Any hope of MARTA expansion has once again been taken off the table. After several bills were introduced in the Georgia Senate with bi-partisan support to allow citizens to vote on expanding MARTA and after a recent poll showed over 70% of residents in Fulton and Dekalb counties support expanding rail you would have thought we would be heading for a massive upgrade of MARTA rail service. But you would be wrong.
The bill that would have allowed voters to decide to tax themselves to pay for transit, SB-313, was effectively killed by several lawmakers who apparently just don’t agree with transit; lawmakers who apparently live in a bubble where there isn’t any traffic, business leaders and residents aren’t overwhelmingly demanding more transit infrastructure, and other cities in the country aren’t investing heavily in such infrastructure as a means of growing effectively and sustainably.
Just let this sink in. We’re not talking about a bill that would have appropriated general funds for transit or a bill that would have taxed everyone in the state to pay for transit. We’re talking about a bill that simply allows residents in several counties to vote on whether they want to pay more taxes for additional transit. This is an idea supported by the Chamber of Commerce, major Atlanta corporations, and area residents.
Yet, once again, lawmakers who don’t believe in transit get to continue to impose antiquated and ill-advised policies on the state’s economic, social, and cultural engine. It’s a sad state of affairs not just for those who support expanding transit in Atlanta, but also for those who believe the state government should allow local jurisdictions to dictate how they progress at even the most basic levels. The AJC reported today that lawmakers are considering adding a much watered-down bill this session that would only ask residents of the city of Atlanta to raise their taxes for transit. This is a joke and a slap in the face to all those area residents (see the majority of area residents) who want expanded transit.
Let’s pretend that the bill didn’t die and that we may actually see MARTA expansion in the near future. After all, though the bill died this session, it’s almost certain that a similar bill will be introduced next session. And the major projects that would have been funded by the additional funds are the same general projects that MARTA has been pushing for years and the same ones that will likely be pursued once funding becomes available.
Transit Needs to be Accessible
The major projects include expansion of the red line into north Fulton County, heavy rail and bus rapid transit along I-20, and the often overlooked Clifton corridor light-rail project. Over the next several articles we’ll take a look at each route, but for now we’ll focus on the development aspects of transit.
In discussing how we need to build communities to reduce traffic and make investment in transit a smart move, let’s look at a recent column in the AJC by Mark Arum. In the article he challenged the MARTA expansion plan by asking three questions: 1.) will people use it? 2.) will taxpayers fund it? and 3.) is it actually needed? Since this was an AJC column about transportation, unsurprisingly, the general answer to all three was no.
While the answers supplied by Mr. Arum may be shortsighted, the general questions are the ones that need to be posed. He points out that only 3% of Atlanta’s population uses transit so therefore the answer to whether people will use it has to be no, right? (it’s unclear how this 3% was calculated). Sure, but only if you don’t bother to ask why people don’t use it. If I want to watch TV, but the only outlet in my house is in a closet then I probably won’t watch much TV. That certainly doesn’t mean I don’t want to watch TV, it just means it’s incredibly inconvenient to watch TV.
Should I invest in an ultra-HD TV, though, if I watch TV so infrequently? Perhaps not and that may be Mr. Arum’s and others’ point when opposing the MARTA expansion plan. But what if for whatever reason I need that TV for educational or job-related purposes or some other inherently-important purpose? You know, kind of like transportation infrastructure.
Opposing expansion of MARTA because not many people presently use it is an ill thought-process; we need to diversify our transportation options and most people want transit to be a part of that diversification. The question should be how do we close the gap between a majority of people saying they want transit and the low ridership numbers. The answer necessarily involves asking why people aren’t riding MARTA.
“I would ride it if it just went somewhere.”
Popular thought in Atlanta seems to be that MARTA rail doesn’t go anywhere. It actually does go many places. There’s a station next to Lenox Mall, a station next to Perimeter Mall, several stations in Midtown, several stations downtown, and one in downtown Decatur. That covers a lot of ground.
The problem may be that it doesn’t go enough places and perhaps more fundamentally, not enough people live within easy walking, biking, or even driving distance of the stations.
Atlanta compares nicely to Washington, DC since both have roughly the same number of people in their metro area’s, 5.4 million in Atlanta and 5.8 million in DC, and both subway/heavy rail systems were built in the 1970’s and 1980’s. MARTA currently has 38 rail stations compared to the Washington DC Metro’s 86. While MARTA’s operating budget is about $418 million, Metro’s is $1.7 billion. Metro counts between 850,000 and 1.1 million average weekday rail trips and Atlanta counts only 245,000 average weekday rail trips. Perhaps the most significant stat is that 14 percent of DC area residents regularly use Metro , about 3 to 4 times the number of Atlanta area residents that use MARTA. 
The ratios for all the stats are about constant. While DC has twice the number of stations as Atlanta it spends 3 to 4 times as much as Atlanta on rail service and both Metro’s average weekday ridership and local market share is 3 to 4 times greater than MARTA’s
The difference in numbers is probably best explained by station location and density. Metro’s system has more stations strategically dispersed throughout the DC area than MARTA’s system has stations dispersed throughout the Atlanta area. There are huge chunks of Atlanta that are not anywhere near rail transit. MARTA’s rail service area is only 485 sq. miles, which includes 1.7 million people, compared to Metro’s 950 sq. miles, which includes 3.7 million people. The joke has always been that while other transit maps look complex and detailed, MARTA’s is lazily a simple plus sign.
But building something that reaches more people takes money, planning, and political will; three things Atlanta isn’t known to possess when it comes to transportation. It’s easier and cheaper to build rail lines along existing interstates or freight rail lines, but consequently it’s likely that station access is much less pedestrian-friendly. That means people still have to use roads and highways.
Regardless of station placement, whether it be in a neighborhood like Decatur or on the interstate like North Springs, people need to live close to that station. Areas immediately surrounding stations need to be much denser. The generally accepted maximum distance that people will walk to get to get to rail is anywhere from 1/4 to 3/4 of a mile. That area therefore needs to be maximized in terms of population.
The maps below show density per square mile within a 1/2 mile radius of MARTA’s Midtown, Dekalb Avenue, Gold Line, and Red Line stations as well as Metro’s stations in Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax, VA. The areas are comparable on a socio-economic basis, but the areas surrounding Metro’s stations are dramatically denser. 
Only 2.2 percent of Atlanta metro residents live within 1/2 mile of a MARTA station. If you just look at Fulton and Dekalb Counties (the two counties serviced by MARTA rail), only 8 percent of residents live within a half mile of a station.
Putting stations next to people or allowing more people to live next to stations is something Atlanta simply has not done and it’s a strong argument as to why so many people say they want transit, but so few use it. Arlington, VA pulled Metrorail off the interstate and insisted it go underground through their community. But they didn’t stop there. They then strategically and gradually up-zoned areas surrounding the stations to maximize the number of residents while minimizing the need for a car. This resulted in the county doubling in population while traffic remained stagnant.
We’ve spent the billions of dollars on transit but haven’t bothered to effectively make surrounding areas denser to maximize the investment. With that said, MARTA has done a tremendous job of attempting to redevelop its land into denser, mixed-use developments. But MARTA only owns so much land. Jurisdictions need to adopt comprehensive zoning and land use codes that require denser development near transit. Pushback over denser projects in Candler Park/Edgewood and in Brookhaven show that it can be an uphill battle.
The major exceptions to our lack of investment have been Decatur and Lindbergh. In Decatur, rail was pulled underground and the City allowed denser development to occur above it. In the Lindbergh area, similar develop occurred. Lindbergh is much less pedestrian-friendly than Decatur, but it still boasts a solid mix of residential and commercial land uses. The graph below shows the major differences between Dunwoody and Lindbergh in terms of density and station entries. Both are considered commuter stations, but Lindbergh has denser residential development surrounding it and higher station entries.
Don’t Ask Will People Use it, Ask How Can We Allow People to Use it
So to answer Mr. Arum’s first question, it’s much more likely people will use it if we make the necessary land use changes that allow better access. I should invest in the nicer TV if I also invest in giving myself better access. We need to build denser areas centered around transit so more people have convenient alternatives to highways.
I’ll skip his second question because poll numbers seem to clearly indicate residents will agree to pay for the extra service. His third question regarding whether we actually need to extend MARTA requires a brief response. Mr. Arum’s main argument is that self-driving cars will make traffic obsolete in ten years (the time it would take to extend MARTA). While that would be nice, it seems highly unlikely.
A system where every car can communicate with other cars as well as the infrastructure would require a tremendous amount of money and cooperation. In order for such a system to work, every driver would have to purchase or use one of these cars and every road would have to be outfitted with necessary equipment. Either way, self-driving cars will be susceptible to the human error of cars driven by humans or the malfunctions of cars driven by themselves. A fully-funtioning, error-free system just seems incredibly unlikely to happen in the next 20 years, much less ten years.
We need transit expansion and we needed it ten years ago. Clearly, in order to add residents, grow economically, and keep traffic in check we need to develop denser areas around modes of transit to give people more options. Funding for transit is essential, but we need to make the necessary land use changes to fully realize the our investment.