Saving the Atlanta BeltLine: A shift from transit to micromobility

By Guest Columnist KEVIN H. POSEY, who writes about transportation and has served on related boards in the Washington region. He moved to Atlanta in 2017.

Atlanta’s BeltLine is perhaps the city’s best-known landmark. As with New York’s High Line, travel writers point it out as a key stop for those visiting Atlanta. However, that popularity poses a threat to its viability as a usable transportation corridor.

Kevin Posey, original

Kevin H. Posey

The BeltLine is over capacity and in need of expansion. To alleviate this congestion, the long-dormant streetcar plan for the corridor should yield its unused right of way for a second, parallel path for users on wheels, such as those on bikes and scooters.

Such an addition would allow pedestrians to enjoy the path without risk of collisions, while those on wheels would be free to reach their destinations quickly and without impediment. The Atlanta BeltLine would, therefore, fulfill its promise as a significant transportation corridor, but without the high costs associated with a rail transit option or the decimation of the trees along the route.

The corridor on which the Atlanta BeltLine runs today was originally a series of railroads built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as bypasses of downtown Atlanta. The city’s central railyards suffered from frequent congestion as freight trains mixed with passenger trains on their way through downtown. As passenger rail traffic declined and interstate trucking took off, the need for these bypasses wound down.

In 1999, Georgia Tech graduate student Ryan Gravel came up with a conversion plan for his master’s thesis, which focused on replacing the now-abandoned BeltLine tracks with a two-track streetcar line. The concrete path was later developed in conjunction with the PATH Foundation.

The BeltLine’s rail component is now a planned feature of Atlanta’s streetcar plan. The city currently has only a short line connecting the area near the Georgia World Congress Center with the Sweet Auburn neighborhood. This line, along with the entire plan, was recently put under the responsibility of the city’s heavy rail and bus system operator, MARTA.

Transit systems such as streetcars don’t exist in the Dutch city of Breda, because they are made redundant by mobility devices including bicycles and electric scooters, as well as walking. Credit: Lourdes López-Castro

While the planned system looks impressive on paper, a streetcar probably won’t run on any part of the BeltLine until well after 2025. That’s despite the passage of a T-SPLOST (Transportation-Special Local Option Sales Tax). The tax will only gradually accumulate the funds necessary for the BeltLine streetcar, plus MARTA has prioritized bus rapid transit, in which buses share road space with other vehicles, and other projects ahead of the planned BeltLine streetcar. Over half of the BeltLine streetcar route won’t even have detailed planning underway until long after 2025.

Roughly half of the planned loop now has a concrete trail, with the busiest section being the Eastside Trail. According to information provided by Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., approximately 70 percent to 80 percent of users are pedestrians, while 20 percent to 30 percent are cyclists. Approximately 6,000 cyclists per day passed the Ponce City Market counter in the summer. Scooters only began to appear in the spring of 2018, so that mode has yet to be fully measured.

However, a stroll along the path near Ponce City Market shows that scooters are now one of the dominant modes on the BeltLine. That’s astonishing, as the use of scooters and e-bikes was technically illegal on the path until 2019. However, this rule was ignored by nearly everyone, including the police.

Complaints by pedestrians and cyclists about scooter user behavior led the City of Atlanta to ban them from sidewalks, but did legalize their use on the BeltLine. In June of 2019, the city began the process of requiring scooter-share companies like Bird, Jump, Bolt, Lyft and Lime to enact a geofence on the BeltLine that would limit speeds to 8 MPH.

Kevin Posey, BeltLine construction

Seemingly every new building along the Atlanta BeltLine has its own access point to the trail, where users will try to merge on or off a path where others are traveling by foot or wheel at a variety of speeds. Credit: Kevin H. Posey

Unfortunately, limiting rentable scooter speeds won’t fix the speed differential problem. Privately owned scooters won’t be geofenced. Conventional and privately-owned e-bikes won’t be affected either. No posted speed limit exists on the path, so it’s hard to see what legal framework exists to eliminate the yawning speed differential between those on foot and those on wheels.

That’s a real problem, because usage will only rise. Nearly every new residential and commercial complex along the BeltLine features direct access. That means more people will be stepping or scooting out onto a single path filled with people traveling at varying speeds. Walking out of a restaurant onto the path on busy Saturday will be akin to pulling onto a 12-lane freeway from a stop sign.

Detouring wheeled users from the BeltLine to resolve the speed differential crisis would require the creation of a bypass route with safe, separate lanes along streets. Yet such a scheme would pose significant problems for user safety and comfort. The parallel routes are:

  1. The Monroe Drive/Boulevard corridor to the west.
  2. Local access streets east through the Virginia-Highland neighborhood and the existing multiuser path in Freedom Park.

Both involve busy, multilane road crossings at-grade. The rolling terrain would also be a challenge to user comfort, particularly for those who aren’t in peak condition.

Putting the BeltLine’s streetcar reservation into service as a paved path for wheeled users would make the entire corridor safer and more comfortable. This eliminates the speed differential between those on wheels and those on foot, while retaining the most direct connection between popular destinations along the BeltLine like Piedmont Park, Ponce City Market, and Krog Street Market.

Kevin Posey, BeltLine, bikes

Cyclists prepare to merge onto the Atlanta BeltLine, where they are to share space with e-scooters, joggers, pedestrians, and other cyclists – all modes traveling at varying rates of speed. Credit: Kevin H. Posey

Significantly, easing congestion will ease use of the BeltLine for those with mobility impairments. Providing space for users in motorized wheelchairs means that they need not deal with cumbersome transit vehicles like a streetcar. Even with level boarding, space within transit vehicles for the physical dimensions of a wheelchair can sometimes be unavailable due to crowding.

Yet with a parallel, wheels-only path, accessing their destination would be as simple as pulling out on the BeltLine and setting off. That’s likely why such users are a common sight in Dutch cities like Breda, which is laced with separated bike paths. Neither a streetcar nor local service bus is to be found, as they are redundant.

In the end, it’s unlikely that many BeltLine users, regardless of ability, will wait on a streetcar to go 2.5 miles, the initial phase along Eastside Trail, instead of using more readily available micromobility options like scooters and e-bikes. As Deloitte Insights recently pointed out:

  • “[T]he majority of public transit trips are also short: on average, roughly five miles for rail, four miles for bus, and two miles for streetcars—those journeys are also potentially susceptible to substitution by micromobility.”

Given that a survey by Atlanta BeltLine, inc., shows that building the streetcar is not even in the top three of the public’s priorities, it’s probably time to focus a bit more on a inexpensive fix for today’s BeltLine congestion problems than a costly, long-delayed streetcar line.

Note to readers: This article originated as a project for a bike infrastructure certification course offered via the Dutch Cycling Embassy and DTV Consultants in Breda.

 

Kevin H. Posey, BeltLine stroller

Space gets tight along the Atlanta BeltLine, even in this lightly populated moment where users include pedestrians, cyclists and couple with a baby stroller. Credit: Kevin H. Posey

 

Kevin Posey, scooters

A quiver of scooters stands ready to propel riders along the Atlanta BeltLine. Credit: Kevin H. Posey

 

Kevin Posey, BeltLine pedestrians

Pedestrians fall into a pattern of walking on their right side of the Atlanta BeltLine. An e-scooter is available for a rider to join the mix at any moment. Credit: Kevin H. Posey

4 replies
  1. Avatar
    Cameron Simmons says:

    The idea of scrapping the plan for streetcars alongside the Beltline is definitely a great idea. Streetcars are a 19th century mode of transportation that does not belong in the 21st century.

    I walked the Eastside Beltline recently and was amazed athe number of scooters zipping along weaving in and out of the walker and dodging bikers. It looked crazy and finally convinced us to seek elsewhere for a quiet walk.Report

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    Matthew Rao says:

    As an Atlantan who has followed the Atlanta BeltLine project since it was an idea presented to groups in auditoriums in this City almost 20 years ago, and as a current co-Chair of the group BeltLine Rail Now, I can tell you that the whole Beltline phenomenon is perhaps the single greatest citizen-driven and supported project in our history. AND I have to take issue with the premise and the conclusion of this opinion piece.

    For nearly 20 years, the citizens of the City of Atlanta have been clamoring for this unique and transformative project. It always was and still is a transit project with many components, principally the 22-mile loop of light rail that connects 45 neighborhoods to each other and to MARTA. At many key junctures, Beltline rail has been supported at the City Council, the Mayor's office, the Atlanta Regional Commission, and at MARTA. Atlanta Beltline, Inc exists to support the cohesive full vision of the plan, and at the most recent State of The Beltline Breakfast, developers and officials alike spoke publicly to the audience about the compelling need to ensure that this most essential component of the Beltline project will indeed be built.

    The rub is this: after touting a plan in 2016 that featured a complete Beltline Rail loop prominently among many projects it would build if we the people of the city of Atlanta voted for a half-cent sales tax, MARTA has amended its priorities so that no realistic or meaningful build of the rail will occur before 2040.

    What we at BRN and many others are fighting for is a shift in MARTA's priorities to put the rail component of the BeltLine back at the top of the list, consistent with how MARTA and the city sold the referendum to the voters in 2016, before the author of this piece lived here. We have no intention of giving up on that plan. And we believe that paving more of the corridor to suit the needs of a few special interest groups would be a mistake that would preclude the fulfillment of a project that will move Atlantans to work, to play, and to life. This is a project for all Atlantans, regardless of age, race, wealth, physical ability, class, or neighborhood.

    The BeltLine always was and still is a transportation project. Light rail was long ago (even before MARTA became involved) selected as the preferred alternative for the corridor. It can handle current and future demand. It runs nearly entirely in its own right of way, 70% percent of which is already under the control of the City. Its circular nature affords connections to MARTA Rapid Rail at 4 cardinal points.. A planted rail bed means less paving and less storm runoff and more CO2 consumed by the project itself . Rail on the Beltline has made density in the corridor possible. Parking waivers and other exceptions to normal zoning anticipate the transit. We made ourselves a promise and we have been made a promise by our elected and non-elected officials.

    Fulfilling that promise and objective is the only way to support the kind of density possible along the BeltLine and the only way to equitably serve all Atlantans who are paying the sales tax. It is a fact that those who need transit the most in the City live just outside the BeltLine loop in an arc on its southwest to southeastern reaches. It is also a fact that there are already tens of thousands of jobs on the Beltline, and tens of thousands more to come, whether we build transit or not.

    As we grow from a city of half a million residents to one over 1.2 or 1.3 million within 25-30 years, and if we want to preserve our historic neighborhoods and existing tree canopy, the former industrial-Commerical areas along the entire BeltLine are one key place we can achieve densities and development for a significant number of that 700,000 new Atlantans. And, if we act now, we can welcome them to a lifestyle that is car free from the beginning instead of making empty promises of that life being possible one day. -Matthew Rao, co-Chair Beltline Rail Now.Report

    Reply
  3. Avatar
    David Edwards says:

    Thanks for the piece Kevin. As you probably know, you are not the first to suggest this solution. Prior to the micro-mobility revolution, several of us were pitching the idea of dedicating the unused section of the corridor for autonomous vehicles, an option I would argue should still be on the table. Both AVs and micro-mobility technologies bring several advantages, not the least of which is solving the "last mile" problem. It's hard to imagine a future where they are not an integral element of the transportation landscape.

    As someone who is on the Eastside trail on a daily basis, I can attest to the congestion challenges and the safety issues that accompany them. It strikes me as odd that we continue to allow the unused portion of the line to lie fallow while we wait for the streetcar. Why not go ahead and deploy a relatively low-cost solution like the one you are suggesting and see how it works? If it fails to address our transportation needs, then we can always revert back to streetcars, or to AVs if they prove viable.

    I was a member of the team that put together the original business case and financing plan for the BeltLine. I can assure you that we did not think of the BeltLine as a "transit corridor first" proposition. Because the BeltLine needed to be primarily funded using property tax increments, we thought of the project as an economic development project first and foremost. Over the course of the development and modeling of the financial plan, we realized that the majority of the economic development benefits – in the range 70-80% of the projected property tax increase – could be generated through the construction of the trail and parks system. Since the trail and greenway constituted only 20% of the capital costs (excluding right of way acquisition), it quickly became clear to us that the priority should be to build the trail and parks. This is in 2006 by the way.

    Fixed line transit on the BeltLine was always a separately analyzed proposition. We leveraged the earlier business case work that was done on a city-wide street car system that pre-dated the BeltLine project. What was very clear was how hard it is to make a business case for a city-wide street car network. We managed to create a marginally viable scenario that entailed a three phase build-out: Peachtree Corridor Spine first; east-west connection second: BeltLine circle last. The economic viability of that scenario depended on a lot of rosy assumptions regarding the increasing density of the Peachtree corridor, declining costs of street car infrastructure over time, and lots of Federal money.

    Flash forward 12 years and we find a very different world. There is now no prospect for a Peachtree Corridor streetcar (mostly because the Feds have said they won't duplicate the MARTA line above ground). Street car infrastructure costs have gone way up, not down. Even the modest density that we assumed would be developed along the BeltLine has not occurred (e.g., the 10th and Monroe property, which we projected would have residential towers remains completely undeveloped).

    And to all of this you add Kevin's point about micro-mobility and the autonomous vehicle revolution that awaits, and I have to imagine that the economics of fixed rail transit on the BeltLine simply cannot work. As someone who once advocating for a fixed rail transit system, I can understand the reluctance among some to abandon that project. The challenge is that the world has changed significantly since then, and I find it hard to believe that a viable case for a streetcar system can still be made from either an economic or public policy perspective. I'm guessing others – such as the transportation planners at MARTA – have reached the same conclusion. Of course, if the viable case is sitting on someone's laptop somewhere, I would love to see it. We should all be persuadable if the case exists.

    Personally, I am quite hopeful that Atlanta will address its transportation challenges through other means. New technologies (micro-mobility, AVs, etc) are ideally suited to a city like ours that has relatively low density, lots of undeveloped land and a street system that has the capacity to be reconfigured in a way that makes micro-mobility options safe and reliable. Any incremental dollars available for transportation should probably be spent on building the infrastructure needed to support those technologies. They are not only likely to be more efficient and effective, but more equitable as well.Report

    Reply
  4. Avatar
    nick says:

    I think its not a good idea to immediate flail your arms and point out the bads, before the project is even completed.

    Going by your suggestion: lets take a few hundred million of the declining tax revenue Atlanta receives, to build out rail that runs, maybe 16 miles.Report

    Reply

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