atlanta are working in what I personally would call a transit-hostile environment due to low population density and bad street connectivity (think dead end cul-de-sacs of subdivisions). They’re doing the best they can in a tough spot.
None of this is to say that our transit systems are perfect — certainly, improvements in routing can be made and metro-wide cooperation on fare systems would be an enormous change for the better. But the next time you’re wondering why a bus doesn’t come to the door of your subdivision, think about maybe moving your door to a place that’s more easily served by transit.
EDITED TO ADD: there are many people who are trapped in suburban sprawl and who have no access to a car, so for them my snarky “move to where the transit is” suggestion is of no help. Real solutions are needed for the growing number of people who make up suburban poverty — how incredibly frustrating it is that transit options that could serve their needs are rendered unfeasible by these car-centric environments.
With the photos that I post, I try to focus mostly on aesthetically pleasing views of my Downtown Atlanta home — and there are many. But I also see on my daily walks the side that’s less photogenic: neglected buildings, overabundance of parking, trash, panhandling, drug sales.
One of the things that allows me to happily live in a place that has so many visible challenges is my multi-layered view of the city. I have a long history of walking these streets (since the late 1980s), I’ve read a lot about Atlanta history and, importantly, I dream a lot about it’s future, with those dreams informed heavily by the trends in good urbanism happening in cities across the nation.
So when I see a block or a building Downtown that’s in bad repair, I see it not just as it is but also as it once was and how it could be in the future.
Take, for instance, the 1913 one-story commercial building at 80 Forsyth St SW, pictured above. It’s currently the new home of the Eyedrum Art & Music Gallery (disclosure: I’m on the board) and we’re working to turn a set of storefronts, some long-abandoned, into a multifaceted arts venue.
There is nothing architecturally significant about the structure. That much is plain to see. But the history is significant. Below is a 1955 photo of Ideal Music store, which operated in two of these storefronts for several decades.
It was a successful venture, drawing in famous touring musicians and catering to the changing musical needs of Atlanta during a tumultuous time, all the while weathering the onset of blight brought along by suburban flight and Downtown disinvestment.
Now look at two photos (credit: Caroline Oelkers, also the top exterior shot) of the former music store as it looked last week. When Ideal went out of business a few years ago, they left behind an incredible amount of stuff that had accumulated over the years, turning a once thriving business into an example of urban decay.
This weekend (August 15-17) you can come visit Eyedrum and see what a group of local artists has done to activate this neglected space, during the Existing Conditions show.
It’s an event that is very much in keeping with my own viewpoint of old buildings and street blocks Downtown — seeing a place for what it was, what it is, and imagining new and interesting things it could be. We’re preserving a structure that has a great history and getting geared up for building upon it with our own story.
Much thanks to Kyle Kessler for the historic photo; other photos by Caroline Oelkers