Serving sprawl: when transit systems deserve sympathy, not scorn

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Not long ago, Atlanta Magazine’s website featured a good post on a new online service for transit users. Called ATLtransit (atltransit.org), it provides an interactive trip planner that helps you get around the entire metro while 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?

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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

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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.

Riding the rails this morning in Atlanta.

Tips for new MARTA riders

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The MidtownATL.com website has a nice post from someone who “broke up with her car” to become a transit commuter in Atlanta. She includes a good list of tips for new MARTA riders:

Use the OneBusAway app to see when your next bus or train is coming: I now ride a combo of the bus and train and completely leave my car at home. Knowing when the next bus will be at my stop is helpful as I’m deciding whether to make that last cup of coffee at home. 
Pack a bag: I packed one and store it in my office. I have a few pairs of heels at my desk since I wear comfy flats on the way in, an umbrella, and a spare magazine just in case I forget my reading material.
Stay occupied: You just freed up so much time by taking transit; use it! My ride is short, so I can read a bit of my book before I get to work. I also love to listen to the PRX Remix app to get my NPR fix. 
If you don’t know, ask: Transit riders are very friendly and usually know the system well. If you’re not sure where to get off, how to use the fare gates, etc., ask someone around you. This is Atlanta, and Southern hospitality is real and thriving!

I second all these tips and I’ll also add that, in addition to the excellent One Bus Away app, you can also get full rail and bus schedules, as well as real-time arrival times, on the MARTA On the Go app. I use both.

Also: if you experience any problems on MARTA that you want to report, just use either the See and Say app or else the custserv@itsmarta.com email. I’ve found them to be responsive.

The effect of the single-occupant car

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No matter what kind of technology you use to power those single-occupant vehicles, the problem still remains: it’s an inefficient means of transportation on a large scale, and one that requires more road infrastructure than more efficient means such as public transportation.

Just look at what kind of mess that infrastructure has made of the center of Midtown Atlanta:

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Imagine how many fewer lanes, on ramps and parking spaces we’ll need as the years go by — as Atlanta grows in a way that favors alternative transportation over single-occupancy cars. I think it’s bound to happen as we continue to undo the unnatural 20th-century practice of building places primarily for cars.

Environments that are designed too much at a car-scale instead of a human-scale are more difficult to walk and bike than they should be. Think about that the next time you complain about traffic or about how hard it is to find free parking somewhere. The easier it is to drive in a place, the harder it is to get around any other way.

Source of top image

Better connecting people to places in the face of car dependency

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While reading an article about the way cheap parking encourages driving, “Low parking costs may encourage automobile use,” I saw this quote; I think it nails the relationship between sprawl development and limited transportation options:

During the past 25 years, the number of miles Americans drive has grown three times faster than the U.S. population. The predominant form of development, low-density sprawl, has encouraged automobile use and has worsened the challenges of providing convenient and low-cost public transportation.

Put this together with Rebecca Burns’ article this year that explores the way Metro Atlanta’s car-sprawl caused so many people to be stranded in a snow storm, and you’ve got a clear answer to the question of why the metro doesn’t have better transit options.

As long as we continue to build and maintain car-scaled developments and cheap parking — and surround that with car-focused infrastructure that hinders walkability and safe, convenient cycling — the metro as a whole will be stuck in a rut of car dependency. And it affects us all, even the ones who live in little bubbles of walkable, urban spaces, because it prevents those bubbles from being connected well. (Example: Downtown Woodstock, in the northern part of Metro Atlanta, is a decently-walkable pocket of human-scaled density. But try getting there without a car; and try operating a business there without cheap parking.)

This shouldn’t be a politicized issue of big-city urbanites versus suburbanites. This should be an issue of smart moves that allow people the freedom to connect to their needs in multiple ways without being forced into car ownership. And it should be about the freedom to build businesses that don’t require heavy expenditures for car storage via parking minimums — something that limits commercial construction to moneyed, big developers and big projects (think: sprawlburbs littered with big-box stores) instead of allowing for small-scale, incremental growth.

Can leaders region-wide accept the challenge of connecting roads now disconnected by cul-de-sacs, rezoning for mixed uses and increased density, and sacrificing some car lanes to make way for pedestrian & cycling infrastructure? I hope so. Because that’s part of what it will take to allow for a reversal of car dependency on a large scale — and not only in bubbles here and there.

Photo by Flickr user BoringPostcards

Creative Placemaking & Tactical Urbanism Sought for Downtown MARTA Stations

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Approaching Atlanta’s Five Points MARTA station, above, from the west or south is not an enjoyable experience. I enter on this side to catch the train to my office and I tend to walk with my head down to avoid seeing the bleak surroundings (the Google Street View image doesn’t do justice to the bleakness) first thing in the morning. 

In fact, the entire stretch of south Downtown, from this station to Garnett MARTA station, has long been in need of some extra TLC, a subject that was covered well by Thomas Wheatley in this 2011 article. Below is an aerial view of the stark, asphalt wasteland surrounding Garnett.

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Encouragingly, there is now an effort to improve the experience of entering both of these stations. Central Atlanta Progress and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District are requesting proposals from consultant firms to develop ideas for “creative placemaking and ‘tactical urbanism’ enhancements” to them. Read more here.

According to the RFP document available on the page linked above, the organizations want to find “innovative, cost-effective solutions to activate the area around and improve accessibility to the Five Points and Garnett stations.”

This comes on the heels of Midtown Alliance’s proposed enhancements to the Midtown Atlanta MARTA stations, as well as the soon-to-open pedestrian bridge for connecting to Buckhead MARTA rail and the new TOD projects elsewhere. It’s great to see city groups and the transit agency focus on improving the experience of riding and also investing in the full potential of these resources. 

The term “Tactical Urbanism” usually describes temporary improvements such as those implemented by Better Block programs — where you fix up a blighted block of commercial buildings temporarily to show what could be done with investment. See our own Brighten Up Broad Street for a good local example of tactical urbanism in action.

That could be useful at these stations, I’m sure, but I’ll assume that the main focus here is on permanent improvements, which would fall under the “Placemaking” umbrella. A combination of permanent and temporary improvements could be a big boost for the stations and the overall area.