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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.)


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…


Five Reasons I’m Optimistic about Atlanta

25 Feb

Happy Monday,

Living as an urban enthusiast in Atlanta can be difficult.  Apparently parks, museums, walkability, safe cycling routes, good food, fun pubs, and cultural diversity are things that most people around here seem to not enjoy.  Because of this, it’s easy to get discouraged in this town.  To help myself out of the doldrums, I devised a list of 5 things that make me hopeful for this city.

1) The Downtown Streetcar is Moving Forward

The City of Atlanta is installing it’s first streetcar line 64 years after the last streetcars were removed from Atlanta streets.   The streetcar lines connects Centennial Park, Fairlie-Poplar, Downtown, and the Old Fourth Ward at the MLK Center.

I am hopeful that this project is a success.  A successful streetcar line would lead to further expansion, more connection points to MARTA, connection to the Beltline, and eventually a true streetcar system for the City of Atlanta.  Such a system would provide a level of car-free mobility that Atlanta hasn’t seen in over half of a century.

The task is tall however.  Much of the area where this streetcar is to be installed is blighted, and there is heavy risk in staking this much capital in an “up-and-coming” neighborhood .  If the streetcar proves unsuccessful in improving the economy and livability in the service area, especially the areas within a few blocks of the interstate, then naysayers will cite that failure as hard evidence that Atlanta is not fit for streetcars.  On the other hand, if the streetcar is successful and makes a large positive economic impact on the downtown communities, then it will be impossible to deny that a streetcar network should be expanded throughout the city.

As an aside on this topic, I must admit that I’m worried about headways.  First impressions are important for new systems.  If people are unsatisfied with their first trip, then they may never give the system another chance.   Because of this, I am worried about the reported 15 minute headway projected for this project.  One streetcar every 15 minutes is not very frequent.  With such a short rail line, I would more likely walk than wait 15 minutes for service.  It only takes 2 streetcars to operate at 15 minute headways on this line.  The City of Atlanta owns 4 street cars.  In order to make a solid first impression, these streetcars should operate at no more than 10 minute headways.  If ridership is low, then headways can be increased.  

2)  Marta Releases Real-Time Data

Back in October, MARTA released its real-time bus data and the GTFS schedule data for its buses and trains.  Since then, the real-time bus feed has been continually refined and improved by the hard-working people at MARTA in order to give consistent and accurate updates about bus locations.  I know of several 3rd party developer teams who are working to release apps that take advantage of this data.

In the coming weeks, I hope to see good apps hitting the market.  Real-time bus data will have a dramatic effect on the practicality of MARTA.  We all know that many of MARTA’s routes suffer from very long headways.   Some buses operate at 40-60 minute headways, even during peak weekday hours.  In addition to the long headways, the buses are often late or early depending on the notoriously unpredictable Atlanta traffic.

It is very stressful to be waiting at a bus stop, with no shelter, no sidewalk, on the side of a 7 lane highway, in July heat or February freeze and wondering if the bus is ever going to show up.  Is the bus 10 minutes late or did it come early?  Well, real-time data can’t fix all these problems, but at least you would  know where the bus is and when it is coming.  Then you don’t have to wait at one of our city’s lovely dignity-free MARTA stops while being stared at by every driver passing you by.  You can walk out to the stop moments before your bus arrives and forget all the extra stress and associated nonsense.  If the bus is going to be 10 minutes late, I would rather spend that time inside the Starbucks.

3)  Cycling Infrastructure is Improving

Atlanta is getting some good momentum on the bicycle infrastructure front.  There seems to be a consensus among advocates and city politicians and planners that Atlanta needs to seriously embrace bicycling as a legitimate mode of transportation.  This is evidenced by current and upcoming bicycle projects that will connect important and practical locations around town.

For instance,

  • Ponce de Leon is getting separated bicycle infrastructure this summer.  This will allow bikers to easily travel from Peachtree St. and the North Ave MARTA Station to the Beltline, Ponce Market, and the Whole Foods shopping center.
  • 10th Street is also getting separated infrastructure to safely move bikers between Midtown and the Beltline.
  • Juniper Street is getting a total overhaul.  The overhaul will lead to fully separated bike paths, intersection improvements, and vastly improved sidewalks.  It will be a great walkable complement to Peachtree Street one block to the west, and it will also serve as a much needed southbound bike route through midtown.  I don’t have a link to the project page, but the image above is from an open house held earlier this month describing the project.
  • In addition to these projects, a host of other projects that extend far beyond midtown, and totaling $2.5 Million, are described on the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition website.

4)  Start-Up Culture in Atlanta is Gaining Ground

The Atlantic: A Visual Guide to Atlanta’s Startup Scene

OK, this is the one entry of the five that is not transportation related.  Efficient transportation and a vibrant urban setting are impossible and useless without a strong economy and jobs for Atlantans.  I would love to see a strong start-up culture here.  Atlanta has a lot going for it in this area.  We have great universities (e.g., Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Emory, the schools at the Atlanta University Center).  Atlanta is affordable.  It is much more affordable to live an urban lifestyle in Atlanta versus other similar cities.  We have a ridiculous airport that makes Atlanta a great place to base a national or international company; it’s easy to get anywhere from here. And, we are also home to more than our fair share of Fortune 500 companies.

Atlanta seems to have the necessary pieces for a strong start-up scene and that is being recognized around the region and country.  More start-ups were funded in Atlanta last year than any other southern city. (We don’t count Texas because they aren’t real southerners.)   With the ongoing success of ATDC, FlashPoint, Atlanta Tech Village, Hypepotamus, and countless other start-up accelerators and services, I expect Atlanta’s tech start-up scene to start making more and more noise nationally and internationally.

5)  BeltLine Popularity is Out of Control

Nobody goes to the BeltLine anymore.  It’s too crowded.  


The popularity of the East Side Trail shows just how much latent demand there is for walkable places in this city.  So much so that some people are beginning to fight over the limited pavement space on the EST, for instance, the guy discussed in this article in Curbed.  Overcrowding is a problem.  But it’s a good problem to have and much better than the alternative.  It’s oddly refreshing to hear people griping about Atlanta traffic that does not involve cars.  It’s actually kind of mind-blowing.

This popularity of this section of the BeltLine has led to the stores and restaurants adjacent to the BeltLine to transform what used to be their rear entrances, parking lots, and dumpster sites into welcoming patios and front entrances to accommodate this new source of customers.  What used to be vacant industrial sites around the East Side Trail are now prime real estate for Atlanta’s latest awesome amenity.

The popularity of the BeltLine and the reaction of the adjacent businesses gives me hope that more similar developments will also be well received.  The East Side Trail is just a small start for building a thorough network of practical cycling and walking paths in Atlanta.  I hope that this section of the BeltLine will eventually have transit connecting it to the downtown streetcar and potential midtown streetcars in the future.  Can you imagine having a streetcar circuit that connected the East Side Trail, the downtown streetcar, 10th street, 14th street and the West Midtown area on Howell Mill?  That relatively small circle would be a fantastic streetcar network for midtown and downtown Atlanta.  I might be dreaming a bit, but it’s fun to  imaging having that type of car-free connectivity in Atlanta.

In other news…

  • Rebecca Serna of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalitions responds to Melissa Carter‘s ill-informed anti-cyclist diatribe.
  • Apparently car rental taxes are being considered to fund transit in Atlanta.  I’m not sure where I stand on this issue, but I do know that it’s absurd that the current rental car tax is used to pay for the Philips Arena.  What in the hell does me renting a car to drive out of town have to do with the Atlanta Hawks?
  • Some new high rises are suggested for Midtown.  Whoopeedeedoo!

I don’t like driving. Does this make me a bad American?

18 Feb

I like to live in walkable areas.  I like bicycling to get groceries.  I like living near parks.  I like sidewalks and bike lanes.  I don’t like driving out of necessity.

Because I like these things, I have been called a hippie liberal.  I have even been called anti-American.  It’s probably because I live in Georgia.  I have been told that walking, biking, and transit are bad for  the economy and that paving over cities to make room for cars and parking is good for the economy.  We will all be better off if cars are given more and more of our valuable urban real estate.

I’m not an economist.  I don’t like walking and bicycling because they are good for the economy or even because they are “green”.  I just like them because I enjoy them.  However, many people, notably Randall O’Toole of the Cato Institute equate driving with prosperity.  He argues that driving is good for the economy and driving more will improve the economy.  Mobility is the key here, and accessibility is less relevant.   Take a look at the graph below for evidence.  The data here is from Randall O’Toole’s 2009 book Gridlock.  It shows per capita GDP and average miles traveled by Americans between 1800 and  2000.  From this data, he basically concludes that smart growth is bad and that we should live in a car-dominated society or else face economic catastrophe.  This is because driving cars more miles leads to a more productive populace.

It’s hard to disagree with graphs like this.  Except for the minor detail that correlation does not equal causation, it seems evident that my hippie, urban-elite, liberalism is going to destroy America.  So I have actually been down on myself a lot for the past couple of years since reading his book.  I don’t want to be a bad person.  I just want to ride my bicycle and walk instead of driving, and I want others to be able to do it too.  (Notice the wording here anti-urbanists conspiracy theorists.  I said “be able to” not “force to”.  I’m not a dictator)

Because I feel guilty for destroying our American way of life, I am always looking for evidence that indicates that maybe I’m not such a bad person after all.  I know.  It’s like an alcoholic looking to justify his behavior.  Anyway, today was a good day for me because I read an article in the Atlantic Cities.  The article, called Cars and Robust Cities are Fundamentally Incompatiblemade me feel like a less terrible person for advocating against handing over our cities to the automobile.  

The article reports a study of cities in New England that have either limited parking or increased  parking since 1960.  The results are very weird because they seem to indicate that limiting parking and building more accessible places may not be the job killer O’Toole had me believing.  Jobs and income have actually grown in the cities that limit parking faster than the other cities.  Now I know that this is just a small study with a small sample size, but it does possibly indicate that maybe there is more to GDP and productivity than merely how many miles we each drive.

The arguments that I hear most often against transit, bicycle infrastructure, and even building walkable areas is that those projects will impede automobile travel.  It is widely believed that impeding automobile travel will have strong negative effects on the economy.  Like a said, I’m not an economist.  I just like living in pleasant areas away from hordes of exhaust-belching, noisy, and aggressive automobiles.  If living in pleasant areas destroys America, then I have serious problem.  But somehow I think that building smart cities doesn’t destroy economies.  I’m actually inclined to believe the opposite is true.  If anyone out there, who is smarter than me, knows of more studies that compare rail, bicycle, parking, pedestrian, or automobile infrastructure and economic indicators, I would like to read them.  I won’t be able to continue working to build nice places until I know that I am not simultaneously destroying our society.

It’s a Wonderful Study of Transportation and Urban Design Through Time

25 Dec

This weekend, I was enjoying an annual viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life.  No Christmas is complete without it.  

What I found interesting was the ‘progression’ of transportation through the years and the way that the small town of Bedford Falls adapted around it.

See below for descriptions and short clips of various snapshots of Bedford Falls through the early 20th century.


In 1919, there was a nice mix of horses, pedestrians, bicycles, and even automobiles.  Walking is the most common mode of transportation, and the cars on the street move slowly to accommodate the other road users.  Notice the car waiting behind the kids walking down the center of the road at 5:08.   The kids weren’t run over or honked at.  The car driver was frustrated, but he didn’t act like he owned the road or anything like that.  What’s also cool is that kids can walk unattended to the soda shop.  No minivan or SUV escort is required.  

(Feel free to stop watching after 15-20 seconds.  All these clips will play the entire movie.)  


In 1928, Bedford Falls is still a really nice place to live.  Although it is worthwhile to notice how cars are much more prevalent. now.  Horses are absent and bicycles are also on their way out.  Pedestrians still rule the day, but they have strong competition now.  I think it is worth noting how the pedestrian was treated at the 13:56 mark of the clip.  Unlike in 1919, this time the car nearly runs the man over for being in the road.  He has to jump and scamper to the safety of the sidewalk.  Cars are taking ownership of the streets.

(Feel free to stop watching after 15-20 seconds.  All these clips will play the entire movie.)


This is a scene away from the downtown area in 1932.  What I find fascinating is the complete lack of automobiles.  There are  many pedestrians and one bicycle.  Take a look outside your window right now.  Unless you live in a dense urban area or  Europe, you probably won’t see a single pedestrian.  These people have nice big yards and still manage to walk.  I’ve been told that such a thing is impossible.  I kind of want to live here.

(Feel free to stop watching after 15-20 seconds.  All these clips will play the entire movie.)


 Check out Bailey Park in 1935.  I know George is trying to do a good thing here, but his design is all wrong.  This neighborhood is 100% car centric.  It is away from town.  There are absolutely no sidewalks.  There are no pedestrians.   There are no bicycles.  The pedestrian-friendly grid from 1932 is done away with.  What a shame.  Bailey Park is the death knell for small town Bedford Falls.


If Bedford Falls was a real place, what might it look like today?  Seneca Falls in upstate New York claims to be the Real Bedford Falls; the inspiration for Capra’s Bedford Falls.  Even if Seneca Falls was not the basis for Bedford Falls, they did have many of the same characteristics.

Physical similarities between Seneca Falls and Bedford Falls are striking. In addition to the architecture along the main street and the steel truss bridge, Seneca Falls has many Second Empire Victorian homes (like the large, old house George and Mary owned in the movie). Both towns have a canal. In 1945, when the movie was shot, Seneca Falls was a mill town, just like Bedford Falls. Seneca Falls had the globe street lamps seen in the movie and even had a median on a portion of its main street.

-The Real Bedford Falls

See the Google Street View of what Seneca Falls looks like today.   The small walkable town is still there, but there are very few pedestrians or bicycles.  The median is gone, the road has been widened to accommodate faster cars and parking.  Pedestrians are now an afterthought.  It’s nice to have a crosswalk, but in 1919 Bedford Falls there was no need for a crosswalk.  Pedestrians had the right of way by default.  It was the cars that had to look out for them, not the other way around.  It has been 93 years since that scene in Bedford Falls took place.  At a glance, it appears that Bedford Falls is a much worse place to live now than it was back then.  But hey, we can drive fast though the middle of town and there is plenty of parking.  That’s what it’s all about right? Free parking?

TransportationCamp South is Coming to Atlanta!

24 Dec

TransportationCamp South is coming to Atlanta on Saturday, February 9th!

It’s an exciting time for innovative transportation in the Southeast.  The Atlanta Beltline is moving forward and MARTA has released their real-time vehicle location data to the masses.   Chattanooga and Charlotte have created public bike sharing programs.  Charlotte is expanding their already successful streetcar and transit system.  The list of projects goes on and on.

This is a great time for innovators, transportation professionals, and enthusiasts around the South to share our ideas and shape the future of transportation and urban design in our cities and suburbs.

“The sixth TransportationCamp to date and the first to be held in the Southern U.S., TranspoCamp South will bring together thinkers and doers in the fields of transportation and technology for a day of learning, debating, connecting, and creating.”

Read more and keep up-to-date on facebook.

Do All Car Commercials Occur in ‘Mad Max’ Times?

12 Nov

I’ve noticed a hilarious trend in car commercials.  The cities in these commercials are almost completely devoid of humanity.  I’m not just talking about pedestrians and cyclists but even other cars.  Start paying attention to car commercials.  They are really weird.  Why are there never any other cars around?  It really does look like some sort of post-rapture nightmare complete with heated seats, anti-lock brakes, and a moon roof.

Click on some of the thumbnails below for examples.

In this one, two people are getting ready for a date.  I suppose dinner reservations and curb parking are easy to come by in the End Times.  Seriously, where is everyone?  I can’t be the only person who finds these commercials creepy.

What city is this that literally has zero traffic?  I guess if the entire highway system existed as-is, and I was the only person allowed to drive on it, you bet your ass I’d drive everywhere.  Especially if someone was paying for all that sweet infrastructure.  

I am really wondering how they even film these commercials.  Do they have to block off entire streets of cars in order to film a commercial for cars?  Why can’t they just show the car in its natural habitat?  Oh wait. That’s right.  No one wants to buy a car that just sits in traffic.  People want to buy magic cars that make traffic disappear.  It’s pure fantasy.  It’s a load of bull****.  Buying these cars won’t get you from point A to point B any faster than any other jalopy.  These commercials must be made by the same tools that tell you drinking Bud Light will get you laid.Ok this next one really gets me.  It’s a Nissan Altima speeding through midtown Manhattan and doing donuts in Columbus Circle.  What strikes me about this one is all the pedestrians milling around completely devoid of the car which has apparently rented out Manhattan for the weekend.  (Manhattan is also available for birthdays, Bar Mitzvahs, and bachelor parties.)  If this was real life, all of these pedestrians would be running for their lives.  A lunatic is doing his best to kill himself and his girlfriend, where one wrong move would kill dozens in a flaming ball of stupidity, and no one seems to notice.  I know it’s just a commercial, but it seems very bizarre to me.

This last commercial goes over the top with the ’empty city’ concept.  They really are trying to sell the car as if driving it would make it seem as if all humanity had vaporized.  At least in this one they are aware of the absurdity of this notion.   But the question remains, why do car commercials want everyone in the city to disappear?  One of the coolest things about living in a city is experiencing all the different types of people everyday.  When I walk, or bike, or even take transit, I actually enjoy people watching.  I don’t want them to rapture away.Why aren’t all the people in these commercials freaking out?  If I found myself driving through Atlanta with the streets completely devoid of traffic, sidewalks completely empty, and not one single car to be seen on our 15-lane interstate, I would definitely freak out like Tom Cruise in the opening scene of Vanilla Sky.   I would not go for a joy ride, I would be trying to contact all of my family and friends to make sure that I had not missed out on the Second Coming.

Anyway, I know that these are just commercials intended to sell fantasy and cars.  But after living a car-light lifestyle for a while, you really notice how damaging cars can be to cities.  And when you start paying attention to how cars are advertised, it makes more and more sense.  Cars aren’t meant to operate within cities, they are meant to eviscerate cities.  They are bulls in the china shop.  They don’t mix well with others, they are completely impractical for dense urban transportation, they erode the culture of the city, and unfortunately they are the most popular mode of transportation in nearly every single city.  This last fact can be attributed to many factors.  Not the least of which is commercials like these convincing consumers that driving in cities is hassle free, fast, efficient, and fun. When in reality, sitting in traffic is none of these things.

Neighborhood Improvement Outlaw

1 Nov

A guy from Dallas, TX (a city very similar to my Atlanta) wants to make his neighborhood a better place to live.  It turns out that it is illegal to make nice neighborhoods in Dallas.  This guy doesn’t care.  He breaks all the rules, and it works!  

Watch thTED Talk  linked below.  It is worth the 18 minutes.

Originally seen here: UrbanVelo.

T-SPLOST Debate: Should we plan for 5 years or 50 years?

29 Jul

A couple of weeks back, WABE held a T-SPLOST debate.  I watched it a few times, typed up a rough response, basically just to air out much of the bias and misinformation given by the anti-SPLOST representative.  I wasn’t sure whether or not this was worthy of a post, but after watching a couple more times, I figured, why not.  

Click HERE to View the T-SPLOST debate hosted by WABE.

The video above is a debate hosted by WABE on the upcoming July 31st T-SPLOST vote.  If you are unfamiliar with the T-SPLOST vote and live in the metropolitan Atlanta area, please read up a bit on it as this upcoming vote could have a dramatic impact on the future of our region. is a good starting place.

This debate is moderated by Charles Edwards of WABE and the topic is whether to vote YES or NO on July 31.

My point-by-point breakdown of this debate:  All of my comments are shown in green.

Opening Statements:

Dickerson, 2:27 – Transportation is the biggest impediment to growth in metro Atlanta.

Brown, 4:20  –  The chosen list of projects is a problem. The list does not relieve traffic congestion. Transit is not economical and not fully funded.  Operations and maintenance are not covered. We should come back in two years and build a better list.

Having lived in Georgia for my entire life and in Atlanta for the last 11 years, I can tell you that there is no way that we are coming back in two years to create a new list of projects.  And even if by some miracle we did reconvene in two years, the project list would be basically the same.   This list represents a compromise from representatives of all ten affected counties.  If any more transit was involved, the more rural and suburban areas would balk, and if there was any less transit, the city folk wouldn’t go for it.  So this is the list; there will likely be no second time around.  At least not for many years.  

End of Opening Statements, Begin Questions:

Question, 15:00 – Do corporations consider traffic when they think of moving their businesses here?

Dickerson – Yes, we’ve lost hundreds of jobs.  I really wish Mr. Dickerson had provided a concrete list of companies that chose not to come to Atlanta because of transportation infrastructure.  It would have given his argument more strength.  

Brown – Yes. We need to improve our road network instead of wasting money on transit with its low and declining ridership.  OK, transit ridership is low.  Guess what, we have very limited transit infrastructure.  We only have two real rail lines, North/South and East/West, plus a couple of small offshoots.  How can people use something that barely exists?  Arguing that few people use transit when the opportunity to use transit is so very low does not make sense.  On his statement that transit ridership decreasing, I have three thoughts:  1)  Ridership has decreased as service is cut back.  MARTA offers fewer routes and less frequent buses and voila, ridership goes down.  That is not a shock.  2) Transit ridership nationally is up, especially among young people under 35 years of age.  If you want to attract young people to your city, you better get with the program; and 3)  Guess what else is down; automobile use.  It’s the economy, stupid.  Automobile use is down, yet I don’t hear anyone clamoring to cut the highway budget.

Brown continues – People are moving to the suburbs to avoid traffic. Water is more important than traffic, so we should try to fix the water situation. Schools are bad in the city, so fix those before worrying about transportation.  Also, quality of life is bad in the city.  This is the reason that one company from China chose to build a plant in Peachtree City, GA instead of San Francisco, CA.  Quality of life is higher in Peachtree City, GA than San Francisco despite San Francisco having BART.  OK – where do I begin? First of all, I agree that the source of future water is a problem and the schools can be bad (Although to say that all in-town schools are bad is a blatant lie.)  What does water have to do with this?  Saying we shouldn’t fix the transportation situation because there is a water problem is like saying I didn’t go to the doctor about that rash because I had a toothache.  They are both problems that need addressing separately.  By the way, do you know where school funding comes from?  Property tax.  Do you know what raises property values?  Available transit.  It’s like a win-win.   

Now onto this manufacturing company that chose to move to Peachtree City over San Francisco.  First off, I have to assume that the company wasn’t actually considering downtown San Francisco because there just isn’t any room there for large manufacturing plants.  Also, BART doesn’t serve most of San Francisco.  San Francisco is served by the Muni and BART serves the Bay Area (hence Bay Area Rapid Transit).  So if the company was considering one of the outlying areas, you should say that.  Then we can compare apples to apples.  Also, using one company as anecdotal evidence proves nothing.  Look at the GDP of San Francisco and the per capita GDP of the Bay Area.  They kick our butt.  So don’t act like we are better for business because we don’t have transit.

Brown – People don’t want to live in the city because the schools are bad and quality of life is low.

Dickerson’s response –  Actually the city is growing at  a faster rate than the suburbs.  People want the transportation options provided by the city and want to avoid the suburban gridlock.  Transit ridership of 16-34 year olds increased 40% over the past 8 years. We are building for future generations, not just for the current users.  Also, transit makes Atlanta’s vast hospitality and convention industry possible.    Well actually, ridership didn’t increase 40%; the total number of miles traveled increased by 40%.  Still a very impressive increase, though.

Question, 23:37  – What specific projects would not help Atlanta?

Brown – Economic development projects, especially the Beltline. The Beltline is about rehabilitating 42 in-town neighborhoods.  It’s all about future development and future transit.  The Beltline does not help relieve congestion. Does he not think building 42 new neighborhoods that are independent of cars will help ease congestion?

Brown continues – We need population density for transit to work, and Atlanta doesn’t have it. I totally agree; however, areas of downtown and midtown are approaching that density.  If you want fewer people sitting in their cars in front of you on the interstate, build transit in town and attract people back into the city.  That is EXACTLY what the Beltline is.  His arguments make no sense to me.  He says we should cut projects that increase density because there isn’t enough density.  How?…what?…huh?  I don’t get it.  It seems to me that Brown is not about improving Atlanta, he is about attracting people into the suburbs, specifically his suburb.  He promotes this despite the fact that more people commuting from Peachtree City will only lead to more congestion.  He certainly doesn’t seem to care about creating a long-term solution to Atlanta’s transportation problem.

Brown, 26:10 – only 1.8% of Atlanta commuters use transit at a cost of $90K per passenger. Once again, people cannot ride something that doesn’t exist.   Also, he does a little math here, which Dickerson can’t keep up with because he goes too fast. (This is a nice trick in a live debate but doesn’t hold up when you have time to sit down and count it out.)  He says that the cost per commuter will be ($3.2Billion/74,8000 boardings)*2 boardings/passenger = $85,600 per commuter.  He then rounds that up to $90K per passenger.  Two things here.  1)  This would assume that the trains are only going to run for one day.  I wonder how much the roads would cost per user if the roads were forced to pay for themselves in one day.  Trains are much more cost-effective over the long run, so this number is irrelevant.  Also, I would have to guess that these numbers are considering the current layout of Atlanta, but I am only assuming this because there wasn’t a good source here on how the 74,800 boardings number was calculated.  The projects that are funded by the T-SPLOST seek to increase density and increase ridership, which makes these values obsolete.  These numbers exist in a vacuum.  

One more thing here.  Don’t laugh at the guy’s name at 26:oo.  It’s not his fault that you can’t pronounce it.  Sorry, I digress.

Dickerson – Those numbers are stuck in time.  We are planning for the future, we can’t look at what we’ve built and make assumptions based on future behavior from it.  Young people want to live in walkable cities, if we want to attract them, we have to build for them.   Yes!   I want to drive less and I want the city to be walkable, and I am an educated young person with a choice in where I will live.  Also, I am a lifelong Georgian, which means I don’t want to see my city left behind.  Mr. Brown seems to enjoy anecdotal evidence so here is some: I have a BS and MS from Georgia Tech. Of the dozens of close friends that I have from Georgia Tech. Guess how many stayed in Atlanta after graduation… One!  And he was born and raised in Georgia. The reason that my friends all fled? Better jobs and better quality of life in other cities.  We want to live in vibrant walkable cities.  I also want to live in Atlanta.  I want to raise a family in Atlanta.  Mr. Brown says you have to move to the suburbs to have a family; well, that is not acceptable to me.  I want to make Atlanta an attractive place for families.

Hayse, 28:10 – The ARC has performed extensive economic analysis of all the projects.  Hayse Anger Translator:  Don’t call our numbers BS, your numbers are BS.  

Brown, 29:53 – ARC models are bad.  200,000 jobs won’t be created.  It’s job-years that are created.  The 4 to 1 economic benefit is not accurate because the operations and maintenance cost are not considered beyond ten years.  OK, this sounds like a legitimate gripe, but the numbers still look pretty good to me.  

Brown continues – How are we going to pay for the projects?  MARTA can’t even afford to pay for itself now.  Well, that is because MARTA is not allowed to touch literally half of its tax revenue for operations and management.  The state added an amendment at MARTA’s inception, even though the money doesn’t come from the state, to force MARTA to spend half of its money on new capital investments.  The bottom line is that MARTA would work much better if they were actually allowed to use 100% of their money.   Who will pay for operations and management of these transit projects ten years from now?  This is a real concern that will have to be answered.  I personally hope that the projects are successful enough that an expanded tax base, due to an influx of city residents and increased property values, will help cover the cost.   I wonder how others cities do it.   We should look into that; surely we aren’t the first city to try implementing transit.  Also isn’t this a problem for the roads as well?  Why not raise a flag there?

Dickerson, 33:25 –  If we don’t support this tax, we won’t have any leverage to ask for federal dollars. We have to do work for ourselves before others can be expected to help us out.

Brown, 35:00 – The federal government cannot be counted on for financial help. If it wasn’t for China, the federal government and United States would no longer exist.  Seriously, dude?  Federal government should not be looked at as a life preserver.  Well, it isn’t. Federal money is MY tax money meant to be spent on highways, transit, and other regional projects. Unlike these anti-government folks, I do expect my tax money to return to my region. But it won’t if we continue to shoot ourselves in the foot by not helping ourselves.

Brown continues – MARTA cannot support its own operations.  He keeps harping on this and I’ll rebut the same way.  They aren’t allowed to spend their own money.  They are the largest system in the USA, by ridership, to receive zero state funding, yet the state withholds literally half of their money from them.  By the way, this is the real reason this T-SPLOST was created. It was a way for the state to continue denying money to its orphaned transit system and push that responsibility onto the region.

Dickerson, 36:43 –  I’m sorry that we didn’t built a forever tax here. All SPLOSTS work this way. When we build a new school with a SPLOST, we always have to worry about funding the school once the tax is up.

Question, 38:49  – How can we be sure the project list won’t change?

Hayse – It is illegal to change the list. Also the list does include maintenance for ten years.

Question to Brown, 40:00 – Would you agree that adding/expanding roads is only a short term congestion solution?

Brown – We need to look at something else, BRT is a viable option if we have dedicated lanes.   Yes! I’m on board with this. I don’t think we need rail going all the way into the suburbs. Then he goes off topic saying MARTA is always over budget (unsubstantiated) and that we should close the GA-400 tolls. Not so coincidentally, this has since been scheduled. 

Question to Brown, 41:50 – What is your alternative?

Brown – Telecommuting.  <sarcasm> Yes, because when I think about awesome cities and communities, I think telecommuting.  Boy, I love Houston, the telecommuting scene there is outta sight!  </sarcasm> Ok, so telecommuting actually is a good idea, but what is stopping people from telecommuting now?  In addition to telecommuting, flexible work hours.  Sure, this is a good idea, but why haven’t people done this yet?  If flexible work hours is going to solve all of our problems, why hasn’t it happened yet?  Also tolls.  We should put in tolls to pay for roads.  I agree tolls are a great way of directly taxing the users of a system.  But didn’t this guy, literally two minutes ago, advocate removing the GA-400 toll?  I can’t follow his logic.  

Question to Dickerson, 44:00 – Why has the 400 toll not come down and why should we expect this tax to stop as expected?

Dickerson – That toll was put into place without a popular vote. People got no direct say in its existence. This law gives the power to the people and in ten years, we can vote to remove/change the projects if we see fit.

Brown, 47:30 –  Most of the road projects in the T-SPLOST are already on the list for funding by the GDOT, eventually.  What happens to the funds that were originally slated to build the projects?  They are going to go to a giant slush fund for pork projects, that’s what.  This dude has no faith in government, and with leaders like him, I can see why.  The truth is there are way more projects that need to be funded than there actually is funding.  The GDOT money should go to many of those projects that didn’t make the TSPLOST cut.   Get someone on that.  I can’t believe he is actually wanting us to vote against the SPLOST because it will cause too many projects to be built.

Dickerson rebuttal, 48:40 – If there are problems with government, you fix them. You don’t shut down the government.  Brown really seems to have a problem with any type of government at any level.

Question, 49:50 –  How will these projects keep people off the interstates? Give a concrete example.

Hayse – ARC, analysis shows, through travel demand modeling, a 24-25% decrease in delay, on average, in 2025 on the roads that have made improvements.

Brown, 51:30 –  Transit has dropped 1/3 in usage since 1982 (Despite $750B in subsidy).  During this same time period much more money has been poured into expanding roads and promoting sprawl.  Cities have been redesigned around the car; urban flight has run rampant.  Transit decline did not occur in a bubble. This trend is changing, however.  If you look at transit use since 1990, it is up 17%.  Since the end of 1995, it is up 35%.  It’s funny how that year of 1982 seems so randomly chosen, damned statistics.   The recent increases in ridership is partly because young people don’t stigmatize transit the way older generations do.  Access to cool bus tracking and train tracking apps make systems much easier to use.  Also, my generation is one that grew up with sprawl.  Some of us are damn sick of it.  When you build a new rail line, people come from buses and not from cars. Also completely false, but don’t take my word for it – click here to see the raw numbers per mode each quarter since 1990.  

Dickerson, 53:30 – Transportation is long term. People don’t use transit now because it doesn’t exist in most places. The desire of the next generation is to live in town and have options.  Yes, options, that is what I’m about.  Options! I’m not forcing you to take transit; don’t force me to drive.

Closing arguments:

Brown, 55:35 – Transit is too expensive. It’s a losing entity. We should use private alternatives, e.g. Megabus.  Megabus takes people all across the region for just $2.50. Well, that is completely not true and he knows it. The $2.50 number is a loss leader for that company. Most tickets are significantly higher than that – $20 or more. I know because I have bought them. It is still a very good deal mind you, but he shouldn’t pretend like the bus is full of people paying $2.50; that is a lie.  I too, would love to have a private company come in and provide rail; no one is doing it. Also, no one is doing it for roads. Roads do not make money and the gas tax does not support roads. They are heavily subsided at the expense of both road users and non-road users.

Dickerson, 57:20 Reagan was a fiscal conservative and doubled the federal gas tax. He invested in transportation for the future. We should follow the Reagan model.  Referencing Reagan to appease the conservatives is a little obvious, but a true statement nonetheless.

My Summary

Since this is my blog, I get to say whatever I think.  No one has to listen (no one does), but I get to say it.  I think these two men are trying to reach different objectives. At no point did they list what the hell they want. Dickerson seems to want a walkable downtown; he wants a city that will attract young, educated people and promote future business growth. He wants a city that is suitable for raising families.  He believes that the city is good but can be made better if we invest in it.

Brown wants wider roads and for more people to move into the suburbs.  He is scared of the city and believes that it is an irredeemably bad place.  He believes if anyone wants to not be shot or have ignorant children they will have to move to the suburbs and there is no point in even trying to improve the city itself. He does not care about Atlanta or the region as a whole. He is only concerned with maintining the status quo in his small area at the expense of the city.

Brown turned the debate from “should we vote YES or NO on this bill” to “should we ever invest in transit”.  Brown is saying we should NEVER invest in transit for Atlanta and we should stick to building more and bigger highways.  I’m sorry, but just building more roads isn’t going to work. Expanding roads to fix congestion is like an obese person trying to lose weight by buying a bigger belt.  How many lanes will it take to end traffic congestion?  We already have 15, so 20? 30? 50 lanes? Maybe we can just pave over the entire metro area and when you get in your car, you will simply point towards your destination and drive in a straight line towards it. Even then, there will be people who are in each other’s way.

What we need are options. Stop trying to force everyone to live the suburban lifestyle and drive everywhere. The Beltline is exciting because it opens up more intown neighborhoods with affordable housing. It is currently very expensive to live near transit in Atlanta.  This is because the supply of housing in these areas is very low. If we increase the supply of areas near transit to come closer to demand, we can have more people living near transit and consequently much higher transit use. You cannot half-ass transit and then wonder why no one uses it. Hell, if our road system only consisted of 2 roads that meet at Five Points, but we had tens of thousands of transit lines, guess what mode most people would use.  Many people want to live near transit. Many people want to be able to walk more. This is proven by the higher real estate prices of locations that are near transit. Get people walking, get people out of there cars and traffic will be reduced for the rest of you. I’m not saying everyone has to live in an urban, walkable area. But if everyone who wanted to could, there would be fewer cars on the road.  But let’s not forget, despite the tone of this debate, that half of this money is going towards road improvements.  It seems a good compromise to me and one that will benefit the entire region.  

Why can’t I go through here?

13 Jul

It doesn’t matter what mode of transportation you choose (driving, walking, biking, transit, pogo stick, or whatever) getting around a big city like Atlanta is difficult.  Congestion is rampant.  There are limited sidewalks and bike lanes, and transit can take forever.  But I’ve learned to deal with all these things.  If I have to travel at rush hour, I exercise Buddhist patience during the 1-2 hours it takes to drive across town.  If I have to travel on MARTA, I make sure to bring extra victuals to sustain myself on the inevitably long journey.  If I travel by bike, I always say my prayers before doing the SUV tango.  I consider these things minor nuisances.

But there is one thing that always infuriates me, and it might only be me that would let such a small and stupid thing drive me so insane.  I’m talking about the selfish my-parking-lot-not-gonna-share-with-no-one-’cause-it’s-mine-and-you-can’t-have-it mentality that makes driving and walking way more difficult than it should be.  What I’m referring to is parking lots on busy streets that force customers back into the roadway even when they are only going next door.  I’ll include a couple of examples.  Let’s say for some reason I want to visit Einstein Brothers, Wendy’s, and Office Depot in one trip.  (See map below.) Don’t ask why I’m visiting Einstein’s and Wendy’s in the same trip.  Maybe I’m a glutton, or maybe Einstein’s was closed when I arrived so I couldn’t get a delicious Santa Fe wrap and instead had to settle for the equally delicious Wendy’s spicy chicken sandwich.  It’s irrelevant.

 The point is that these three locations are all within very easy walking distance.  The problem is that they are all located on three different lots and do not allow people to leave their cars behind to visit other locations.  “Parking is for Customers Only, Violators will be Towed”.  OK so I’m probably not going to get towed, but why is walking against the rules?  Why is it technically against the rules to leave my car behind and visit these three places on foot?  Furthermore, if you are going to force me to drive, why are these lots not connected in some way?  The orange arrows above show the only legal way to visit these three locations.  I have to re-enter the extremely busy and epidemically congested Howell Mill Road twice for no good reason.  These places are NEXT DOOR to each other, so why force more cars onto the road and increase the number of trips required in an already congested area?  I don’t get it.  Wouldn’t sharing or connecting their lots improve business by improving accessibility?

OK, now here’s another one that really blew my mind when I noticed it.  If you live in midtown Atlanta, you may visit the Trader Joe’s and Whole Paycheck Foods from time to time.  These are two locations that are located a mile or two apart.  Trader Joe’s is on the north end of midtown around 10th street and the other one is located down on Ponce.  It takes 5 minutes or so to drive between these locations (depending on traffic).  That’s OK, right?  Because these locations are far apart, right?  Wrong!  They are literally next door to each other.  The parking lot that serves Trader  Joe’s and the Midtown Promenade bumps right into the parking lot that serves Whole Foods and that group of stores.  See the locations A and B below. Why do I have to travel nearly 2 miles to get between them?

The picture below is taken from roughly point A on the map above. What you see in this picture is the Home Depot parking lot and the Ponce City Market. Yes, Ponce City Market on the far south side of midtown is only a few hundred feet from Trader Joe’s on 10th Street. I know that mathematically this makes sense. It’s really only about 8 blocks or so, but to actually realize how compact our city is and then think about how difficult it is to move around despite this fact is very frustrating.

To top it all off, you aren’t even allowed to walk between these two lots, at least not according to the plethora of “don’t even think about storing your car here for even one minute” signs. You are required by the rules put forth by these two establishments to get in your car and drive nearly 2 miles to travel a total of 50 feet. It boggles the mind. What would it take for these two strip mall operators to come together and say, “Hey, if we build some stairs or a ramp to let people walk between these two parking lots, people might actually be inclined to make an impromptu visit to one store when their intended purpose was to visit another.” Wouldn’t that be good for business? It’s clear that people want it. Just look at the desire path made by all the insidious rule breakers (image below). I’ve even pushed my grocery-laden bike up and down that small mountain a few times. It’s amazing how hard this town makes it to walk or bike around. It’s almost like living outside the law.  Hopefully with more and more people desiring to live in walkable and bikeable areas, these things will start to change. 

Anyway, this is just a rant and the rant is now over. However, future rants are sure to appear soon. After all, the July 31st transportation referendum vote is approaching and if there are two things that Atlantans love to argue about, it’s traffic and taxes.

Until next time, be careful out there.

Yea, though I walk through the Valley of Silicon, I will fear no car.

31 May

After spending the last few months in Mountain View, CA, it is nice to be back home in Atlanta.  I feel more at home here, where government and society are a little more dysfunctional.  I’m not accustomed to the organization and general niceness of  northern California.    Blue skies and green grass get monotonous after a while.  I prefer Atlanta, where the smog is a different color everyday, no two consecutive blocks are paved with sidewalks, and pedestrians are kept in their rightful place at the bottom of the socioeconomic/transportation ladder (right behind fire hydrants and telephone poles).  No seriously, it’s good to be back home.

There are a lot of good things to be said about Mountain View, CA (and Silicon Valley in general).  Despite the fact that the entire South Bay area is a haven for traffic and cars, they still manage to make walking a respected and easy way to get around.  How did they do it?  By managing their parking.  Remember this picture of arguably Atlanta’s most walkable neighborhood, Midtown?

Land 100% Dedicated to Parking in Midtown Atlanta

The red squares show land that is 100% dedicated to car storage (a.k.a parking).  Dedicating this much land to parking not only lengthens the distance that people must walk between locations, but it also makes the walk less pleasant.  This is because vast parking lots do not provide shade and force pedestrians to always be on guard for cars entering and leaving the parking lots.  

Shown below is a similar shot of downtown Mountain View, CA.  

Land 100% Dedicated to Parking in Downtown Mountain View, CA

What’s important to notice is here is that while the parking is still present, it has been strategically placed.  The main street of downtown Mountain View, Castro Street, is completely devoid of parking lots and decks.  Instead, the parking is placed behind the many businesses that line Castro Street.   By moving the parking off of the main commercial street, shops are allowed to build closer to one another making walking much easier along this street.  With this type of setup, people will park once and visit many destinations before returning to their cars.  This is unlike much of Silicon Valley (and Atlanta for that matter) where people will literally drive across the street because all the parking forces buildings to be no closer than 1000 yards apart.  The park-and-walk setup of Mountain View is a great compromise between those who love to drive and those who love to walk.  You can drive right up to the back of your destination and park very close to the door, but the front door and the main street belongs to pedestrians.   Below are few shots around Mountain View.

Castro street in Downtown Mountain View, CA

Here a a single parking spot has been replaced with outdoor seating for 18 people. Talk about efficient use of space!

Taking a leisurely stroll through Silicon Valley.

A parking deck viewed from Castro Street. Parking decks and lots are not allowed directly on Castro Street to improve walkability.

Walk OR Drive to the performing arts center.

The library. These people know how to live.

No car necessary. A train to the next town. Very nice!

No pedestrian paradise is complete without it’s hipster coffee joint. Literally everyone in this place is working on a startup.

It’s amazing how simply arranging the location of parking lots in a thoughtful way can create pockets of walkability in an otherwise hostile environment.  Probably the best example of this model in Atlanta is Tech Square,  where the two main parking decks are located one block from 5th street, allowing the street to be dominated by pedestrians without fear of being mauled by cars.  (See the Google Street image below.)  I hope to see more of this type of development in my town.

Mountain View as a cool place with much of what I look for in a city or town, but for some reason, when I talk about what I look for in a city (walkability, bike friendliness, compact design), I am often accused of being a socialist pinko.  Why are any of these things socialist?  Is it ironic that a place that closely matches with what I want lies at the heart of Silicon Valley, the home of Facebook, Google, and the world’s richest company, Apple?  I thought that biking, walking, and transit were anti-capitalist business killers.  I guess I’ll never figure it out.

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