How Racial Discrimination Shaped Atlanta’s Transportation Mess

Racial segregation in housing and transportation policy hobbled Atlanta's transit system for generations. Photo via Darin Givens
Racial segregation in housing and transportation policy hobbled Atlanta's transit system for generations. Photo via Darin Givens

Atlanta is a poster child for sprawl, and its transportation system certainly isn’t what you would call resilient.

The transit system fails to connect urban residents to job centers, and ridership is low. When a dusting of snow fell on roadways in 2014, the city was plunged into chaos. Stranded people had to sleep in drug stores.

How did Atlanta find itself in such a mess? The story can’t be told without examining the region’s history of racial discrimination. Leah Binkovitz at The Urban Edge files this dispatch on a recent report from the Partnership for Southern Equity [PDF] about Atlanta’s transportation legacy and what it means for the future:

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.”

Other scholars have chronicled “this racialized 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 automcobility 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 racialized 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.

Atlanta may finally be making progress, as measures to build a more connected transit system pick up steam, but a lot of the damage has already been done.

More recommended reading: Aaron Williams explains why a Virginia town is wasting $54 million trying to solve traffic safety issues by creating a “super street.” And Bike Portland says the city is reporting it doesn’t have money for truck side guards — a life-saving piece of safety equipment.

11 thoughts on How Racial Discrimination Shaped Atlanta’s Transportation Mess

  1. It’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that it was “racist” for whites to move to the suburbs.

    Ironically it is now suggested by some that it is “racist” when whites move back to urban centers, thereby allegedly displacing non-whites.

    But at least you know what you will get with Jason Henderson.

  2. The system that gave the white people greater access to financial leverage is the (institutional) racism being discussed in the first paragraph. The reasons why each individual family chose to use that privilege to move to the suburbs — race-motivated or otherwise — are not really important for this piece.

    In reference to the influx of white people into traditionally-African-American (or other marginalized ethnic group) neighborhoods, again it is not (necessarily) the individuals involved that are “racist”, but rather the advantages and privileges granted to white people over several generations — including the very policies the first paragraph is discussing — that have contributed to them having access to the wealth necessary to out-bid some local residents.

  3. At this point, you’re working off third-order derivative theories. As crucial as such analyses may be for a guilt-ridden white liberal seeking redemption, some of us actually think a little beyond knee-jerk rationalizations. The reality is that it was topology that determined where infrastructure was built. Not everything is a vast right-wing conspiracy. People act out of enlightened self-interest, sure. But I guarantee you that 100 years ago, no white person picked this area or that area to live in because they predicted where freeways would be built in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

  4. Your original comment and my reply were addressing possible reasons why the white communities and black communities segregated in Atlanta and how that segregation has led to the modern problem of downtown gentrification. Your new comment seems to instead be about why Atlanta’s freeways ended up built where they are, with little connection to the thread of discussion you originally started or my response to it.

    Thus I conclude you’re not really interested in a productive conversation on this subject, and I’m going to just duck out at this point. Have a great day!

  5. Both apply. Claiming that a freeway design is “racist” implies that somebody sat down and picked the route based on race. That’s blatant nonsense. It is picked based on topology. If one race in that area is black (or white) that doesn’t indicate racism. It indicates a historic and geographical coincidence and, at best, a second or third order correlation.

  6. Counties, cities, and even business or community improvement districts will need to be creative to see movement on transit projects. Atlanta let its citizens speak for transit within the city limits. Kansas City (MO) asked business to do the same for a fare free throughout downtown and along Main Street. Some states have also passed legislation that prevents a city/county from blocking a route for intercity transit between two other cities/counties.

    Cumberland, Marietta, and Kennesaw/Town Center might have already been able to extend MARTA rail and improved bus service out into Cobb County if the approval of the entire country wasn’t needed. The same could be said for Gwinett.

  7. lol man, you ought not to comment on things you don’t know anything about. You just end up looking like a fool. In nearly every case, urban freeways were routed through parts of cities with higher concentrations of minorities in order to minimize opposition from whites. here’s just one example- the Dan Ryan in Chicago, which mayor Daley specifically rerouted to destroy more of a black neighborhood and reinforce segregation on the south side. Act outraged all you want that there are some who wish to do the very least possible and recognize race influenced mistakes of the past, but you can’t change what is verifiable fact and not a ‘second or third order correlation’

  8. And as explained, the reason was not racism. Rather, that historically, blacks lived in the flatter area where infrastructure is easier and cheaper to build. The whites tended to live on the hills and higher ground where freeways would be much harder to build anyway

  9. It was cheaper and easier to displace low income areas for highway development than it was to displace higher income areas. Put another way, the costs of land, the costs of fighting court battles, and the ease of taking from disenfranchised low income residents lacking the means to fight back all impacted the routes. This typically meant the minorities lost and were displaced.

    It wasn’t just Atlanta where this occurred… it occurred in many areas around the country including the city where I live and serve on the city’s Complete Streets Advisory Council. The main arterials here literally chopped neighborhoods in half as effectively as if they built a Berlin Wall type structure. We’re spending $10 of millions on traffic control devices, pedestrian crossing and control devices, bike lanes, and conversion of former railroad corridors into linear parks/multi-use trails. This to tie the parts of our city and surrounding bed-room communities back together and make it more walkable and bicycle friendly. Bus transportation infrastructure and routing is also being reworked.

    For nearly 100 years mass earth moving for construction hasn’t been a problem regardless of the terrain. Witness the roads and highways in the Rockies and Appalachians. The Eisenhower transportation initiatives of the all but gave free license to build road infrastructure 50+ years ago and that system certainly didn’t stick to flat ground.

  10. I agree that it is more economic to build on land where land prices are cheaper, obviously. But that proves my point – race wasn’t a driver, although poverty might have been.

    Likely, the flatter areas of cities were often lower-income areas as well, and are more topologically suited for infrastructure. But again both race and lower income are secondary factors – the primary one was cost and ease of construction.

    So blacks may have ended up being affected more but that doesnt imply racism, because the designs were not overtly racist. Nobody sat down and said “let’s build this only where the blacks are”. There was no racist intent.

    But of course now, it’s the opposite. Sometimes difficult and more expensive options are chosen just for fear of offending any non-white group. So the CA HSR is going through the affluent white peninsula rather than the lower income, mostly non-white flatlands of the East Bay – far away a more logical and geographically suitable route.

    That said, there are issues in the way freeways bisect cities and neighborhoods. I just don’t think is a race thing.

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