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How Clayton County Turned Its Zero-Transit Nightmare Around

Walking is great, but Clayton County's car-free households are about to get some transportation options. Photo courtesy of Georgia Chapter, Sierra Club

Walking is great, but Clayton County’s car-free households are about to get some transportation options. Photo courtesy of Georgia Chapter, Sierra Club

Whether Tuesday’s election left you feeling elated or devastated, there’s one happy story we can all rejoice in: Clayton County, Georgia, will finally get transit service.

For 10 years the county had a skeletal bus system with three routes, known as C-TRAN, which was then completely dismantled about four years ago. Having gotten its jump-start with federal air quality money, C-TRAN never really had the sustainable funding it needed. In 2010, facing a severe budget crisis, county commissioners voted to eliminate the service entirely. Advocates begged the commissioners to try other options, even raising fares and cutting service; anything but removing it entirely. But in March 2010, C-TRAN ceased operation.

Clayton County is a spread-out suburban area south of Atlanta. It’s the most economically depressed county in the region, and 7.5 percent of households don’t have access to a car. Most of the towns in the area have huge arterial roads but no real downtown.

So without a car and without even the barest of transit systems, people walk — along these unsafe arterial roads with no sidewalks.

“It’s not uncommon to see young people, old people, moms with babies, people with groceries walking in a ditch,” said Colleen Kiernan, director of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club. “In hot weather, in cold weather, in rain — in all conditions, at all times of the day and night.”

Just eight months after the bus service ended, nearly 70 percent of voters in Clayton County agreed in a non-binding ballot measure to join the MARTA regional transit service.

But nothing happened.

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WaPo Transpo Forum: America’s Mayors Aren’t Waiting for Washington

Atlanta’s BeltLine of bike and pedestrian trails is raising property values in every place it touches. Denver’s new rail line will create a much-needed link between Union Station downtown and the airport, 23 miles away. Miami is building 500 miles of bike paths and trails. Los Angeles is breaking new ground with everything from rail expansion to traffic light synchronization. And Salt Lake City’s mayor bikes to work and, by increasing investment in bike infrastructure, is encouraging a lot of others to join him.

At this week’s Washington Post forum on transportation, five mayors from this diverse set of cities spoke of the challenges and opportunities they face as they try to improve transportation options without much help or guidance from the federal government.

Speaking of the feds:

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

Mayor Kasim Reed of Atlanta is tired of Congress not doing its job. “Cities don’t get to kick the can,” he said. And even if the feds aren’t ready to make big investments, private and foreign investors are reportedly itching to get a crack at U.S. infrastructure, but there’s been no good process for doing so. Reed wants the federal government to play a convening role, bringing mayors together with private investors they can pitch projects to.

And either way, he said, if the federal government is providing less funding to cities for transportation, “we think they need to have a little less say” — except when it comes to safety. But Denver Mayor Michael Hancock says there’s an upside to the gridlock in Washington: “Cities are being more creative.” And Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker says the Obama administration has been a great partner — pointing especially to the TIGER program and the HUD/DOT/EPA Partnership for Sustainable Communities.

New projects:

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is excited about intelligent transportation technology, like the traffic signal synchronization his predecessor, Antonio Villaraigosa, pioneered. And LA’s Expo line — which he dubbed the Beach-to-Bars line — opens soon, turning a two-hour slog through traffic into a 45-minute pleasure cruise. He says it’ll open up access to the Philharmonic and sports venues that, these days, are often avoided because the trip is too hellish.

But Garcetti is already on to the next thing. To him, that thing is autonomous cars. He thinks LA will be a natural home for those. In fact, he openly acknowledges that his push to build BRT lanes is all in the interest of turning them into autonomous vehicle lanes a few years down the road. That’s right — despite the visionary strategic plan LA just released, Garcetti wants to turn road space over from efficient modes to less efficient ones.

And he does think driverless cars are just a few years away — he estimates that one in every 100 cars will be self-driving in 10 years, and five years after that they’ll be “absolutely mainstream.”

Denver’s Mayor Hancock is especially excited about the “Corridor of Opportunity” between the airport and Union Station because he lives out by the airport — one block inside the city limits, just enough to run for mayor, he admits. He currently drives to work, but he says he’s excited for the chance to take the train instead. “What we’ve decided to do is Denver is create a more multimodal approach to our transportation challenges,” he said. “Not only do you need to plan transit, but you need to plan for bicycles, you need to plan for pedestrian-friendly communities.” (And more lanes on the highway.)

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

Carlos Gimenez, mayor of Miami-Dade County, says they don’t really have a rail transit “system” at all, just one line (with a little detour to the airport). They’re still waiting for a rail link to the beach. The county’s new 10-year transportation plan has been lambasted by advocates as “complete fluff with no substance, future transit vision, or measurable goals.”

Once these projects get going, they have a way of multiplying. Salt Lake City has built 140 miles of urban rail in 15 years, and Mayor Becker says that even the skeptics wanted a light rail line of their own the minute the first line opened. What they still need to do, Becker said, is flesh out the bus system — “we invested in rail to the detriment of a really strong bus system,” he said — and fill in the gaps in the bike trail network.

On financing:

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A New Bike Network Takes Shape, and Atlantans Turn Out in Droves

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Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

The capital of the New South is working on its latest “highway” network. This one is going to be a lot quieter.

The massive Beltline trail and an impressive grid of protected lanes that will connect the trail system to key urban destinations are poised to remake transportation in the city that anchors the country’s ninth-largest metro area. Striving for Mayor Kasim Reed’s goal of making Atlanta one of the country’s top ten cities for biking, Atlantans have shown their enthusiasm with their feet: An estimated 95,000 to 106,000 people attended the open-streets event Atlanta Streets Alive on September 28 — shattering the previous record by at least 12,000 people.

For comparison’s sake, Portland’s Sunday Parkways festivals also set an attendance record in 2014 — by drawing 109,000 attendees to all five events combined.

As the video above shows, Atlanta’s embrace of open streets is part of a bigger shift in a city that’s shaking off its old “Sprawlville, USA” image with a combination of new housing and bike and transit infrastructure.

“It’s really shifting the way people think about living in the City of Atlanta,” says Rebecca Serna, executive director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition. “The focus is on the core of the city.”

You can follow The Green Lane Project on Twitter or Facebook or sign up for its weekly news digest about protected bike lanes.

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The 10 Best and Worst Cities to Catch a Bus to Work

This chart shows the number of jobs accessible by transit in Atlanta. Red indicates better accessibility by transit. Image: University of Minnesota

This map shows the number of jobs accessible by transit from a given point. Few parts of Atlanta have good transit accessibility compared to the nation’s top performing cities. Map: University of Minnesota

It’s been called “the geography of opportunity.” And David Levinson is trying to make a science of it.

In a new analysis, Levinson, a University of Minnesota transportation engineering professor, and his colleague Andrew Owen have ranked the 50 largest U.S. metro areas based on job accessibility by transit [PDF].

Levinson and Owen used transit schedules and walking routes to chart how many jobs are accessible in each region from a given point within a given amount of time. Adding Census data about where people reside, they were able to calculate the number of jobs the average worker in each region can reach via transit within 10-minute intervals. The rankings are based on those stats — the more jobs a typical resident can reach via transit in a short amount of time, the higher a region performed.

This chart shows job accessibility by 10-minute intervals for the Charlotte region. Image: University of Minnesota

This chart shows the number of jobs accessible via transit for an average worker in the Charlotte region, within 10-minute intervals of travel time. Graph: University of Minnesota

The top 10 cities for job accessibility by transit, according to Owen and Levinson, align fairly well with what you would expect:

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Wowza: Scale Maps of Barcelona and Atlanta Show the Waste of Sprawl

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This graphic was created by Alain Bertaud, a senior researcher at NYU’s Stern Urbanization Project. He was formerly principal urban planner for the World Bank. Part of his work has focused on comparing densities of world cities.

In this stunning comparison of metro Atlanta and Barcelona, you can see that the two regions have almost the same population. Barcelona is actually a little bit bigger in that respect. They also have a roughly similar total length of rail transit: Barcelona has 99 miles of rail lines to Atlanta’s 74. But the living patterns couldn’t be more different. Atlantans are just way, way more spread out. In fact, the urbanized area of Atlanta is 26.5 times that of Barcelona. That has an enormous impact on the usefulness of the transit systems, Bertaud explains:

Urban densities are not trivial, they severely limit the transport mode choice and change only very slowly. Because of the large differences in densities between Atlanta and Barcelona about the same length of metro line is accessible to 60% of the population in Barcelona but only 4% in Atlanta. The low density of Atlanta render this city improper for rail transit.

Bertaud counts “accessible” as within one-third of a mile of a rail transit station.

Bertaud’s comparison focuses mainly on how low-density development affects one aspect of city life: the efficiency of transit. But there are many, many other ways Atlanta’s spread out nature produces waste, inefficiency, and high costs. Atlanta’s sprawling scale means it needs roads, utilities, and public services that cover 26.5 times as great an area as Barcelona’s public infrastructure and services do. And it means individual people must travel farther — at great personal and environmental expense — as they go about their daily lives.

h/t @joesarling and @m_clem.

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Re-imagining Parking Spaces as Micro-Apartments

These 300-square-foot micro apartments, designed by Savannah art students, were installed in Atlanta parking spaces. Photo: SCADpad.com

This 135-square-foot micro apartment was one of three designed by Savannah art students that were recently installed in an Atlanta parking garage. Photo: SCADpad.com

Can parking spaces get a second life? A student project in Atlanta helps demonstrate the possibilities in every stall.

Students at the Savannah College of Art and Design created three “SCADpads:” 135-square-foot micro-apartments designed to fit in the space defined by a single parking spot. Three prototypes for these modular homes, which cost $40-$60,000 to construct, were installed in an Atlanta garage this spring, to help model what might be a more sustainable paradigm for the city.

Each micro-apartment was designed by the students to reflect the culture of a different continent: Asia, North America, and Europe. Each was outfitted with a small kitchen, a sleeper-sofa, a bathroom, and some high-tech features like iPad-controlled “smart glass” windows that can be obscured for privacy. In addition, each apartment included a “porch” area, the size of an additional parking space, and a shared community garden that harvests “grey water” from the sink and shower.

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The Whole City of Florence Could Fit Inside an Atlanta Interchange

This is the city of Florence, Italy, and an Atlanta interchange at the same scale. Image: Steve Mouzon via Treehugger

This is Florence and an Atlanta interchange at the same scale. Image: Steve Mouzon via Treehugger

It’s incredible how much we’ve given up in the United States all so we can travel slightly faster by car. The above graphic, revived by Lloyd Alter at Network blog Treehugger this week from an old blog post by author Steve Mouzon, really makes you stop and think.

On the left is Florence, Italy — a global treasure. On the right, a nameless interchange in metro Atlanta, just about the same size. Alter says:

Florence, Italy is perhaps the most wonderful place to walk that I have ever been in. In a discussion I had recently about the city, I remembered a post architect and writer Steve Mouzon did a few years ago on the true cost of sprawl. Steve wondered why cities give up so much land that supports no retail, no residential, pays no taxes, just to move people out of town on highways. He showed this extraordinary coupling of two photographs at the same scale: one of Florence, Italy, and one of an interchange in Atlanta, Georgia.

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Why Atlanta’s Better Off Without Turner Field

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A proposal from Georgia State University and a local developer would replace Turner Field and its enormous surface parking lots (left) with mixed-use infill development (right). Images via ATLUrbanist

When the Braves announced they were leaving Atlanta for suburban Cobb County, it was interpreted in some quarters as a blow to the city, another symptom of the city’s notorious suburban sprawl.

But it looks like Atlanta might come out of this thing smelling like a field of roses. Not only did the city avoid shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars to keep the Braves, Atlanta could get a better neighborhood out of the deal as well.

Georgia State University and local developer Carter and Columbia Residential are proposing a mixed-use development on the site currently occupied by Turner Field and its enormous parking lots, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

The plan calls for a large sports complex, and it doesn’t look like a great walkable street grid. But it will have a mix of uses, including academic buildings, housing, and retail. It beats an ocean of surface parking, without a doubt.

Publicly-financed stadiums are often sold to cities as an economic development boon. But Turner Field didn’t do much for the surrounding neighborhood. In a piece last July, Atlanta Magazine wrote that “outside this ballpark there’s nothing to do and nowhere to go but home” and compared the atmosphere on non-game days to a wake.

The AJC said the new development would represent a “profound investment in a stadium district that has failed to draw many businesses since the original Atlanta Stadium was built there in the 1960s.” Multiple developers had been in talks with the mayor about the site, according to the paper.

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Anthony Foxx Kicks Off Nationwide Project for Better Bike Lanes

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx praised bike infrastructure as a way to get more value out of existing U.S. streets. Photo: Green Lane Project

Staring down a highway trust fund that he described as “teetering toward insolvency” by August or September, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Monday that better bike infrastructure projects are part of the solution.

“When you have a swelling population like the USA has and will have for the next 35 years, one of the most cost-effective ways to better fit that population is to better use the existing grid,” Foxx said.

Foxx made his comments to a gathering in Indianapolis of urban transportation experts from around the country, welcoming six new cities into the PeopleForBikes Green Lane Project, a two-year program kicking off Tuesday that will help the cities — Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Seattle — add modern protected bike lanes to their streets.

“I know you are the vanguard in many was of these issues, and we at U.S. DOT want to do everything we can to be supportive,” Foxx told the crowd.

PeopleForBikes Vice President for Local Innovation Martha Roskowski singled out Indianapolis, the host city, as a particularly bright light in the constellation of towns using using curbs, planters, parked cars or posts to create low-stress streets by separating bike and auto traffic.

“This city is on fire,” Roskowski said. “You look at the Cultural Trail, you look at the other projects in the works. … You don’t really know that you’re at a tipping point until later.”

Roskowski praised Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, a Republican, for six years at the front of an Indianapolis transformation that has seen the city use better bike infrastructure “to be resilient, to be sustainable, to be competitive and to beautiful.”

“Five years from now we’re going to look back and say, we really changed how we thought about transportation in America,” Roskowski said. “Yes, we’re all going to drive cars still. But there are other elements to transportation.”

Six focus cities

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Parking Madness: Detroit vs. Atlanta

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Yesterday, Chicago’s United Center parking lots bested Denver’s Court Place parking crater in the first match-up of Parking Madness 2014. Today, two heavyweights are facing off: It’s the motor city versus sprawl city in a bare-knuckle brawl of car infrastructure run amok.

Without further ado, here’s the Detroit entry. Warning: This could get ugly.

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This picture really needs no further elaboration. Submitter Gerald Fittipaldi says these lots are only used infrequently, during sporting events, and that there’s potential here for mixed-use development.

On to Atlanta:

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