Why is it so hard to walk to a MARTA station?

4 Mar

Merry Monday!

What is the purpose of MARTA stations?  I clearly have the wrong idea about how the MARTA system was supposed to work.  I was thinking that these stations were intended to make it easy to get around Atlanta without a car.   Obviously, I am way off the mark with that thought.  Because, in order for stations to be convenient for pedestrians, they need to be located in walkable areas and they need to be designed in such a way that they are easy to approach on foot.

If you have used rail systems in other American cities (for instance, Boston, Washington D.C., New York, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, New Orleans, Salt Lake City, Philadelphia, etc.), it is apparent that a lot of thought went into how pedestrians will interact with the stations and how pedestrians will access the surrounding areas.  Because of this, those cities have transit stations with small footprints, located in areas of the city where walking is not an extreme sport.  Below are some images of properly designed transit station entrances.  Notice that they are all small and very unobtrusive.

Locust Street in Philadelphia, PA

6th Avenue and 14th Street Subway Entrance in NYC.

Dupont Circle METRO entrance in Washington D.C.

What do we get in Atlanta?  For some reason the station designers back in the early days of MARTA thought that we needed giant bunkers and block-sized compounds for transit stations.  Take a look at Arts Center Station below.  This station is located in one of the most walkable areas of Atlanta, yet it was decided that an entire block of prime real estate is required to get passengers onto an underground train.

Arts Center MARTA Station, Midtown, Atlanta

Unfortunately, this is actually one of the more pedestrian friendly MARTA stations in Atlanta.  I’ve spent a lot of time riding MARTA and have visited nearly every station personally.  What I’ve noticed is that only a handful of stations are even designed for pedestrian access. The vast majority of stations are meant to accommodate cars.  I know that seems weird, but it’s true.  The MARTA rail stations are much more accepting of individuals arriving by car than by foot.  I suppose the idea was for these stations to act as suburban hubs where people would transition between their autos and transit.  But most of these stations aren’t in the suburbs.  Some are less than a mile from the state capitol.  Check out these stations below.  Notice how they are surrounded by trees and parking lots.  They are not easily accessed on foot.

Plenty of Parking at East Lake MARTA

Plenty of Parking at Edgewood

Medical Center Station

King Memorial Station. Great access for the dead, not so much for pedestrians.

Oakland City Station.

Sandy Springs Station. At least this one has a taxi stand, because walking around here sucks.

It’s not all bad though. Some MARTA stations are OK. Some are located in pedestrian areas, and a couple even resemble the simple easy access stations like those from DC, Philly, and NY. Check out some of the better MARTA station examples below.


Hey check it out!   A MARTA station in a walkable area that is small and unobtrusive (Peachtree Center Station).  That’s what I’m talking about! To make this image even more attractive, pretend that there are crosswalks here. 


Check out the MARTA station in Decatur above.  It’s pretty hard to see because it doesn’t occupy an entire block.  It fits right in with its surroundings. Decatur is a great walkable area with easy access to rail transit.


Above is Midtown station.  It’s not the best design.  It’s too big and surrounded by roads that are very inhospitable to pedestrians.  But it is near actual stuff so that makes it one of the better MARTA stations.  We have pretty low standards here.

So Atlanta doesn’t have many stations that are truly small, unobtrusive, and in walkable areas.  Of the 38 total MARTA stations, there are only 8 that I would considered to be a ‘Good’ design.  That leaves 30 stations with Bad design or merely OK design.  I took a quick survey of all the MARTA stations and tried to determine which ones are Good, OK, or Bad.   I’ve posted that very quick survey below along with a Google Maps link to each station as well as the walk score for each station as a quick reference for each station’s walkability.  Please keep in mind that this “study” is very subjective and represents my own very uneducated opinion.

Good MARTA Stations

(These stations are designed reasonably well and are located in walkable areas.)

Decatur 86

Georgia State 95

Buckhead 80

Peachtree Center 97

Civic Center 94

North Ave 91

Midtown 83

Five Points 95 

OK Marta Stations

(These stations contain SOME of the characteristics of a well designed station.) 

Arts Center 88, (What is up with the crazy unwalkable design.  It could have been so much better.)

GWCC 85

Ashby 58, (Low density area.  Can’t blame that on MARTA.   But building a giant parking lot on the site doesn’t help things either.)

Vine City 65,  (The area is very low density, can’t blame that on MARTA.  The Georgia Dome and GWCC screw up this neighborhood.)

Airport 58

Garnett 82

Lindbergh 66, (The Transit Oriented Development around here is nice, but it feels like window dressing to me.  Once you walk out towards Piedmont Ave., you realize that you are a pedestrian stranded in a car desert)

Lenox 65

Bad MARTA Stations

(These stations give little or no thought to pedestrian access.) 

Edgewood/Candler 68

East Lake 54

Inman Park 83

Avondale 69

Kensington 42

Indian Creek 25

King Memorial 78

West Lake 35

Holmes 49

Bankhead 25

West End 85, (Why the fencing and the difficult entry?)

Oakland City 38

Lakewood 40

East Point 67

College Park 65

Medical Center 52

Dunwoody 68

Sandy Springs 72

North Springs 29

Brookhaven 78

Chamblee   75

Doraville 75

I didn’t write this just to bash MARTA, even though that is Atlanta’s favorite pastime.  These stations were designed years ago, in a very different era.  The current regime at MARTA had nothing to do with making these decisions, and I don’t really know what MARTA can do about it at this point.  I write this to point out a couple of things.

1) MARTA never really had a chance at being an effective conveyance for car-free individuals within the city.  The stations are too far apart.  The stations are too big, and only a very small handful of stations are actually designed reasonably well AND are located in walkable areas.  The vast majority of stations are built for car drivers.  It was like MARTA was intended to be a crutch for motorists who didn’t want to deal with downtown parking.  Well that problem was eventually solved by simply bulldozing most of downtown to build more parking lots.

2) The City of Atlanta needs a true intra-city, light rail, transit system.  The handful of urban MARTA stations do not get the  job done.  They were designed for regional travel, not local travel.  Having MARTA heavy rail without light rail is like having an interstate without having local roads.  There are enough residents in Atlanta to support a system with more stations and more local service.  It is my hope that the downtown streetcar will start to fill that need.

In other random news…

15 Responses to “Why is it so hard to walk to a MARTA station?”

  1. dan0rak March 4, 2013 at 12:48 pm #

    i see the point you’re making but it seems to be a case of a low density city(?) having a low density railway network. Exactly the same tends sometimes happen here. Outer stations in London often have very large car parks and can be pretty inaccessible to pedestrians from certain directions – even stations 150 years old! A new example here is Ebbsfleet – worse than anything in Atlanta I reckon

    • whbdupree@gmail.com March 5, 2013 at 10:39 am #

      I have to agree with dan0rak. Atlanta builds out rather than up, but there are really only two marta lines that cover the city. Without substantial rail network coverage, in is unrealistic to expect most people to walk to a rail line. Moreover, the bus routes are often inconvenient and tend to be unstable. With the increasing frequency of service cuts, and the tendency of Atlanta to incorporate new suburbs, the early designers of the MARTA network may have known exactly what they were doing.

      • dedwards8 March 5, 2013 at 10:43 am #

        It’s not so much the walking distance. I have come to accept that. it is more the actual design of the stations. Some of them are in fairly walkable areas, yet they are built to occupy an entire city block. Look at Arts Center Station. There is plenty of stuff to walk to around there. Unfortunately, the design of the station itself acts as more of an impediment to walking than a promotion of walking.

  2. dedwards8 March 5, 2013 at 12:00 pm #

    By far the best discussion of this post and answers to many of the questions can be found over at reddit/r/atlanta. http://www.reddit.com/r/Atlanta/comments/19pcc4/why_is_it_so_hard_to_walk_to_a_marta_station/

  3. Tyler Blazer March 6, 2013 at 12:30 am #

    The tracks under the Arts Center Station are relatively shallow compared to the examples of the NYC, Washington DC, Philadelphia images you provided. Also in comparison of time MARTA’s underground stations were designed before Atlanta really had any critical density that Philadelphia, Washington DC and even NYC had over 100 years ago. Many of the stations you highlighted there are predominantly underground also feature a lot of natural daylighting in portions (Midtown Station, Arts Center Station, Civic Center Station, North Ave Station). Plus the station you ranked as the highest also has 2 of the worst entry connections into the system – nothing speaks more fitting for MARTA than the shed-like structures on the south side of the Peachtree Center station- which coincidentially is the first impression of the MARTA system from the upcoming streetcar project.

    Luckily MARTA is embracing changes to encourage development around their stations. Lindbergh was intiatied during one of the worst economic recessions and hasn’t followed the master planning properly. The City of Atlanta hasn’t helped with any significant changes needed to zoning to cater to more pedestrian-oriented growth patterns. The state refuses to address MARTA as a significant economic driver in the region and still manages to create even more red tape for the system.

  4. The Dude March 6, 2013 at 5:22 pm #

    A few points:

    Walk Score does not calculate transit access for Atlanta’s scores because MARTA does not public release transit data.

    A few of your “bad” stations actually have great pedestrian access. King Memorial, Ashby Street, Inman Park, and Edgewood/Candler have no hindrances to their entrances and are centrally located to their respective areas. East Point, College Park, and Chamblee stations are located directly in their respective downtowns so I have no idea what you are talking about there.

    And despite you saying you have used BART and WMATA, the remaining stations on your bad list follow the same pattern as suburban stations in San Francisco and DC: They were built for commuters and also surrounded by parking. Take a look at the majority of the stations outside of San Francisco and DC proper on google maps. They are configured exactly like MARTA’s stations.

    I’m glad you disclaimed the last part of your post. It’s true this blog was written from an uneducated stand point of how the modern subway systems differ from the old school subway systems such as in NYC or Chicago, man.

    • dedwards8 March 6, 2013 at 7:13 pm #

      Dude,

      1) Those are walk scores, not transit scores. I said so in the post. They are meant a reference to the walkability of the given area. And actually MARTA does release their data, both Static GTFS and real-time bus locations.

      2) Those are my opinions of the stations. Feel free to disagree. Basically, if I have to walk through or around a large parking lot. I don’t think it’s very walkable.

      3) Yes “Suburban” stations. My question is why are most of Atlanta’s stations setup like “Suburban” stations? We don’t need park’n’rides 1-2 miles from downtown. I think you may have missed my point here.

      4) Those “old school” systems are intra-city rail. MARTA is regional heavy rail. The whole purpose of this post was to point that fact out and to point out the shortcomings of such a system. I go on to suggest that Atlanta needs a small intra-city system in its denser areas similar to that of NYC of Chicago. I’m sorry that it wasn’t clear to you.

      -Man

      • The Dude March 6, 2013 at 11:18 pm #

        1. Yes, I know that you got those scores from Walkscore.com. My point was is that Walkscore.com did not calculate transit in Atlanta’s. I see now that they do include it, but I do disagree with some of there findings. There are neighborhoods they rank “unwalkable” that I have lived in without a car (and are also some of the highest non-car owning neighborhoods in the whole city) and never had a problem. Perhaps it’s the lack of some of those locations having yuppie amenities that make it “unwalkable”.

        2. My main point of disagreement, outside of how walkable some of the surrounding neighborhoods, with the bad list is that it’s just simply not true the way you characterized many of them. While they may have parking, it is usually adjacent to the freight rail lines that MARTA “hugs” outside of Downtown and Midtown. Some of the commentary was outright peculiar such as saying that Oakland Cemetery is better situated to King Memorial than the pedestrian entrance…when there is 6 rail lines between the cemetery and the station, while no impediments to pedestrians on the Decatur street side (which is where this station was meant to serve). Another point on King Memorial is that while Google Maps paints a bad picture today while the area is being redeveloped, don’t forget that not too far in the past there were several public housing projects this stations served and the neighborhood used to have a population density of 30,000. Eventually after the redevelopment is complete, it will get back to a high density neighborhood.

        3. Again, historically speaking, many of those stations were built and designed in era when they were the suburbs (most of the stations on your list are still suburbs and I don’t see anything wrong with providing park and ride in those areas like North Springs or Kensington). Granted, you do have a point that for many of them it also true that they should be redesigned for today’s Atlanta. Hell, even MARTA agrees with you (http://transportationspotlight.wordpress.com/2012/12/07/marta-promotes-tod-through-station-profiles/) but that takes money and stuff.

        4. You understand that point, but you included DC and San Francisco’s rail systems in critique of MARTA with the oversight they are designed exactly like MARTA and have a higher ratio of suburban commuter stations with parking than traditional subway stations. Take BART for example, 33 of their 44 stations have parking (and most of it the ugly open air type MARTA has at most it’s stations with parking. Just Google Daly City station for an example.) leaving only 11 without. Interestingly enough, San Francisco proper and Downtown Oakland have a combined 7 stations. So really, what I’m getting at is that your critique isn’t one of how Atlanta does things but of how the post world war II transit systems do things differently than the pre-war ones. For the record, both MARTA and the NYC Subway are both heavy rail. MARTA (and BART and WMATA) are hybrid commuter systems.

        To be fair, I do not disagree with you that we should keep the status quo with the way MARTA stations are today. In the city of Atlanta proper there are 24 MARTA stations. Many of them do not high density development around them like those in Downtown and Midtown (and most of that reason is because they lay in the city’s poor South and West side’s where the development hasn’t happened for a more sinister reason). If we as a city made the very modest goal of increasing the population within 1 square mile of all of these stations by 10,000 residents through TOD, we could transform this city overnight while adding ~200,000 residents to the city. We should be happy that there is momentum to do this now instead of 30 years ago when it would have looked all tacky and shit, man.

      • dedwards8 March 7, 2013 at 10:38 am #

        I think we are basically seeing eye to eye. Try not to get caught up in the details. Pointing out that the Oakland Cemetery bumps up against MLK is a joke. Don’t take it too seriously.

        DC has a huge number of smaller in-town stations to complement their suburban stations. SF has a completely separate system called the MUNI for their in-town network. BART is not SF’s main transit agency.

        I think that the main point remains. Atlanta has a regional system that does not do a great job of in-town transportation. It is hard (in my opinion) to use transit in midtown, dowtown and surrounding areas on a day-to-day practical basis.

        I am right with you on your last point. We need to pick an area of Atlanta for increased walkability and start making a push there. MARTA is a great backbone for a regional system. We need to focus on local transit in selected areas to start filling in the space between stations.

  5. Paul Johnson March 6, 2013 at 10:18 pm #

    Wow, if you think Portland has small, unobtrusive stations and think Atlanta doesn’t, clearly you haven’t spent much time on the MAX. Downtown stations take up full block faces and often crowd busy pedestrian thoroughfares, particularly on Yamhill and Morrison. Then you have a 3 platform station at Pioneer Square that involves crossing what amounts to a bus freeway to get to one platform. Leave downtown, parking lots the size of which you normally only find at a Six Flags, locations in failed housing developments from the late ’90s, the back sides of computer component factories, and the empty field side of an impenetrable sound wall from a neighborhood are the norm. You either need to be in the 1%, homeless squatting a field, or actually manage to qualify for rent control (basically, think three kids on a part time income to wind up paying $700/mo for a 2-br apartment) and want to live in a slum (ie, your apartment won’t have hot water, a working phone line, or much in terms of being physically secure) to live within a half-hour’s walk of a MAX station. Seriously, MARTA is compact and convenient by comparison.

    The MAX is a victim of circumstance. Nobody wants to take the initiative to move it underground completely, and they even say it’s impossible due to the earthquake hazard. Never mind nearly 4 miles of it is underground and even has the world’s second-deepest subway station right on a major fault line. It got routed down the old Oregon Electric Railroad right of way through a whole lot of empty nothing, then people were shocked when the 57/58 TV Highway bus service remains packed. Never mind people wanted the MAX on TV Highway where it might actually do some good…instead everyone out that direction just drives up to 20 miles to bypass the 57/58 and drive to Sunset Station to a massive carpark, often skipping fare to go the 3 stops to Civic Stadium or 5 to city center…

    Heck, they could have gone elevated/underground exclusively like Vancouver, Canada. But having that kind of foresight and initiative is beyond Portland, who only pretends to be progressive to hide a fetid inner core of hardcore anti-progress conservatism. Portland’s just awesome at charades!

  6. Patrick March 7, 2013 at 1:11 pm #

    Not really a good comparison, IMO. Atlanta’s system was built as an above ground, commuter train, mainly to get people from the burbs into town. As far as I know, all of the examples that you showed of other cities are underground trains. Fact is, the city has grown from a city of ~1 million metro to over 5 million since marta was built, so the initial design doesnt really deserve too much blame. The real concern is that no major additions have been built in that time frame.

    • dedwards8 March 7, 2013 at 1:28 pm #

      It hasn’t expanded because the surrounding counties don’t want it. What I would like to see is investment by the city on making the system more practical for in town use. This is where the current station designs become unwieldy. But, the city is making an effort to improve in town transit, so hopefully we will continue to see positive change.

      • Patrick March 7, 2013 at 1:47 pm #

        Honestly, it shouldnt be that big of a deal if the surrounding counties want it or not. The intown interest is high enough, but the largest factors in making this happen will be businesses and developers. Many large companies in Atlanta want transit to happen and were willing to put money toward the campaign to pass TSPLOST. My assumption is that many of these national/international companies need Atlanta to be desirable for recruiting and the profile of their business and people want walkability these days. Also, developers in this town have shown that they are willing to throw money at any project that could be a potential boom for their development and shiny, new intown transit is exactly what they need (see beltline trail alone). This is all just my assumption, but I am hoping that the “public/private” transit funding that Reed has mentioned lately has something to do with this. In this town, if you have big business of your side, anything can happen.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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