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Atlanta, where cars are king, considers a new transit future

New thinking

Time and again, Atlanta has resisted a less-car-centric vision of the future. But that could change Nov. 8 – perhaps as part of a larger generational shift nationwide.

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    Atlanta has attempted to expand its light rail lines in an attempt ease auto congestion in and around the city.
    Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
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When Simon Berrebi came to Atlanta from Paris four years ago, the Georgia Tech doctoral student quickly realized that, when it comes to public transportation, Atlanta is not Paris.

So he did something about it. Today, he is leading what he calls the largest crowdfunded transit project in the world: Placing trash cans and easy-to-read laminated maps of the MARTA transit system at all of the city’s 10,000 bus stops.

Not only have authorities blessed the efforts of Mr. Berrebi’s “MARTA Army,” the state is putting $3.8 million toward making the maps ubiquitous.

It is a portrait of how, perhaps, Atlanta is changing.

The city has long been one of America’s top poster children for the gridlock of a car-centered culture. Just four years ago, a transportation referendum for the metro area failed when suburbanites worried they were being asked to subsidize hipster transit in the city. Further back, efforts to expand MARTA were blocked by suburbs that worried rapid transit would bring the inner city’s problems to their doorstep.

Now, there are new signposts. On Nov. 8, Atlantans will be asked whether to support what one former city planning consultant called “the most aggressive transportation system in America”: A $379 million referendum that spans bike paths to street light synchronization, more bus service to new sidewalks.

Combined with a separate $3 billion project to extend and improve light rail, the referendum plan would put 97 percent of Atlantans within a half mile of a major new project. To pay for the plan, the city sales tax would increase from 8 to 9 percent, meaning that suburban residents wouldn’t have to pay anything.

Thought appears to have been shifting there, too, as suburban enclaves like Clayton County – once opposed to new mass-transit stations – are now open to them.

Yet perhaps the biggest change is in the perception of who benefits from investing in mass transit. Once seen primarily as a matter of social justice – offering inexpensive transport to poor residents – a much broader swath of Atlantans are now pushing for a different vision of the city.

Millennials for MARTA

The push for auto alternatives shows “there’s growing interest not just in transit alone, but in this sort of whole package of alternatives to driving – walking, biking, transit, carpooling, car-sharing,” says Asha Weinstein Agrawal, a transit historian and planning professor at San Jose State University in California.

“But that’s also becoming the challenge: If you want to have fewer people on the road and more people using alternative modes, you can’t just build a shiny new rail line and suddenly expect everybody to use it,” she says. “A much bigger shift can come if we can create communities where it makes sense either to not have a car or, more realistically, for families to have fewer cars.”

Much of this new push is coming from Millennials. They make up the core of Berrebi’s MARTA Army, and data show that the Millennial generation is leading a decline in driver license applications.

“I think I can speak for not just Atlanta when I say that people are tired of just building roads and parking and adding lanes, because we’ve come to the realization that [such projects] will only bring more traffic,” says Berrebi.

Different regions across the country are trying different approaches. Dozens of referendum-funded transportation projects are on the ballot from Tulsa, Okla., to Monongalia County, W. Va. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) of California is considering a “road diet” that would constrict roadbuilding in order to force Californians out of their cars and into trains.

Some critics see the moves as pie-in-the-sky.

“Ensuring that California's freeways were all six lanes, well-lit and safe would have been a gargantuan but practical task that could have been completed long ago and would have saved thousands of lives (though it would have required the admission that the mundane modern automobile was here to stay),” writes Victor Davis Hanson, a former classics professor at California State University, Fresno, in The Jewish World Review. “Instead, cool bureaucrats and hip politicians preferred to blow money on visions of grandiose space-age rail.”

More than a 'glorified sidewalk'

For his part, Atlanta resident Chris Wyczalkowski sees the issue more intimately.

“The real question is: What does transit do to our community?” asks Mr. Wyczalkowski, a founder of Citizens for Progressive Transit, and a doctoral candidate at Georgia State University. “How do you measure the quality of a neighborhood and how does it change in the presence or absence of [public] transit?”

Chris Wyczalkowski stands beside a main rail line through Atlanta. Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor

He points to Atlanta’s Beltline – an old rail bed that has been turned into a paved urban cut-through. The parts of the loop that are finished are now crammed with bicyclists and walkers.

The Beltline “has been called a glorified sidewalk, but I’ve never seen a sidewalk where I have to wait for people to get by so I can get a turn to walk on it,” says Tim Welch, a transportation policy professor at Georgia Tech.

Atlanta’s referendum takes that spirit a step further.

“Though [the self-taxing transit referendum] is sort of new in Atlanta, there’s actually a whole track record, especially in California, that suggests that [such ballot questions have] led to much more balanced transportation spending,” says Eric Sundquist, managing director of the State Smart Transportation Initiative in Madison, Wis.

But such initiatives don’t come without risk. Many city planners bemoan referendums as a tool to set transit policy, given that the results can end up as a grab bag of projects. The whole Atlanta project could be moot within decades if driverless car technology takes off, putting the flow back into highway commutes, notes Mr. Sundquist.

But for the MARTA Army, cities need to be reshaped to the demands and desires of today.

“We quickly came to the realization that Atlanta needed world-class transit, but that the traditional model of advocacy wasn’t going to cut it,” says Berrebi. “Because our political institutions are so fragmented, there needed to be a real demonstration of need and desire, and, for that, the citizens were going to have to take the first step.”

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