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Black Leaders Discuss Their Efforts to Promote Equity in Mobility Advocacy

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Moderator Sahra Sulaiman with panelists Tamika Butler and Zahra Alabanza. Photo: Jean Khut

Editor’s note: Streetsblog Chicago sent writer Jean Khut to Atlanta last month to report on The Untokening and share lessons from the event that could be applied to transportation justice efforts in our city. We’ll be running another post on the main Untokening activities in the near future. 

In early November, mobility advocates from across the United States gathered in Atlanta for The Untokening, a “convening” to address equity issues in transportation and public spaces. The event was an extension of this year’s Facing Race Conference, held in Atlanta earlier that weekend.

In conjunction with the convening, The Untokening and the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition hosted a panel discussion called “LA X ATL Exchange: Race, Place & Justice,” featuring Tamika Butler, director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, and Zahra Alabanza, co-founder of the Atlanta chapter of Red, Bike, and Green. Sahra Sulaiman, a communities editor at Los Angeles Streetsblog, served as the moderator.

Walking, biking, and transit advocacy groups often struggle with how to define equity in their work. During the panel Butler said some bike advocates she knew felt there weren’t enough voices representing people who’ve been marginalized by systemic prejudices.

Since starting her position at the LACBC in 2014, Butler has become one of the most prominent voices promoting equity in active transportation. She grew up in Omaha and previously worked as a civil rights lawyer. Butler wasn’t into biking until a friend convinced her to do AIDS/Lifecycle, a fundraising bike ride from San Francisco to L.A. It was there where she met her wife Kelly and found her passion for bikes.

Butler said she has dealt with her share of of racism and sexism in the bike world. One common criticism she gets is that she isn’t “bikey” enough to lead an advocacy organization, which begs the question of what this term actually means. Are her critics saying she isn’t riding her bike enough for transportation and/or recreation to be a bike advocate? Butler doesn’t know the answer, but feels that she wouldn’t face the same criticism if she were a white male.

Likewise, Alabanza didn’t fit the profile many other Atlanta bike advocates were used to. She moved to the city fifteen years ago with a background in community organizing, focusing on LGBTQ issues and reproductive rights. Eventually, her interest in social justice and biking intersected. She saw the need to create spaces for people of color to use biking as a way to form relationships and build community.

RBG originated in Oakland, California in 2007, and Alabanza co-founded the Atlanta chapter in 2012. At first many in the Atlanta bike scene didn’t know what to make of RGB and were surprised that they didn’t address some of the issues bike advocacy groups have traditionally focused on, such as promoting bike lanes and helmets. The volunteer-run group, which describes itself as “exclusively Black,” uses biking a way to address economic, environmental, and mental and physical health issues that impact African-American communities.

Alabanza said her work with RBG allows her to be “unapologetically Black.” Even though she helped create a positive, empowering space for African-Americans, she has faced some backlash, especially during the group’s first year. Alabanza has been accused of reverse racism from people who didn’t understand the need for an all-Black space.

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If Not for Trump, Last Night Would Have Been Great for Transit

Last night had the makings of a historic election for transit. Voters in cities as varied as Raleigh, Indianapolis, and Los Angeles turned out to support ballot measures to dramatically expand bus and rail service. But the election of Donald Trump and the retention of GOP majorities in both houses of Congress cast a pall of uncertainty over transit agencies everywhere, with continued federal support for transit suddenly in doubt.

Transit backers had a stellar night in local elections, but the Trump win brings funding uncertainty. Photo: Seattle Chamber

In local elections, transit ballot measures performed well, but the Trump win brings broader uncertainty. Photo: Seattle Chamber

In the regions with major transit ballot initiatives, the returns look good. (You can track the results at The Transport Politic.)

Indianapolis area voters approved a comprehensive transit expansion package that will significantly upgrade bus service throughout Marion County.

Raleigh and the rest of Wake County voted for a similar package of additional bus service and BRT routes, as well as a commuter rail connection to Durham.

Atlanta handily passed a half-cent sales tax that will expand MARTA’s rail and bus networks, as well as a separate measure to fund local complete streets projects.

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Transit Vote 2016: Atlanta May Finally Expand MARTA and Beef Up Bus Service

Atlanta's MARTA rail (left) hasn't expanded much since the 1980s. On the right, D.C.'s Metrorail, which has grown substantially. Credit: Greater Greater Washington

Atlanta’s MARTA rail (left) hasn’t expanded much since the 1980s. On the right, D.C.’s Metrorail, which has grown substantially. Credit: MARTA, Greater Greater Washington

We continue our overview of what’s at stake in the big transit ballot initiatives this November with a look at Atlanta. Previous installments in this series examined Indianapolis, Seattle, and Detroit.

Back in the 1970s, both Atlanta and Washington, D.C., received federal grants to build rail networks. After finishing the first wave of Metro construction, D.C. continued to invest, creating one of the country’s best high-capacity urban transit networks. But in Atlanta, MARTA’s rail lines pretty much cover the same ground as in the 1980s.

Unreliable bus service is a huge problem too. The FX show “Atlanta,” as Grist pointed out this week, depicts the struggles facing Atlantans who rely on transit, especially in suburban areas where trains don’t reach.

Proposed rail transit expansions for Atlanta. Map: MARTA

Proposed rail expansions and infill stations for Atlanta. Map: MARTA

The Atlanta region has had some opportunities to improve transit recently, but the political stars never aligned. That could change next month, when city voters weigh in on two issues:

  • A MARTA expansion, funded by a half-cent sales tax increase that will raise $2.5 billion over 40 years.
  • A “TSPLOST” measure that would raise the sales tax by .4 percent for five years, generating $300 million for complete streets and the “Beltline” — the rail-plus-trail project that encircles the city’s central neighborhoods.

The MARTA measure would pay for major bus service upgrades and up to 30 miles of light rail expansion. The City Council has selected a menu of transit improvements that will be eligible for funds, but the tax revenue won’t be able to pay for all of them.

One improvement that will certainly receive funding involves doubling service frequency on major bus routes from every 30 minutes to every 15.

Also eligible for funds: building light rail along the Beltline; seven miles of bus rapid transit with exclusive lanes, level boarding, and off-board fare collection; five enhanced bus routes with 10-minute headways and limited stops; and up to 17 infill rail stations.

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Atlanta BeltLine Visionary Speaks Out on His Very Public Resignation

Not many planners get an opportunity to influence their city in the way Atlanta’s Ryan Gravel has.

Photo: Atlanta Beltline Flickr via ATL Urbanist

Photo: Atlanta BeltLine Flickr via ATL Urbanist

The concept Gravel laid out in visionary master’s thesis — transforming forgotten railroad tracks circling the city of Atlanta into a recreational and active transportation corridor — laid out an entirely new organizing principle for the city and inspired thousands. Construction is well underway on his “BeltLine,” and national observers including the New York Times have heralded its potential to change the way Atlanta develops — from car-oriented chaos to a more walkable, urban, and connected way of life.

So it was a big deal last week when Gravel announced he was resigning from the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership Board — the funding arm of the project — due to concerns about gentrification.

We caught up with Gravel by phone to learn more about why he felt it was important to take a very public stand on this issue.

How long had you been on the board of the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership?

I started in 2009, I believe. I was nearing the end of two four year terms.

The [BeltLine] Partnership has always been this sort of philanthropic fundraising for parks and trails, awareness campaigns like bus tours, and advocates for social sides including affordability, but also jobs and health, making sure the BeltLine lives up to its goals.

There’s always been this sort of balance in the Partnership about what’s important.

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Atlanta Looks for Options Where Bidirectional Protected Bike Lanes Intersect

pfb logo 100x22Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities connect high-comfort biking networks.

Bidirectional protected bike lanes, which put both directions of bike traffic on the same side of a street, aren’t ideal. But they can be useful in a pinch.

Like all protected bike lanes, well-designed bidirectionals are more comfortable to more riders than having no bike lanes on busy streets.

This month in downtown Atlanta, something interesting is happening for the first time in the United States: two bidirectional protected bike lanes are crossing each other at a four-way intersection.

Fortunately, both of them are on the “left” side of signalized one-way streets. This is generally the best way to use a bidirectional protected bike lane, in part because it prevents total chaos in situations like this one.

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Reminder: Just Laying Track Is No Guarantee Riders Will Come

Atlanta's streetcar route is still surrounded by parking lots. Photo: Streetcarviews/Tumblr

Atlanta’s streetcar route is still surrounded by parking lots. Photo: Streetcarviews/Tumblr

Laying track isn’t enough to build a successful transit system — as some cities are learning the hard way.

A slate of new rail projects — mostly mixed-traffic streetcars, but that’s not the only way to mess up — are attracting embarrassingly few passengers. Some of these projects may be salvageable to some extent, but for now, they don’t provide the speed, frequency, and access to walkable destinations that make transit useful for people. Here are four cautionary tales about the inadequacy of just putting down rails and praying things work out.

Dallas

Dallas’s streetcar line opened last April and is attracting just 150 to 300 riders a day, Robert Wilonsky of the Dallas Morning News reports. The 1.6-mile streetcar connects downtown Dallas to the neighborhood of Oak Cliff. It cost $50 million, and the city hopes to expand it.

Before it opened, Peter Simak, writing for D Magazine, said the line was simply too short, and Dallas simply not walkable enough, for it to have much of an impact. The entire line covers ground formerly served by four bus stops. Still, some advocates maintain that ridership will climb once new development fills in and planned expansions are built.

Atlanta

Ridership on Atlanta’s 2.7-mile streetcar has been underwhelming as well. The project has been roundly panned by the local media, who have pointed out it’s barely faster than walking.

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Does It Make Sense for Transit Agencies to Pay for “Last Mile” Uber Trips?

Should transit agencies subsidize short “last-mile” Uber trips to expand transit access for people who live outside comfortable walking distance of a train station?

Is it smart of transit agencies to use Uber subsidies to expand their service areas? Map of Atlanta's MARTA plus a three-and-half mile buffer via CAP

The green areas denote where people would be eligible for ride-hail commute subsidies. Map: CAP

Columbus, Ohio, has proposed something along these lines as part of its application for U.S. DOT’s Smart City Challenge. The city is one of seven finalists competing for a $50 million federal grant.

New technologies associated with ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft make such a program more feasible, but is it a good idea? In a new report, the Center for American Progress explores how such a program might work for low-income residents of Atlanta.

CAP’s Kevin DeGood and Andrew Schwartz don’t reach a firm conclusion about the merits of such a program, but their report suggests it would have very limited impact.

They start by defining who would be eligible for the subsidized ride-hailing program, mapping out a radius of 3.5 miles from MARTA stations while excluding areas closer than half a mile away from a MARTA rail station or a quarter mile away from bus lines that connect to rail.

In one of their scenarios, any commuter living in that zone who doesn’t own a car would be eligible for a $3 ride-hailing subsidy for each trip to or from work. That would reach an estimated 8,300 people and cost $12 million per year.

In the other scenario, the same subsidy would be available for workers in households below the poverty line with three or more children, regardless of car ownership. CAP estimates this would encompass 3,300 people and cost $5 million per year.

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The Promise of Expanding Atlanta Transit Inside the City Limits

It looked like the Atlanta region’s ambitious transit plans might have been thwarted late last month when state lawmakers shot down a bill to allow Fulton, Clayton, and DeKalb counties to hold ballot measures potentially raising $8 billion to expand MARTA. But maybe that was a blessing in disguise.

Extending commuter rail to Alpharetta would have been very expensive. Image: MARTA via Curbed

Extending commuter rail to Alpharetta would be very expensive and divert resources from urban transit needs. Image: MARTA via Curbed

Transit expansion plans for Atlanta are moving ahead again in a new form. City leaders have decided to go it alone with a ballot measure that would put a city-only sales tax increase for transit expansion to Atlanta voters. The bill enabling the referendum overwhelmingly passed the House last week. If the Senate and Governor Nathan Deal approve it, and it musters a majority vote in November, the tax would raise about $2.5 billion for transit in Atlanta over 40 years.

Fulton County, which includes Atlanta’s northern suburbs, may also get a chance to raise its own tax for transit. But here’s why an Atlanta-only transit measure could be even better than a combined one.

To be politically viable in Fulton County, a transit tax would have to pay for commuter rail to suburban Alpharetta, 27 miles north of the city. That project would be very car-oriented — picture park-and-ride lots serving a rail line running along Georgia 400 — and very expensive: about $2.5 billion to construct, according to Curbed Atlanta.

Instead of building transit to serve sprawling suburbs, an Atlanta-only measure can focus on putting transit in the densest areas, where it can serve more people and support walkable development.

It’s not clear which projects an Atlanta-only transit tax would support, but Mayor Kasim Reed has said the funding would go toward “a much larger light rail component,” which, unlike the struggling Atlanta streetcar, would be separated from traffic. Those projects are likely to include rail along the Atlanta Beltline — the ring of transit, trails, parks, and new development taking shape along defunct freight tracks encircling the city.

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BeltLine Visionary: It’s Time to Radically Reconceive Urban Infrastructure

beltline

Photo: Atlanta BeltLine

Ryan Gravel was just a graduate student at Georgia Tech when he came up with the idea for the Atlanta BeltLine — a ring of parks, trails, and transit that would encircle the city, repurposing derelict space around abandoned train tracks.

Ryan Gravel, the visionary behind the Atlanta Beltline. Credit: Josh Meister

Ryan Gravel. Photo: Josh Meister

The first phases of trails and parks are now underway, and the Beltline has already catalyzed a wave of construction of walkable housing. Taxes from the development will help fund new transit routes. Broadly speaking, the BeltLine has inspired a model of walkable growth in one of America’s most sprawling regions.

In his recently published book, “Where We Want to Live,” Gravel says what’s happening in Atlanta with the BeltLine is part of a bigger shift: taking 20th century infrastructure and repurposing it for 21st century needs. Moreover, projects like the BeltLine provide a healthier model for infrastructure investment that is enduring, equitable, and creates the “places we want to live.”

Streetsblog recently spoke to Gravel about the BeltLine and his book. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our talk.

Can you explain the thesis of the book?

Projects like the BeltLine represent something much larger than the specific improvement that it’s making to the city. It’s part of a much larger cultural momentum that’s going to fundamentally change the way we build cities.

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Georgia Lawmakers Won’t Even Let Atlanta Vote on Transit Expansion

Once again, state lawmakers in Georgia have undermined urban transport in Atlanta. A bill to allow residents Fulton and DeKalb counties to vote on a half-cent sales tax to fund transit died in the Georgia Senate this week when leaders refused to bring it to the floor for a vote.

There's strong support for expansing MARTA among voters, but Georgia state lawmakers are stranding in the way. Photo: Wikipedia

There’s strong support for expanding MARTA among Atlanta-area voters, but Georgia state lawmakers are standing in the way. Photo: Wikipedia

A successful referendum would have raised $8 billion to expand the MARTA transit network. But for now there’s still no relief in sight for Atlanta’s stifling traffic and car dependence.

Polling by the local chamber of commerce revealed strong public support for the MARTA expansion proposal. But Georgia lawmakers won’t even give voters the opportunity to decide for themselves.

The bill was not taken up on the last day it could be considered by the House and Senate this legislative session. “It’s dead,” Republican Senator Brandon Beach of Alpharetta, who sponsored the legislation, told the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

The news means “the future of metro Atlanta’s public transit is uncertain,” writes alt weekly Creative Loafing, which relays rumors that resistance from lawmakers in North Fulton County ultimately spiked the bill.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed does hold some leverage in the situation. Reed said yesterday that “the issue is not over” and that he would block revenue raising measures for road expansion unless the MARTA ballot issue is allowed to proceed, according to the Saporta Report.