When Ryan Gravel submitted his master’s thesis to Georgia Tech’s School of City and Regional Planning in 1999, he didn’t think his idea would come to fruition. His proposal eventually led to the BeltLine: a 22-mile loop trail connecting 45 neighborhoods around Atlanta using old, unused rail lines. Currently, large parts of the east, west, and southwest trails are finished, and project completion is expected by 2030.
Originally designed to include a streetcar line spanning the whole trail, MARTA announced its first plan to add light rail, also referred to as streetcars, to the trail this spring. The plan would connect the existing downtown streetcar with the BeltLine, adding just 1.5 miles of streetcar to the BeltLine by 2027.
Speaking on the importance of including the streetcar along the BeltLine, Gravel said, “if you don’t build the transit, then guess what? It’s a recreational trail. But the cost is, you know, all the people that get left out of it.” As economic growth and upscale private development around the BeltLine surges, critics wonder where this leaves long-time Atlantans.
According to Gravel, “we’re building the BeltLine within a policy framework that doesn’t protect people. The problem isn’t the BeltLine. The problem is a policy framework. Whether you’re talking about housing, affordability, economic opportunity, you know, who benefits and who’s left out.”
According to their website, Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. has made a commitment to create or preserve 5,600 units of affordable housing around the BeltLine by 2030. However, in their reporting they do not distinguish between newly built housing and the preservation of existing units or define what preservation means.
Homes are classified as affordable if they are available to people who earn between 80% and 30% of the area median income, assuming that a household does not spend more than 30% of its income on rent. For the Atlanta area, the area median income was around $82,000 in 2020 for a household with four members. However, typical incomes in many of the communities the BeltLine passes through are significantly lower than the Atlanta area median. For this reason, much of the housing around the BeltLine that is considered “affordable” fails to meet the needs of Atlanta’s most vulnerable communities.
A shortage of affordable housing is a widespread issue throughout Atlanta, not just surrounding the BeltLine, said Gravel. “Midtown was booming [in the] last 20 years, exploding with growth, but we haven’t asked them or Buckhead to do 20% affordable housing.”
In 2016, Gravel left the board of the BeltLine Partnership due to his concerns about affordable housing. He wonders why “we don’t ask any of our other infrastructure to address affordable housing, equity, injustice, you know, those kinds of things. We should, and we would make different decisions about those infrastructures as investments as capital investments if we did.”
According to Gravel, this means that prioritizing public transit and affordable housing remain larger issues plaguing Atlanta. Focusing on them only in relation to the BeltLine limits the scope of how to effectively tackle these issues.
Just as Atlanta has changed rapidly in the past 20 years, Gravel implored Atlantans to consider the future. “Transit takes a long time to build, and it’s expensive, but it’s the thing that prepares us for the future because right now people are still looking at the BeltLine, as what they see in front of their eyes. What they’re not seeing is how transformed the city will be in 20 years.”
One group, BeltLine Rail Now, imagines what Atlanta would be like if connected by light rail. According to the organization’s chair, Matthew Rao, “there is an essential connection between these other goods — social goods — that we want. Equity, diversity, affordable housing, and sustainability all are related, and the piece we’re working on and that common denominator for this is BeltLine rail.”
Rao says that when trail construction began in 2011, many were opposed to it. “Now those people have forgotten about it and are asking ‘why do we want anything besides a trail?’”
Rao said that while MARTA’s proposal to connect the downtown streetcar with the BeltLine around Ponce City Market was a step in the right direction of expanding rail, it was unexciting and unambitious.
Gravel put it more bluntly: “[BeltLine rail and the downtown streetcar] are two different projects. They have different purposes, different goals, and wildly different conditions. And they just don’t just stick stuff together.”
The downtown streetcar has been criticized for its short loop and its lack of right-of-way status resulting in the streetcar being slow and often stuck in traffic. Many proponents of connective, equitable transit are wary of connecting what they consider to be an inefficient downtown streetcar with the proposed BeltLine light rail.
Adding streetcars is now a contentious issue, but streetcars are not a new concept to Atlanta. In the first half of the 20th century, Atlanta had 200 miles of streetcar tracks running through the city, which were later phased out due to the city’s prioritization of automobiles.
Rao noted that “when you invest money in certain kinds of infrastructure, they become permanent, right? So if you build a bridge for cars but you don’t build it to support the weight of trains, you’re not going back and rebuilding that bridge again, not in this decade.” For Rao, the goal is to build the streetcar along all of the BeltLine and ensure connections to existing MARTA subway rail lines as soon as possible.
David Edwards, executive director of the Center for Urban Research at Georgia Tech and a policy advisor for neighborhoods in Atlanta’s Office of the Mayor, has a different view. He said that Atlanta, with a population density of 3,700 per square mile, doesn’t get close to the threshold of “10,000 people per square mile needed to even have a conversation about fixed rail.”
Edwards was working under then-Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin when the BeltLine was proposed. “At that point, it was purely a transit proposal that was if we had this abandoned corridor, whether we were to put a transit line on it — wouldn’t that be a beneficial asset to the city? And we started doing some analysis and it was pretty obvious to us that the corridor in which the BeltLine flows through … would not support transit — or a fixed rail transit — operation because there just weren’t enough people and weren’t enough destinations and originations on that corridor to generate the ridership that you need to make fixed rail network work.”
With this analysis, Edwards said that the city “quickly transitioned to what else you could do with this corridor, and that’s where we got this bike trail and the green space and the parks.” This underscores the BeltlLine’s current role today as primarily an outdoor recreation connector rather than a transit connector.
Edwards proposes “flexible technologies that … don’t require such big fixed investments upfront,” such as bus rapid transit to advance transit mobility.
Bus rapid transit is a public transit system based on reliable and high-frequency buses with dedicated lanes and right of way. With many existing multi-lane roads and highways, creating designated bus lanes across Atlanta is a relatively low-cost solution. Bus routes are also easier to alter when ridership patterns change due to unforeseen circumstances, such as a pandemic.
As Atlanta continues to grow, public transit will become increasingly important. However, Edwards said, the BeltLine is not the optimal location for fixed public transit. “As a singular network, just a streetcar running around in a big circle was not going to work.”
Coupled with continuing growth both around the BeltLine and throughout the city, a lack of affordable housing is likely to remain critical. Gravel reminds Atlantans that “we’re building a city. We’re building a place for us to live and it has to work.” This means that infrastructure and transit solutions that champion equity must be placed at the forefront. According to advocates like Gravel, our debate must shift from objections and protests against expanding transit and affordable housing to when and how we plan to accomplish building it.