Density bonuses essential for MARTA’s expansion to ease traffic congestion

By Guest Columnist WILL ADAMS, an Atlanta-based researcher, analyst and frequent speaker in the energy utilities industry

Many MARTA rail expansion advocates I speak with are surprised to learn the transit system’s ridership figures have been down each year since 2009, with 2014 as one of the lowest on record.

Will Adams

Will Adams

Sure, you can blame cheap gas prices. You can even blame then Lt. Gov. Lester Maddox’s bizarre mandate that no more than 50 percent of MARTA’s revenue could go to operating costs, ultimately handicapping and condemning the system to highly inflated fares and, thus, reduced ridership 30 years later.

But what MARTA does have going for it is that unlike Atlanta’s other public transportation systems – federally funded roads and highways – MARTA is financed hyper-locally, at the city and county level. It is – by and large – a libertarian, small government transportation system paid for through a highly regressive consumption tax whose most frequent riders typically can least afford it.

At $2.50 per ride, a one-way trip on MARTA is only 25 cents less than a one-way trip anywhere on the New York City Subway. One system has 48 stations and the other has more than 400. You do the math. Thanks, Lester Maddox!

Still, why do low ridership figures persist?

In a word: Density, or a lack of it. Only about 450,000 people, or 8 percent of metro Atlanta’s regional population, currently reside within the confines of the capital of the New South.

And that’s not by accident. Generous federal government handouts for roads, highways and single-family detached housing mortgages ironically created the largely red-state communities of suburban North Atlanta. What was once rolling hills of arable farmland or dense woodlands outside the city center (Smyrna, Dunwoody, Alpharetta, Milton, Duluth, et al) is now miles of blacktop asphalt, separating housing tracts from sprawling strip malls anchored by big box retailers, chain restaurants and acres of half empty parking lots.

Low density, Peachtree Road

Even Atlanta’s premier boulevard, Peachtree Road, in Buckhead, doesn’t have an abundance of dense mixed-use developments. Credit: David Pendered

So it’s no surprise that, according to urban planner Jeff Speck, only about 35 percent of people in Atlanta who want to live in a walkable urban neighborhood can find and afford it.

How do we increase that number?

Well, for starters, we should reverse the policies that have exacerbated the balkanization of our region into culturally homogenous and economically disparate zones of ugly, unwalkable, car-dependent suburban sprawl: Parking mandates, land-use restrictions, conventional zoning codes, redlining and lack of historic preservation.

Granted, these concepts aren’t exactly the best conversation starters at a cocktail party. But because you can’t often go to a cocktail party without someone complaining about traffic, it means they’re critical to understanding how we progress and move forward to design Atlanta as a city for people, not cars. And that should really be the primary focus – which is to say – providing incentives for adequate mixed-use density that mitigates the need to drive a car to go everywhere to do anything, something that MARTA rail expansion alone physically cannot accomplish.

Much of the Atlanta region currently adheres to “conventional” zoning codes, which separate land-use and segments residential housing development from its surrounding commercial, industrial, retail and public realms, often resulting in the required use of the car. Furthermore, mandated parking minimums do nothing but give people an excuse to continue driving.

These laws and zoning codes largely prohibit real estate developers from creating denser, more walkable, mixed-use places for people. Even more problematic is the guideline set up by the Federal Housing Administration – which backs more than 40 percent of all new residential mortgages – in that it prohibits lending in developments that are more than 35 percent commercial, industrial or retail. This essentially prevents many prospective homebuyers from purchasing properties in developments with office or retail space, and is part of the reason why the new Ponce City Market switched from initially selling condos to offering overpriced rentals.

But some of that is starting to change, albeit slowly. Mayor Kasim Reed and Planning Commissioner Tim Keane are pursuing a “Zoning Ordinance Diagnostic”, a public-private partnership aimed at rewriting the city’s land-use ordinances and zoning codes. Its goal is to identify opportunities that would increase density and encourage more walkable, mixed-use developments.

Traffic congestion, NW corridor

A congestion tax levied by Atlanta on suburban residents who commute into Atlanta would help to partially offset the federal funds used to build roads that facilitate a commuting lifestyle, such as the Northwest Corridor in Cobb and Cherokee counties. Credit: David Pendered

Some of these concepts have already come to fruition in places such as North Highland Avenue in Inman Park. Adjacent to the Eastside trail of the Atlanta BeltLine, North Highland’s “form-based codes” have helped create high quality areas of livable public streetscapes with shops, restaurants, bars and entertainment for the surrounding neighborhood.

But wait … what does any of this have to do with MARTA rail expansion or traffic congestion?

Well, everything. If we can provide the right incentives for dense, mixed-use, walkable developments, we can help mitigate the need to drive everywhere for everything. Not that everywhere in Atlanta should look like Midtown or Inman Park, per se, but the focus, at least from a local policy perspective, should be on creating dynamic, people-oriented neighborhoods.

The next step then could be to provide tax incentives for businesses that relocate to or expand to within a half mile of a MARTA station or allow employees to work remotely a few days a week. But the reverse should also be on the table: A congestion tax for OTP suburban commuters. Anti-transit critics may not want MARTA rail expansion into their communities, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re entitled to tens of billions in federal government handouts that provide for unlimited traffic capacity into the city of Atlanta at the expense of the quality of life of city dwellers.

Density begets efficiency, and higher levels of efficient density can create walkable and bike-friendly complete streets that are safer, healthier, more livable, more enjoyable and more environmentally friendly. But as a conduit for reducing car dependency and traffic while also expanding economic opportunity, MARTA rail expansion fundamentally requires such density to help Atlanta grow into a world-class city of the 21st century.

9 replies
  1. Joe Frank Harris says:

    Will, another bunch of urban zealot myths and legends.  The Federal highway money is 100% funded from the gas tax.  All the Feds are doing is returning to the roads the money they collect from drivers at the gas pumps.  This is 100% a user tax.  There is no Federal “subsidy”.  Yet this lie gets repeated all the time and you repeat it here.  Please provide hard evidence of “tens of billions of handouts” that are not directly or indirectly simply a return of user based taxes.  As to the suburban roads, these are not funded by the Feds or the State in almost all cases.  These suburban roads were built and paid for at the county or city level by local taxes (with sometimes matches of state and  Federal gas taxes which again, are collected by drivers at the pump as a user tax).  In summary as to relates to roads they have been almost entirely funded and paid for by user taxes yet the lie keeps getting repeated over and over that somehow Marta does not get these “subsidies”- the reality is that Marta is far more subsidized than the roads.  The reality is that Marta gets more handouts.  They get 1% sales tax on all retail spending  anywhere in Fulton, Clayton and DeKalb County whether I take Marta or not.  The other reality that urbanists willfully ignore is that public transport ridership is not growing.  Not only is it flat to down in Atlanta but, for example, in urbanized Washington DC with massive Federal transit support ridership has also been down something like 8 of the last 9 years.  The reality is that despite all the discussion folks including the Millennial’s are not adopting public transport in any notable way as evidenced by actual ridership trends anywhere in the United States.  This is a nationwide fact-ridership is at best flat to down (generally true in Europe as well).  I guess its more fun to talk about increasing the ridership say in Boston than actually doing it.  Check out the facts- its not some kind of Atlanta issue because we are a Red State.  No more than 5 US cities have more than 10% public transit ridership anyway so even if ridership grew as you dream it would never grow enough to mitigate congestion because in almost every city in America 90%+  don’t take public transit.  Another point you indirectly make is that by saying the City of Atlanta is evidently not dense enough to encourage MARTA ridership and must get even more dense supports the argument by the North Fulton cities that the time has not yet come for MARTA way north of I-285.  If the City of Atlanta is not dense enough as you state then surely Roswell can’t justify it.  Also have fun with your idea of a suburban based congestion tax, etc. More than 75% of metro Atlanta population lives outside of the perimeter.  Start penalizing folks for visiting the city or working in the city and see what happens.  This has been tried before in other cities with bad results.  From a financial standpoint it costs roughly $6.00 per ride every time a MARTA passenger gets on the train yet the fare is at best is $2.50.  Marta can’t make it losing about $3.50 per passenger each and every time someone boards.  To put it another way if Marta users had a user tax like the roads do it would cost $6.00 per ride not the subsidized $2.50 per ride.  This is the hard reality.  Your answer is more subsidies but as you point out, ridership is declining (and as I point out this is not an Atlanta issue but ridership is flat to down all over the United States even in the supposed urban friendly places) so even if you have more subsidies for the money pit how will it reduce congestion if no one rides?  Another example is the street car.  Ridership is off by 50% with the advent of a small $1.00 fare.  Nobody is yet focusing on how much this system is hemorrhaging cash as a $1.00 fare does not come close to covering expenses.  Fortunately the street car is not backed by Marta so these losses are directly paid by the City of Atlanta tax payers. Finally just about 10 years from now self driving cars, self driving all electric car shares and Taxis will become to be a true reality.  This will be tons more convenient for most people than old fashioned hard rail which by its very nature is not flexible.  While you think you are progressive and forward thinking the reality is that old school hard rail is already fading into oblivion as evidenced by ridership trends.  Self driving all electric car shares will be the death knell.Report

    Reply
  2. TerryGresham says:

    Joe Frank Harris I’m not quite sure what point you’re trying to make, but I did want to respond to this statement you made: No more than 5 US cities have more than 10% public transit ridership anyway so even if ridership grew as you dream it would never grow enough to mitigate congestion because in almost every city in America 90%+  don’t take public transit. 

    Really REALLY not sure where your evidence of the above came from but a simple Google search I just did yielded this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._cities_with_high_transit_ridership

    I may not always be the smartest one in the room but I’m pretty sure there’s more than 5 cities on that list.Report

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  3. ironic1 says:

    When has MARTA ever experienced really high ridership?
    Maybe higher one year than the preceding year – but never peak, really high, dynamic, impressive ridership.
    And it is not likely to happen this decade or next until the City of Atlanta and other metro area cities/counties elect capable leaders who want to put their time and energies into bettering the region – not preen and prance on to the national stage a la the Kassims, Andys, Maynards and Jailman Bill. Shirley Franklin was okay but not great.

    I understand that national and world-wide networks and connections are positives, but as a long-time resident of Atlanta, I am tired of picking up tabs for elected officials for that bratty Reed’s trips to Paris, etc. He is a fraud and not thinking of what benefits Atlanta. Will we ever elect real mayors instead or princes?Report

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  4. Real World says:

    The referenced list of cities with high rates of transit to work users seems suspect. I’m wondering if survey respondents distinguished between every day users and occasional users.
    New York might be possible because so many people who work there have no choice but public transportation. The New York system has good revenue from the fare box because there are so many riders and incremental increases in passengers and fares has no increase in costs. Still, I’ve read elsewhere that the New York system has a dedicated stream of tax revenue (don’t know specifics) but still gets an annual subsidy from the City of something like two BILLION dollars.
    If the City wants to run MARTA tracks all over town and build skyscraper condos in every block, please go right ahead. I choose to not live like that and I also choose to not help cover the cost from my humble estate here in the OTP.Report

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  5. ironic1 says:

    Real World  We are thinking seriously of finding a very humble estate outside of metro Atlanta, and maybe even outside of Georgia. We live in the city, and our residential neighborhood has been blind-sided by PATH, Emory and the City with plans for a multi-use trail cutting through our street. Emory wants to run tracks all around us – especially Emory’s merchants. We are  fed up with the city’s non-leadership for residents who pay high taxes and get little in return. Our neighborhood to pay several hundred dollars per residence a year for extra security, plus hundreds of dollars for private, home security. Even then, we are hit by vandals and home invasions. You made a wise decision.Report

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  6. Real World says:

    ironic1 Real World
    Sorry for your bad experiences.  City government embraces every fad from the world of Urban Planners. Regrettably, many otp politicians follow that lead as well.  The trail is blazed, so to speak, by the Planners at ARC. They have advocated (quietly) for a massive trail network all over Metro Atlanta that will eventually cost hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions.  Funny thing: hardly anyone knows it. It isn’t officially happening as a massive trail network.  It’s just a series of small trail projects that just happen to meet up at county and city borders.  Cobb County is so enthusiastic they are spending $1.8 million to replace a bridge that doesn’t even belong to us so that bike lanes can be added. The old bridge is fine otherwise. It spans the line between Cobb and Fulton/City of Roswell, neither of whom is paying anything although the bridge belongs to Fulton County.  I guess it’s fair warning to not be too presumptuous about governmental tranquility in the otp.  I grew up in Atlanta but in those days the local government wasn’t trying to run over one group to provide for another.Report

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  7. ironic1 says:

    Real World ironic1  Thanks. We really don’t mind change for the better but have seen what is happening in Atlanta – and many other big cities as well – as being motivated by politics and big money. The trickle down, which is more like a drip, drip, may actually do some good and help people but not to fill specific needs. . I’m really too mature to expect the best from leaders now, but what I find jaw-dropping is that people like Reed and Hillary Clinton have maneuvered themselves to be champions of the poor. I’m sick of Republicans, too, but at least they are upfront about what they stand for.
    Having worked for the state (two different agencies), I know the game: someone’s brother-in-law or mistress has some connections to land and developers.And we know the rest of the story.
    Well, enough of my cheery attitude for one day. Really, I’m an optimist, which is why I know there is a better place to live somewhere else – and it does not involve angels and choirs (not yet at least).Report

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