Lanes, Trains and Automobiles: A Dream of Seamless Transit in Atlanta

Lanes, Trains and Automobiles: A Dream of Seamless Transit in Atlanta

This is a guest blog by Aly MerrittMerritt is currently a product manager at SalesLoft — her fifth or sixth career since making the initially alluring, but ultimately ill-fated, choice of “newspaper journalism” for her first job. She blogs startups and tech at AlyintheATL.com, and hosts ATL Startup Village at Atlanta Tech Village.

Stay tuned for more guest insights on Atlanta’s traffic and transportation situation. 


If there’s one constant in Atlanta, it’s the traffic.

According to an international study by INRIX, we have the fourth worst traffic in the U.S. — and ninth worst in the world. Atlantans spent more than 70 hours per person stuck in congestion in 2016 alone.

As an efficiency-minded person, the very idea of wasting time driving a car offends me. And I have a romantic streak that stubbornly persists in believing in public transit: I have this vision of watching the world fly by my window while I sip a latte and competently revise my 9 a.m. presentation.

Yeah, I know. I don’t think of it as delusional, really, so much as idealistic and optimistic for the future.

Photo of Keith Zadig by David Ahn.

Photo of Keith Zadig by David Ahn.

MILE AFTER MILE

Growing up in extremely rural Mississippi, the subways, trains and elevated rails depicted in movies were a vital element of the hustle and bustle of big cities. I wanted the glamour and nightlife and bright lights, and somehow the trains just … took people there. It seemed a wild excess of freedom to my pre-teen sensibilities, to be able to go wherever I wanted just by stepping through a door. It was both a relinquishment of responsibility and the epitome of control over my direction — the trains went where they went, but I could board whichever one I chose!

When I was finally able to move to a major metro area, my first stipulation was that there had to be some form of subway. And since I’d discovered I was allergic to black ice during a stint in Milwaukee, I also wanted somewhere warmer. Enter: Atlanta.

Turns out, vast train networks may exist here, and there in a smattering of cosmopolitan cities, but Atlanta’s version isn’t quite so, well, comprehensive. It forms essentially a “plus” sign, so you can go north/south and east/west, but woe to those who want to go to Vinings on the train.

Map credit: MARTA

Map credit: MARTA

I didn’t care. I tried it all. I’ve ridden buses and streetcars and trains in Atlanta. I’ve prowled tiny, ill-conceived intown park-n-ride lots for scarce parking spots. I’ve salivated over city plans for light rail and connected trails, and hassled my HOA over installing a bike rack. I was determined to make public transit work, even if I had to first bike to a bus and then switch to the subway.

Y’all. It was really, really hard. For the first five years I lived here, I struggled… and finally ended up driving. MARTA, which provides bus and rail service in ATL, certainly had a station in my Midtown neighborhood, but the line didn’t go as far north as my Alpharetta office. Upon reaching the northernmost station, I had to transfer to a bus, which languidly meandered its way first through the mall and then two or three office parks before getting to mine.

The whole thing took me almost two hours. In contrast, driving took 45 minutes on average. I just couldn’t justify the time lost.

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Photo by David Ahn

 

That lack of convenience is often cited as a reason for not using public transit, and not just in Atlanta; people from California to Minnesota are reluctant to give up the illusion of control over their commutes.

I know, I just gave you a very real scenario where MARTA took longer, and then called it an illusion. Well, quite often, that’s what it is: You have control over exactly when you physically get in a car and leave a location, only to then be stuck in a traffic jam over which you still have no control.

And while the instance above was valid, in many cases (even in Atlanta) public transit actually saves time and money. According to the American Public Transportation Association, in 2011 alone public transit saved more than 865 million hours in travel time and 450 million gallons of fuel in 500 urban areas. It also reduced congestion costs by nearly $21 billion!

THE LITTLE THINGS

After six years, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I switched to an ITP job — for you non-Atlantans, that would be “Inside the Perimeter,” which is everything contained in the I-285 highway loop around the city. (If you think that makes OTP “Outside the Perimeter,” you would be correct. ITP versus OTP is a hotly debated topic around here.)

The new job was conveniently located right next to the Buckhead MARTA station, connected by a sparkly new pedestrian bridge. It was a six-minute walk from my office to the station (I once made it in two minutes at a dead run). I started taking it regularly, especially when I had nighttime events Downtown. I felt supremely smug the first few times I looked out the train window as we flew past the gridlock on GA-400. Lo, my dreams of smoothly circumventing the Atlanta traffic nightmare were becoming a reality!

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Photo by David Ahn

While maybe not my original latte-sipping vision of comfort, I found many benefits in my public transit commute: It was cheaper than gas and saved wear-and-tear on my car; I felt healthier and got to spend time outside walking to and from the stations; I got to chat with other people instead of being isolated in my car (and hating all the other drivers); I learned the nooks and crannies of my neighborhood and found tiny hidden gems; and I had a mental break at the beginning and end of my day where I was disconnected from electronics and could read a book, or just spend time with my thoughts. It was a world of difference from driving a car.

So, that was in June. We got to October, and I promptly ran into a new problem: Walking home from the Midtown MARTA stop to my house.

It was a 15-minute walk, which was no problem during the well-lit summer days. In the winter, when it gets dark at 4:30 p.m., I was suddenly a small woman carrying a laptop bag and walking alone in the dark for a mile; this basically screamed, “Please mug me!” and it was not exciting. (Well, not exciting in a good way, anyway.)

I had to start driving again in the winter, and I hated it. I was wasting time, and I’d arrive at my destination stressed out and unreasonably angry at my fellow commuters. And if I were driving Downtown, first I had to fight rush hour (whoever says it’s a “reverse commute” is full of crap, or they’re just so jaded from the commute the other way that even an insane level of traffic feels “normal” to them), and then I still had to find a place to park.

FEELING CONGESTED

Let’s talk about parking for a moment. Downtown Atlanta abounds with metered street spots (guarded by malevolent PARKAtlanta employees), cracked surface lots and hulking parking decks that sit empty most of the time. A 2007 study found the Downtown parking occupancy was 63 percent; by 2013, that number had dropped to 61 percent, and it continues to trend downward.

You’d think having parking would be a good thing, but recent studies have shown that more parking options are actually the cause of congestion. Relics of the 1950s (and the first round of suburban commuters who used cars to demonstrate wealth), these parking lot deserts now just reduce any incentive to take alternative transit.

Tim Keane, the Atlanta Commissioner of Planning and Community Development, told WABE in a 2016 story that “the more parking you provide, the more people drive.”

“I mean, we live in Atlanta,” Keane told WABE. “This is a city that is a great example of: If you design for everyone to drive, then what will you get? Congestion.”

He told Curbed Atlanta in 2015 that “the only way to give people more options is to make cycling, walking and transit safer, more enjoyable and convenient.” (See, we’re back to that convenience thing again.)

Keane’s not a fan of the parking regulations that come with new construction, and he is working to address this in policies and parking limitations for dense neighborhoods close to transit.

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The Atlanta BeltLine. Photo by Flickr user TimothyJ.

He is joined in this endeavor by Ryan Gravel, the creator of the Atlanta BeltLine and now a visionary in the Atlanta transit space. When Gravel designed the 22-mile urban redevelopment project as his master’s thesis in 1999, he pictured a way to circle metro Atlanta, linking 45 in-town neighborhoods via multi-use trails, alternative transit and parks. This was before “mixed-use” was a trendy term, something he addressed in a 2004 interview with a local show, “People in Politics.”

“[If the BeltLine’s built], people can live in a way that they don’t have to drive their car to get around town — they have other options,” Gravel said on the show.

It’s a prescient sentence: He’s now moved on from being just “that BeltLine guy” to being “obsessed with infrastructure + culture,” and he’s often a local lynchpin in conversations around alternative infrastructure and sustainable growth in metro Atlanta.

A BLESSING IN DISGUISE

These are conversations Atlanta is going to have to have, and in many ways we’re almost too late: The Atlanta Regional Commission predicts the metro area will grow by 2.5 million people by 2040, and our transit structure is already hopelessly inundated on roads and underutilized and underfunded elsewhere.

This has never been so well illustrated than by last week’s fiery collapse of the I-85 overpass and subsequent discovery of a new circle of Atlanta traffic hell. The city is full of railway lines and hidden tributaries that limit north-south options to only a few routes, and taking out not only one major highway artery but also a primary six-lane city street has caused unprecedented traffic chaos here.

On the other hand, my MARTA train was absolutely packed with first-time riders. This has its own set of challenges (your bag does not get its own seat, people!), but several people I’ve spoken with have said they wished they’d started taking it sooner, and they plan to continue taking it even after the road reopens.

If the only way to change perception is to present the reality, then more new people on public transit is a positive step. Those same people who hold tightly to their misconceptions about MARTA will now be forced to personally confront reality head-on.

If the only way to make public transit more enjoyable and convenient is to make other options less so, then perhaps the I-85 collapse (which resulted in zero injuries) can actually be a step forward for Atlanta.

As for me, I am following expanded plans for streetcars and light rail, and I’m investigating getting a bike so that mile-long walk turns into a quick ride.

In the meantime, it’s beautiful outside, and I am taking MARTA.

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