Just 3% of commuters in the Atlanta- Sandy Springs-Roswell Metropolitan Area commute by public transit. In comparison, 33% of New York-Newark-Jersey City Metropolitan Area commuters use public transit.
A large part of the reason behind this difference is accessibility. Just 3% of Atlantans live near (within ½ mile of ) daytime high-frequency transit, compared with 47% of New Yorkers. In fact, Atlanta has lower transit accessibility than all but three of the largest metropolitan areas in the US, according to data compiled by the Center for Neighborhood Technology.
Primarily as a result of decisions made over half a century ago, MARTA’s service is limited to the most central areas of Atlanta. Even though the majority of the area’s population lives “outside the perimeter” (on the opposite side of Interstate-285 from central Atlanta), MARTA rail doesn’t reach more than three miles past the freeway. Few high-frequency bus routes run much farther. Let’s take a look at how this came to be.
A city built by railroad, Atlanta was once a compact, transit-centric community. A streetcar network served downtown and surrounding areas—where most Atlantans lived and worked—and was heavily utilized for about 70 to 80 years before cars began to gain favor. It was then dismantled toward the middle of the 20th century.
As Atlantans began to move farther from the city center in the second half of the 20th century, highways followed. But public transit, for the most part, did not.
The creation of MARTA was kicked off by the Georgia General Assembly in 1965 but required ratification by the counties in which the service was to operate. Voters in the city of Atlanta as well as Clayton, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett counties supported the authority’s creation, while Cobb County voters opposed the initiative. Funding the service was even more difficult. The first proposal, considered in 1968, failed to gain the support of most of the area’s newly enfranchised Black voters.
Dr. Ronald Bayor, a professor emeritus at Georgia Tech’s School of History and Sociology and the author of Race and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century Atlanta, said that the 1968 referendum failed in part because “it did not plan for the Black population of the city at all.”
The all-white planning commission that put forward the proposal had designed the system focusing on white neighborhoods and had not included any rail lines running to the majority-Black western neighborhoods.
A second plan was proposed in 1972, this time including a line connecting the western neighborhoods with Downtown. This measure to fund MARTA with a 1% sales tax was narrowly approved in DeKalb and Fulton counties but decisively defeated in Clayton and Gwinnett counties. At the time, Clayton and Gwinnett were both majority-White suburban to rural counties, unlike the more urbanized and racially diverse DeKalb and Fulton counties. “Race played a very big role [in the vote] because Whites in the suburbs did not want MARTA bringing Blacks into their areas,” Bayor explained.
In 2014, Clayton County (by this time majority Black) joined DeKalb and Fulton Counties in MARTA’s service area by passing a similar 1% sales tax. Other nearby counties like Cobb and Gwinnett still have not voted to join the authority and are not served by its routes.
The Cobb and Gwinnett Counties of today are vastly different politically and demographically than the Cobb and Gwinnett Counties of 1971. In the last few years, both counties have trended Democratic, voting for Stacey Abrams, Joe Biden, Jon Ossoff, and Raphael Warnock. At least in terms of party strength, these suburban counties are beginning to look more like Atlanta’s city center than the surrounding rural areas.
At a local level, however, these counties’ politics have striking similarities to those of the decades past. Gwinnett County voters rejected a 2019 referendum to join and fund MARTA with a 1% sales tax, and Cobb County has not held a vote on the issue since 1971.
Referring to the racial animosity that fueled anti-MARTA sentiment in the 1960s and 70s, Bayor said “nobody says it anymore, of course. They’ll talk about tax burden, talk about crime… nobody talks about race outright anymore… but it’s very much still there.”
Jennifer Larosa is a government relations consultant and the president of Advance Atlanta, an advocacy organization focused around increasing transit coverage in Atlanta’s suburbs. Larosa explained that transit politics at the local and state levels often transcends party lines.
In addition to suburban Democrats like those in Gwinnett County sometimes opposing transit expansion and operations funding, Republicans sometimes support increasing such funding. Larosa cited the example of a bipartisan 50-cent tax on rideshare trips to fund transit projects, which passed the Georgia General Assembly and was signed by Governor Brian Kemp last year.
Efforts to expand transit in suburbs where the majority of residents commute by car also calls into question the best use of resources. Even within the city of Atlanta, only 32% of people live near daytime high-frequency transit.
Binh Dam is a Georgia Tech electrical engineering graduate and a co-founder of the advocacy group MARTA Army. His organization focuses on what he calls “tactical urbanism,” which involves focusing on smaller-scale changes to make transit more appealing to potential riders, like putting trash cans and bus schedules at bus stops. The organization’s volunteers have surveyed thousands of MARTA bus stops to determine the most needed improvements.
Dam stressed that “the problem with the current service is there’s just not enough of it to begin with.” He explained that current funding doesn’t allow for high frequency service on all of MARTA’s bus and rail routes, and increasing frequency would mean decreasing geographic coverage. “You have to… compromise between frequency and coverage,” he said.
Despite these compromises, both Larosa and Dam stressed that their organizations work with each other to further their shared goal of improving the region’s public transit services within and outside Atlanta’s city limits.
Lastly, transit accessibility inherently relies on a built environment that is conducive to transit use.
Today’s Atlanta suburbs extend well past the originally planned extent of MARTA, even if Cobb and Gwinnett had joined in 1971. In the 1980s and 90s, the Atlanta area expanded along highways Interstate 75, State Route 400, and Interstate 85, primarily through low-density suburbs filled with cul-de-sacs far from commercial development.
According to Darin Givens, a Georgia Tech web developer and the founder of urbanism advocacy organization ThreadATL, “we ended up with a situation where most of the Atlanta region was embedded in these car-dependent places… the entire built environment of the region is one that is highly supportive of car travel for most every trip and unsupportive of transit use.”
In an environment fundamentally built for cars, where people live far from each other and from the places they want to go, transit can only be so good. Givens pointed to downtown Woodstock and Marietta Square as examples of newer walkable density in Atlanta’s suburbs where the environment’s urban design nudges people to walk places rather than drive.
Expanding transit into the suburbs and making the suburbs more conducive to transit must work in tandem, explained Givens: “We need to think in terms of expanding transit and improving pedestrian facilities and improving the way we use land by way of more compact infill development and mixed-use development that really supports transit and supports walking and supports biking.”