Keeping transit on track should be a priority for Atlanta BeltLine

By Guest Columnist RYAN GRAVEL, founder of Sixpitch who wrote the original thesis behind the Atlanta Beltline

The success of the Atlanta Beltline is astonishing, even to me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not surprised that it’s working – it’s doing everything we always said it would do.

I’m more surprised that we’re actually building it, and not only on the east side of town. Yet as exciting as it is to see ephemeral ideas finally being cast in trees and concrete, it matters, of course, how it gets done. Every half mile is the culmination of hundreds of dreams and decisions that hopefully reflect the vision that we’ve been working toward for so long.

Ryan Gravel

Ryan Gravel

So as we revel in the Eastside Trail’s early success and the delight that it brings to our lives, it’s important that we not lose sight of how far we still have to go, and how badly things could go wrong. I say that, I guess, because I’ve seen too much drama on this 16 year journey. I can’t possibly forget that even with the wind at our backs, we have to stay vigilant to ensure we achieve our larger goals.

I’ve been thinking about transit a lot lately. Along with affordability and other challenges for the Atlanta Beltline’s equitable impact, transit is one of the most critical aspects of the project that will determine our ultimate success.

As we celebrate the first segments of our extraordinary trail, we have to make sure that transit is not watered down just because it is expensive and hard. Transit – along its continuous and traffic-free loop – is critical not only because it is at the core of what we promised to deliver, but more importantly, because it is required for the rest of our vision to work.

Transit was an urgent and driving force of our early momentum. With rapid development suddenly transforming the city’s industrial belt in the early 2000s, neighborhood-oriented transit proposed a relief valve for that growth.

S-Line Salt Lake City

The S-Line in Salt Lake City (Photos by Ryan Gravel – 2014)

It would help us maintain our quality-of-life in the face of new traffic and density, much of which was coming to intown neighborhoods whether we built the Atlanta Beltline or not. Real transit – unstuck from car traffic on corridors like Memorial Drive and Marietta Boulevard – would allow the city to grow in a more measured and sustainable way, and allow its inhabitants to remain mobile within a context of increasingly-clogged city streets.

A few weeks ago, as I was digging through a decade and a half of Atlanta Beltline memories, I came across a digital reminder of the urgency for transit that drove our early momentum. In 2003, VanDerKloot Film Studios produced a 7-minute promotional video to support our early efforts.

They did it for free because like so many people, Bill VanDerKloot fell in love with the vision and wanted to see it come to life. It includes Cathy Woolard, Mayor Franklin, the late Kim King, other developers, community leaders, and Jane Fonda – who contributed her voice to the video’s narration.

VanDerKloot video

VanDerKloot Film Studio 2003

I was honestly surprised when I watched it – partly by the advances in video technology that have been made since that time, partly by how utterly unrecognizable I am at exactly one minute into the video, but mostly by its unrestrained and urgent attention to transit.

Today, with the sunny success of the Eastside Trail, the urgency for transit somehow seems blunted. I’ve even heard whispers that maybe transit isn’t necessary – that if we just widened the trail, surely that would be good enough.

My first response to such a suggestion is that the promise of the Atlanta Beltline was that it would be available and useful to everyone. Walking, biking, and other varieties of people-powered mobility are wonderful, healthy, and sustainable forms of transportation, but they don’t work for everyone at every time of day or in every season.

Winter cold, summer humidity, pouring rain, driving snow, the dark of night, visual impairment, physical disability, physical injury, chronic pain, heavy or cumbersome loads, travel time, and long distances are all good reasons that we need transit service on the Atlanta Beltline.

Basically, we need to make sure that everyone can benefit.

The Atlanta BeltLine

The Atlanta BeltLine looking south toward Highland Avenue (Photo by Ryan Gravel – 2004)

The second response is a reminder of how much things have changed already and how much more change is coming. Like it or not, our city is poised for tremendous growth and there is still plenty of land for it, even along the booming Eastside Trail.

Meanwhile, traffic from beyond our borders into downtown and midtown will overwhelm whatever traffic is generated by local development. Our city in the future will be a very different place, and while these changes may stem partly from the Atlanta Beltline, they more accurately reflect a much larger cultural momentum that is fundamentally changing life all over metropolitan Atlanta and across the entire nation.

So if we act urgently on an aspirational and positive view of our future, we can leverage this change to our advantage and the Atlanta Beltline can actually accomplish the goals that brought it to life. We can manage the growth we see coming by extending the reach of MARTA’s rail network and expanding opportunities to live with less dependency on cars. We can protect and even enhance our quality-of-life – our economy, culture, and social life – even as the city accommodates more people, business, and traffic.

The Atlanta BeltLine

The Atlanta BeltLine – future transit guideway (Photo by Ryan Gravel – 2015)

This goal requires us to not only build transit on the Atlanta Beltline, but to do it soon and correctly. Only transit unstuck from traffic within a dedicated right-of-way can reliably provide the kind of service we need, and we can’t assume that that’s going to happen just because it is how our vision was always described. To make sure we get what we want, we have to participate in its advancement and make sure that project leadership has the resources required to implement with the quality and timeframe we need.

So as we celebrate our early successes – the construction of trails and parks, the realization of a new intown economy, and community revitalization – let’s not lose sight of the fact that our ultimate goal is to improve our lives in the long run.

To do that, we need much more than what we see today. The accomplishment of such a compelling, impactful, and necessary vision will require revived urgency for investments like transit, so that we can manage the change we see coming and ensure it delivers a city we still want to live in.

Note: Please click on this link for updates on Atlanta Beltline transit.  

21 replies
  1. Burroughston Broch says:

    MARTA follows the potential passengers and money by planning to expand the Red Line north. Red and Gold line trains are 5-6 cars each, while Blue line cars are usually 2 cars each.
    There are at least 14 times more potential MARTA customers outside the City of Atlanta than inside.
    Feel free to write of tremendous growth in the City of Atlanta after its population exceeds the 497,000 recorded in 1970 – perhaps by 2030.Report

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  2. Clay Walker says:

    “….the dark of night… good reasons that we need transit service on the Atlanta Beltline.”
    I have noticed recently that the PATH states that it is only open from “dusk to dawn.”
    So after daylight savings time hits again and it’s dark during evening rush hour, are bicycle commuters legally supposed to stay off it and ride only in the street (with no bike lane) to commute?
    Basically “the dark of night” is not allowed according to the signage.Report

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  3. O4W says:

    Burroughston Broch Nice job making points that have nothing to do with the article other then to take a big steaming dump on Atlanta

    “MARTA has realized there are at least 14 times more potential MARTA customers outside the City of Atlanta than inside, so they follow the potential passengers and money by planning to expand the Red Line north.”

    Considering the City of Atlanta already has pretty good coverage with HRT service, it makes sense for MARTA to focus on extensions of the existing lines. It is also why LRT/Streetcar is being planned to fill in the gaps inside the city limits.

    “North-south Red and Gold line trains are 5-6 cars each, while the east-west Blue line cars are usually 2 cars each.”

    When was the last time you actually rode MARTA? East-West Blue Line trains are 6 cars as well, with the Bankhead Green Line trains being 2 cars due to the platform only being able to accommodate that number.

    “Feel free to write of tremendous growth in the City of Atlanta after its US Census population exceeds the 497,000 recorded in 1970 – perhaps by 2030.”

    Yes, because the decimation of the City by white flight (mostly by people similar to you) didn’t have anything to do with the population drop.

    Get over yourself.Report

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  4. Matthew Rao says:

    It’s the multiple layers of access and connectivity and the unique isolated circumferential right of way that gives the BeltLine so much more meaning than a great path trail alone could have. Transit is the transformational piece that we must have to make the whole idea work, connecting to MARTA at cardinal points and making every point along the BeltLine a possible start or finish for many people on many journeys.Report

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  5. Sydney Roberts says:

    What he said! Plus, the trails should be developed with dedicated bike lanes so that they can be used as true commuting options. Currently, the East Side Trail is a victim of its own success, and is often too crowded for efficient & safe biking.Report

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  6. Burroughston Broch says:

    @O4W Burroughston Broch 
    “Nice job making points that have nothing to do with the article other then to take a big steaming dump on Atlanta”

    The points are not a dump, but they are facts you don’t want to acknowledge.

    “When was the last time you actually rode MARTA? East-West Blue Line trains are 6 cars as well, with the Bankhead Green Line trains being 2 cars due to the platform only being able to accommodate that number.”
    I ride MARTA every week. The last time I had to drive to the airport I saw a 2-car train going over the Downtown Connector, and it’s not the only time. Of course, it was not the Bankhead Connector.
    “Yes, because the decimation of the City by white flight (mostly by people similar to you) didn’t have anything to do with the population drop.”

    The 29% drop in the City’s population between 1970 and 1990 coincides with large population increases in both Cobb, Clayton and DeKalb counties. Check the demographics of both counties and you will see where much of the black flight (and some of the white flight) from the City of Atlanta went.
    “Get over yourself.”
    Laughing and rolling in the floor.Report

    Reply
  7. O4W says:

    Burroughston Broch The reason you saw 2-car trains run across the Downtown Connector is because they run from Bankhead to Edgewood-Candler Park stations, and are not limited to the Proctor Creek Branch.Report

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  8. mnst says:

    Burroughston Broch As per usual, your head is so far up your ass I’m not even sure you’ll be able to hear this, but we’ll try: there are two east-west lines, Broch. Blue line trains are six cars, green line trains are two. Every other train during the day is a two-car train. At night, the green line only runs between three stations so every other train you’d see in downtown is six cars. I don’t even know what the hell point you’re trying to make, anyway—BeltLine transit is wholly separate from MARTA’s heavy rail expansion projects, and they are both proceeding concurrently. I just attended a great community meeting a few weeks ago where the planners told us about the state of BeltLine transit projects.Report

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  9. marquis liberty says:

    Burroughston Broch  That’s correct.  MARTA is basically a commuter rail system at this point.   And that’s fine.  There needs to be connections for folks living and working outside the main trunk of the subway though – whether it’s bus or rail doesn’t matter.  Plus, MARTA won’t be running the BL transit.   The city will.  And citing census population for the city doesn’t mean anything.  The city of Jacksonville has basically the same population as San Fran.    It’s an arbitrary line.     The fact remains that people need connections.  The BL can help provide those, along with enhanced bus service and providing dedicated lanes for streetcar.Report

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  10. Equitable says:

    Transit doesn’t have to mean streetcar. It could mean bus. Buses are much more affordable, much more flexible, and we can have them much quicker than streetcars. Streetcars would be fine if they just rode the circle around the city, but they don’t; they exit onto increasingly congested narrow streets where having a fixed guideway doesn’t make sense for drivers, transit riders, or cyclists. The big argument for streetcars after you’ve stripped away their non-existent cost advantage is that “the middle class won’t ride a bus.” Baloney. The middle class and all other classes will ride a mode if it makes sense to do so – fast, convenient, and affordable (cheaper than driving and parking). They don’t need a streetcar, they need to get where they’re going. A bus on the Beltline could happen quickly and could share a flat surface with bicycles.Report

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  11. mnst says:

    Equitable “the circle around the city” is exactly what we’re talking about: streetcars on the exclusive BeltLine right of way. Streetcars running in mixed traffic is an entirely different issue; one is not a reason not to do the other.Report

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  12. ktrackrecords says:

    Id say they should stick to bike and pedestrian paths. Focus on whats working. Public transportation is mostly needed for core business districts with high population density. Not between existing or up and coming neighborhoods. A transportation engineer or economist will measure existing and future demands and tell you how to meet that demand. Thats real transportation planning. a city planner will do the opposite.Report

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  13. mnst says:

    ktrackrecords The BeltLine goes through some of the most rapidly-densifying parts of the city—by the time the transit actually gets built, it’s going to be sorely needed in West Midtown, O4W, Inman Park, and other neighborhoods that are rapidly gaining dense mixed-use developments with lots of new residents and tiny two-lane streets.Report

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  14. SteveBrown says:

    The Beltline is a fantastic project, but it is an economic development project.  Economic development is important, but large amounts of state and regional funding for relieving traffic congestion should not be used to redevelop that portion of Atlanta.  We have certain financial vehicles available to encourage economic development and they should be used.Report

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  15. SteveBrown says:

    mnst SteveBrown
    Transit on the Beltline would be for the benefit of any new development in the area.  The streetcar project, by most any measure, is an overpriced disaster.  

    I am hoping we can concentrate scarce funds for transit for dense population or transit dependent areas where it can be justified.  Unfortunately, no one has yet to figure out how to cover the operations and maintenance in future years of the rail transit.Report

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  16. mnst says:

    SteveBrown Nope. Transit on the BeltLine would be for the benefit of everyone who lives near it, including every resident of my neighborhood.

    The streetcar project is about 1% complete so to call it either a success or a disaster seems to be tremendously premature.Report

    Reply

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