Atlanta kills obscure law limiting bus shelters as MARTA builds moreA woman has no buffer from passing vehicles as she waits for a MARTA bus at a stop near the Metropolitan Branch of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System, on Metropolitan Parkway. Credit: David Pendered
An obscure Atlanta ordinance limiting the number of bus shelters in the city to 300 was repealed in June after surprised City Council members heard of it on Twitter. MARTA says it ignored the law, but has fewer than 300 Atlanta shelters anyway — a count that will be improved by a five-year expansion plan.
“There shall be a limit of 300 total bus shelters on the right-of-way of public roads or streets or on other property within the city,” read the now-deleted ordinance, which was inserted in a section regulating the permitting and placement of shelters and other bus stop amenities. (Confusingly, the City code defines “bus shelters” as including both actual shelters as well as benches.) The origin of the spartan rule remains unclear — the City press office did not respond to questions — but it appears to have been on the books for at least 20 years.
The legal limit was pointed out on Twitter June 4 by Daniel Snider, the founder and executive director of the Pillyr Foundation, which works on public-space improvements — including bus shelters. Among the foundation’s projects was a bus shelter installed by the City in 2018 at Cascade Road and Boulevard Granada in Southwest Atlanta.
Snider tagged administration officials, MARTA and City Council members in tweets about the “misguided ordinance.”
“We need more shelters if we hope to see more residents adopt MARTA as part of their commute,” Snider wrote. “This ordinance also tells me that MARTA users that do not have shelters at their typical point of departure and destination do not matter to the city, especially in disinvested neighborhoods and corridors of the MARTA network. We need to do better.”
Snider got a quick Twitter response from Andre Dickens, the Post-3 at-large City Council member and mayoral candidate: “That makes absolutely no sense! I’ll issue legislation to change that this month!!!”
By June 30, the council had kicked the ordinance off the books. But MARTA says it doesn’t really matter. Stephany Fisher, a spokesperson for the transit agency, dismissed it as “an old ordinance that no one paid attention to … MARTA has not limited the number of bus shelters in the City of Atlanta based on this ordinance.”
Ironically, MARTA’s supply of bus shelters was already well under 300. As of late July, MARTA had 3,752 bus stops within Atlanta, of which only 282 had shelters — and 50 of those were installed in the past couple of years. That’s about 7.5% of stops with shelters.
The percentage is only a little better in the entire MARTA system, which includes Clayton, DeKalb and Fulton counties, with some service in Cobb and Gwinnett: 8,949 bus stops and 916 shelters, or roughly 10%.
Within Atlanta, another 26 bus stops have stand-alone benches or other seating installed by MARTA, and more installed by the City, community improvement districts or owners of nearby private property. So MARTA indeed flouted the old law for the public good in terms of the limitation on shelters and benches combined, with over 308 currently available.
If an obscure ordinance wasn’t limiting MARTA’s shelters, what was? Fisher says lack of right of way due to space limits or “private property conflicts” is one reason.
She also cites “low ridership, where stops may not have sufficient boardings for a shelter.” As one example, she said that “many stops” are mostly used by passengers ending their trip, not waiting to board a bus. By the same token, MARTA targeted high-ridership stops for shelters: “Over 30 percent of the bus boardings in the City of Atlanta take place at the 7.5% of the bus stops with shelters,” Fisher said.
But MARTA acknowledges room for improvements. A five-year plan that began in 2019 will add “amenities” to 1,000 bus stops system-wide at a cost over $7 million. That means shelters, benches or other furniture.
MARTA reached its first-stage goal of installing amenities at 200 stops by the end of fiscal year 2021 on June 30, Fisher said. That included the 50 new shelters within Atlanta.
A map of shelters and benches within Atlanta provided by the transit agency shows relatively even distribution across the city, with no glaring inequities.
MARTA bus routes were slashed last year as ridership plunged in the heart of the pandemic, which also meant that more than 300 stops with shelters were unavailable. In April, the transit agency restored service on all 110 bus routes, and those stops are available again. “No shelters were removed or closed permanently due to the bus service adjustments made during COVID,” said Fisher.
So now, with the old law deleted, sheltering bus riders from rain and sun is limited only by the imagination of real estate lawyers and transit agency funders.