Atlanta Transit Planning 101: It’s Not Too Late

By guest columnist MIKE DOBBINS, Professor of Planning Practice at Georgia Tech’s College of Architecture and former Commissioner of Planning and Community Development for the City of Atlanta

Transit is a good. In an ideal world, it gets people where they want to go, cleanly, efficiently and inexpensively. Transit meets a need. Twenty percent of Atlanta’s citizens live at or below the poverty line; in addition, a growing percentage of the population does not drive. Maybe it’s because they’re too old, too young, or because they just don’t want to.

The lack of reliable public transport prevents these people from accessing jobs, services, schools and amenities. Indeed, the lack of access to public transit hinders the ability of low-income residents to participate effectively in the economy.

Mike Dobbins

But public transit is not cheap. It’s expensive to build, and if the cash box covers a quarter of its operating costs, it’s considered a success. Funding is hard to come by, especially in Georgia, the only state that has stifled any significant public funding for transit. Federal funding is limited, highly competitive, and covers only capital and not operating expenses.

The entire transportation field is now in a state of rapid, uneven and therefore difficult to predict change, with service innovations like Uber, technological innovations like driverless vehicles and changes in the travel behavior of millennials taking place. combine to make even mid-range projections difficult.

It is therefore important to take all of this into account and plan correctly and wisely.

  • First, where are the greatest concentrations of places where people live and where they want or need to go (origins and destinations of the trip – or Os and D – in transportation planning parlance)?
  • This information should be the starting point for identifying travel demand and travel routes or lanes.
  • Then filter this information to take into account demographic characteristics so that transit-oriented people (TOPs) overlap with the origin and destination data.
  • Then make ridership projections
  • Then plot routes that meet this refined need and desire for public transport access.
  • Dobbins, log out

    Atlanta’s transit plan does not serve areas that have become or are in the process of becoming important origins and destinations. Credit: Mike Dobbins

    Then compare these routes with the system in place to identify gaps and optimize transfers, taking care to rethink existing routes taking full account of current and future densities in the short term (for example, MARTA does not provide any access to transport in common north-south along Northside Drive, although its hallway is flanked by Atlantic Station with its shuttle to the MARTA train, Midtown West, Georgia Tech, Georgia World Congress Center, Falcons Stadium, Vine City MARTA station, the Atlanta University Center and West End campuses – go figure).

  • Then consider the range of development implications along these routes (for example, one might expect already busy commercial and residential corridors to be set aside for density increases in mixed-use projects, taking advantage of more access that an improved corridor can provide)
  • Then think about how to ensure that the new developments brought about by public transport could provide jobs and services and be affordable for a representative sample of citizens – mixed income, mixed generation.
  • Then consider the full range of public transport options to best meet current and future needs, such as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), Streetcar (LRT), Streetcar, Bus, Gondola, Shuttle, Uber , emerging technologies and how it all connects to walking and cycling – what is now called “the last mile”, the delivery and quality of which affects the attraction and use of public transport
  • Then consider the funding available or reasonably foreseeable, the full range of sources, uses and timeframes, both on the capital side and on the operational side.
  • Then use a timeline to prioritize that takes into account travel demand, route improvements, transit mode (which should consider transitioning from fewer to more robust capacities over time), development goals, financing needs and likelihood
  • Then, taking into account all of the above information, identify the transit projects that implement the plan fairly – ridership, routes, modes,
  • Then, review the opportunities and obstacles associated with each and recalibrate the transit project schedule accordingly.
  • Then review the alternatives for the agency which will detail the planning, construction and operations necessary to complete the program, starting with MARTA
  • Then go.

What Atlanta did, however, was start with a streetcar on the BeltLine, a solution it has since promoted before setting up a tax distribution district in 2005 to implement the plan. While the old railroad segments that make up the BeltLine make a lot of sense for a park and trail system, they are not a solution to the city’s transit problems as noted above.

Dobbins, 50 year plan

The Atlanta BeltLine 50-year plan does not connect high concentrations of origins and destinations. Credit: Mike Dobbins

City leaders embraced the idea of ​​the BeltLine Streetcar as the Next Big Idea that saves the city. At the time, citizens and professionals stressed that a ring – but not to – the highest concentrations of destinations met neither existing travel demand nor the needs of those most dependent on public transport for their journey. render to work, services or events.

After five years of insisting on the transit ring, the city began to recognize the need for connectivity to central areas. In 2010, the city was able to obtain a grant from the federal government to accelerate “ready-to-shovel” projects emerging from the Great Recession. Thus was born the Atlanta streetcar, about half of its $ 100 million capital cost funded by federal dollars.

From the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center on Auburn Avenue to Centennial Olympic Park, a distance of just over a mile, the route is rich in destinations but light on origins, the other half of the equation. basic to operate public transport effectively. Thus, the current state is that the tram mainly serves a few tourists per day, not having enough origins, distance or speeds to attract many regular users.

For this streetcar, although the Federal Transit Administration required the participation of MARTA in what it considered a questionable project, the city decided that MARTA was not sufficiently informed, efficient or committed to build or operate the streetcar and has therefore set up its own mini-transit agency.

So now the city has THREE transit agencies: a small unit of the public works department that oversaw the construction and operated the streetcar until it was clear they couldn’t and outsourced its management; MARTA, which has oversight and maintenance responsibilities; and the BeltLine, which continues to plan and plan future public transport, always streetcars.

BeltLine’s latest plan calls for around 50 miles of track, still including the ring, leaving serious questions about how to pay for its construction and operation, which agency will deliver it, and with changing travel behavior and of technology if the tram would even be relevant in this future.

Although a lot of time, money and effort has been spent trying to get the ‘solution’ to match the problem, with a successful referendum it is not too late to redirect the city’s efforts. to catch up with sensible transit planning. Last month, the legislature allowed Atlanta to put forward a referendum in November 2016 or 2017 on a proposal to increase the city’s sales tax by half a percent to raise $ 2.5 billion for the construction of public transport. Governor Nathan Deal did not sign Senate Bill 369.

Dobbins, next phase

Atlanta, the Atlanta BeltLine and MARTA are expected to work together to extend the Atlanta streetcar to Ponce de Leon Avenue. Credit: Mike Dobbins

Following the above steps should be the starting point. The result would likely show that other modes can respond more immediately to current and future ridership and meet pressing needs to achieve equitable access.

This access and appropriate mode choice would align well with the city’s emerging focus on strengthening its corridors for more intense mixed-use development as a balanced strategy to accommodate growing populations. Furthermore, such a coordinated incremental strategy would likely prove to be far more immediate, affordable and effective than the billions currently engaged in building the Distant Light Rail, BeltLine’s only and current plan.

Instead, it could contribute to other parts of BeltLine’s core mission and purpose, which so far have largely gone unfulfilled. By redirecting its capital funding for streetcars, it could begin to meet pressing needs for jobs, infrastructure and affordable housing on the west side, where the need is greatest. It could even speed up the development of its trails, now free from bridge reconstruction, a major cost factor so far, and the perhaps thornier issue of joggers and cyclists having to share the path.

Even so, a unified planning, development and operations agency must figure out how to connect the Atlanta streetcar to Ponce de Leon Avenue, where a legitimate emergence of origins and destinations is underway. These activities are beginning to justify the extension of the tramway or other mode of public transport, which is probably necessary to make the investment already made profitable.

The shame of this reality of transit is that it will further skew spending on BeltLine eastward, which has already received about three-quarters of its total spending, as property values ​​soar, commute, and waste. loss of affordability.

Until the connection is made, however, the Atlanta Streetcar will continue to provide a peaceful respite from the hustle and bustle of the city that surrounds it – smooth, quiet, clean, safe, beautiful views, and you have the place for you. It is worth the dollar.

About Wendy Hall

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