For three years running, Atlanta-area residents have ranked traffic as their top concern in an annual public opinion survey. And with good reason. National reports put the city near the top of the list for traffic, including a 2015 mobility report from Texas A&M University that ranked Atlanta the 12th most congested metropolitan area.
Known for its sprawl and auto-centric development, things got so bad that, in 1999, the highway-happy city was the first city to be denied federal funds for roads as punishment for its alarmingly high air pollution. Recently, a growing interest in public transit as a solution to traffic woes has been matched by calls from a panel of state lawmakers for a better funded and coordinated approach to regional transit.
But a new report from the Partnership for Southern Equity, an Atlanta-based nonprofit, says that in order to implement a better transit network, Atlanta must first confront the racial discrimination that shaped its current transportation infrastructure.
Equity concerns despite recent wins
The current transportation landscape (including what one reporter called an "alphabet soup of transit agencies") and its challenges "have been undeniably shaped by a history of structural racism and divisive policy decisions," writes Nathaniel Smith, founder of the Partnership, in the new report.
It's not the first time Smith has raised alarms about inequity in Atlanta. Last year, he made headlines when he joined Ryan Gravel -- the father of Atlanta's popular BeltLine park and trails network -- in resigning from the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership board, citing equity concerns.
To be clear, Atlanta has had some recent transit victories. Voters approved a half-penny sales tax in November for infrastructure upgrades, including new bike paths. Then in late 2016, a state senate committee report recommended that lawmakers consider developing a steady stream of state funding dedicated to "an all-inclusive solution in the area of transit," possibly signaling momentum at the state level.
But a truly regional transit system that addresses the city's segregated landscape has not been realized, Smith argues.
The report from the Partnership for Southern Equity serves as both a reminder of the history of racism that helped produce Atlanta's current transit challenges as well as a cautionary tale of a previous state-led effort to create coordinated regional transit that passed over Atlanta's Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority in favor of a new (and now largely defunct) Georgia Regional Transportation Authority. That organization's most lasting impact, the report notes, "is a fleet of coach buses that exclusively serve commuters between suburbs and downtown during rush hours."
Historical legacy affecting today's network
Like other cities, Atlanta was transformed by transportation and housing policies in the mid-1900s that subsidized suburban growth for white homeowners, leaving the city core underfunded and crippling the ability of black families to build wealth.
"The effects have lasted for generations," the report reads, describing what some have called the "$120 billion head start." Those policies fueling residential segregation were inextricably tied to transportation in the region, said Alex Karner, a city planning professor with the Georgia Institute of Technology and co-author of the report.
As white families took advantage of racist housing policies and lending practices and headed to the suburbs, "the economic activity was still concentrated in the cities, so they needed some sort of link," he said. Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were illegal, "the freeway system comes online," often running right through communities of color.
Enter MARTA. Though the metro area was largely segregated between suburbs and the central city, business elites still maintained an interest in making downtown economically vibrant and facilitating connections to the suburbs to manage traffic. Their interest in rail helped create MARTA, thanks to an act of the state legislature in 1965. Early on, the agency faced opposition from black voters, who rejected a proposed property tax in 1968 because they were "dissatisfied with a lack of input and the proposed design's emphasis on suburb-to-downtown access," the report explains.
In response, MARTA appointed a key critic to its board and reworked plans to include a major bus expansion and a rail line serving largely black neighborhoods as well as other changes. Black voters, in turn, helped pass the next funding referendum in 1971. But the measure failed in two of the four counties where MARTA was established. The two counties, notes the report, were rural and largely white. "Racial fears were certainly part of their opposition."
Division over transit
Other scholars have chronicled "this radicalized animosity toward transit" in Atlanta, including Jason Henderson, a geography professor at San Francisco State University. "Since it was established in the 1960s," he wrote in a 2006 paper on the politics of automobility in Atlanta, MARTA "was jokingly referred to as 'Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta.'" Indeed, he continued, "Every county in metropolitan Atlanta, with the exception of Fulton and DeKalb, had contentious local debates or referendums on either joining MARTA or establishing an independent, stand-alone transit system."
Voters in suburban Gwinnett County rejected MARTA three separate times "under a cloud of radicalized rhetoric," he wrote. One suburban politician interviewed for his paper told Henderson that, the day a sign went up for a new park and ride lot in his district, ahead of the 1996 Olympics, "the county had to reroute overwhelmed phone lines in county offices due to radicalized, anti-transit anger." The run-up to the Olympics, the report from the Partnership for Southern Equity notes, "was also when Atlanta began demolishing all of its public housing projects."
What emerged was a sort of two-tiered system: highways for the largely white suburbs and a chronically underfunded public transit system for people of color and low-income people, many of whom had to get by without cars, said Karner.
Even MARTA's focus on rail, often at the expense of expanded bus service, was seen as a concession to white riders who viewed buses as second-rate, notes the report. But those concessions did little to appeal to suburban counties. "The original conception of MARTA's rail system promised reduced highway congestion and extensive use by suburbanites traveling downtown," the report writes. "But these promises were not realized due to several failures: Dense development around stations did not occur, MARTA was rejected by voters outside of Fulton and DeKalb counties, and suburban whites were not interested in riding trains and buses with urban Blacks." And so the growth of the area continued to follow the highways.
Amid MARTA's struggles to expand and become a truly regional transit agency in a sprawling metro area, the city made history by becoming the first to be denied federal highway funds due to pollution problems.
In 2001, writes Henderson, "the Georgia Association of Highway Contractors ran television spots" reacting to the suspension of funds with footage that "showed grim apartment blocks and black people getting off a bus," while "narrators warned that radical environmentalists threatened to take away Atlantans' right to drive and live where they want."
By the end of the 20th century, the City of Atlanta had lost population even while the metro area grew. And as the area boomed, it remained segregated, with black Atlantans concentrated in the central city and southern metro, and whites in the suburbs, in part due to transportation decisions fueled by racial fears, according to the Partnership for Southern Equity. But those decisions, along with other policies that helped cement segregation, were not only detrimental to more vulnerable populations. They affect a region as a whole that "continues to struggle with traffic- and transportation-related challenges."
Demographic changes ahead
Now, the report continues, the city is undergoing another shift. "The City is still majority non-white, but between 2000 and 2010 it lost 30,000 Black residents while gaining 22,000 whites."
As in other metro areas, poverty has begun to shift from the central city toward the suburbs. The Atlanta Regional Commission expects some 8 million people to live in the 20-county area in the Atlanta region by 2040. As MARTA's reputation improves and big projects like the Atlanta BeltLine, an ongoing project that is transforming some 22 miles of old railroad tracks into a trail circling downtown, attract new development, the legacy of racism remains an important dynamic in guiding Atlanta's future.
"The congestion in Atlanta is uniquely bad," said Karner. "I think people are starting to realize even if you live in Cobb County or Gwinnett County or somewhere suburban, funding MARTA is not a bad idea."
And with increased support for public transit, including the state committee report and the recently approved half-cent sales tax for MARTA in the City of Atlanta, said Karner, the debates about how those recommendations are implemented or how that money is spent have critical equity concerns that he hopes the report will help highlight
So while it points to the need for dedicated funding and integrated regional transit, it also touches on affordable housing as a way to address traffic problems. "If we had a better fit between affordable houses for low-wage workers and the location of jobs, that’s also a transportation mitigation but its strictly housing," said Karner.
"Atlanta talks a big game about racial justice," he said. "But are we really doing anything about it?"