The efficiency of transit systems is a key indicator of a city’s resilience, as mobility has strong ties to access to jobs, education, healthcare, and a number of other critical services. In Atlanta and many other US cities, the legacy of racial segregation has limited the potential of highway systems and public transit to equitably improve the well-being of society. The recently approved “More MARTA” plan may be a step in the right direction for transportation investment.

I-75 and I-85 in Atlanta (Source WikimediaCommons/AtlantaCitizen)
I-75 and I-85 in Atlanta (Source WikimediaCommons/AtlantaCitizen)

In 2017, Atlanta was ranked 11th in a global study of the worst cities for traffic congestion. A look at the development of the city’s highway system, and the social constructs which have guided it, may explain the difficulties many Atlanta residents face in getting around the city each day. Like many other American cities, in the mid 1900’s Atlanta experienced a trend of white families moving out of urban centers and into suburbs, often referred to as “white flight”. At the same time that these suburbs grew, the new residents needed a way to get to the economic base of downtown areas. When the federal government financed the Interstate Highway System, local governments were frequently given the liberty of deciding where these roads were to be built. The road construction and placement often displaced black neighborhoods and intentionally divided many others from the white neighborhoods, perpetuating already stark racial housing lines and hindering commutes and other transportation from black neighborhoods. Highway construction crews in Atlanta had even marked the route of the highway as “the boundary between the white and Negro communities.” The consequences of the highway’s placement has contributed to years of division in Atlanta and substantial transportation flaws. The traffic congestion seen in Atlanta today can be traced to the racially motivated attitudes which guided the highway’s development rather than the efficiency of urban planning. 

Caused by similar prejudices, Atlanta’s public transit system, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), also experiences inefficiencies resulting from intentional racial division. Beginning in the 1960’s, suburban neighborhoods with white populations rejected the expansion of the transit system to their towns. Some counties held debates about the idea of creating their own transit system, separate from MARTA. Kevin Kruse for the New York Times notes that “Because of that resistance, MARTA became a city-only service that did little to relieve commuter traffic.Thus, suburbanites who could afford cars were able to utilize the highway systems, though they experienced high levels of traffic, and inner city Atlantans used the limited MARTA. 

A MARTA bus in Atlanta (Source Flickr/Kristain Baty)
A MARTA bus in Atlanta (Source Flickr/Kristain Baty)

Adjustments to these systems have only just begun to be addressed. Although a neighboring suburban county has opted out, the “More MARTA” plan was recently approved by the MARTA board following a city wide vote that overwhelmingly showed support for expanding and funding transit services. The first stages of the plan’s implementation began in June of 2019, and many are hoping its completion will mark a new era of much needed transportation investment in Atlanta. The American Public Transportation Association has cited that communities generate $4 for every $1 spent on public transportation. Beyond solely economic investment, efficient public transit and highway systems are crucial for bolstering community resilience. Access to jobs, child care facilities, and other local resources such as libraries, recreation centers and green spaces improve standard of living and increase opportunity. In addition to reducing commuting delays, ease of travel also allows first responders to reach emergencies faster and hastens potential evacuation scenarios if a disaster were to occur.

Sources and further reading

How Segregation Caused Your Traffic JamThe New York Times

Mapping the Segregation of Metro Atlanta’s AmenitiesCity Lab

Atlanta traffic among worst in the world, study findsWSB-TV 2

How Racial Discrimination Shaped Atlanta’s Transportation MessStreets Blog USA

More MARTA Atlanta Its MARTA

More MARTA Atlanta Fact Sheet Its MARTA

More MARTA Board Vote – Its MARTA

Atlanta shouldn’t settle for mediocre ‘More MARTA’ plan – Saporta Report

White Flight Never Ended – The Atlantic

2019 Public Transportation Fact book – The American Public Transportation Association

White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism – Kevin Kruse