The rail transit infrastructure of Metro Atlanta: stunted by sprawl
This is a 1990 comparison of Barcelona and multi-county Metro Atlanta, showing the difference between a sprawling land use and a compact one. I posted a previous version of this image a couple of years ago, but Streetsblog has an updated version this week that includes rail transit lines in red.
Urban densities are not trivial, they severely limit the transport mode choice and change only very slowly. Because of the large differences in densities between Atlanta and Barcelona about the same length of metro line is accessible to 60% of the population in Barcelona but only 4% in Atlanta.
When I look at this image, what I see is two things:
1.) a mass of 2.8 million people (Barcelona) in an area compact and walkable enough to be served well by transit
2.) a mass of 2.5 million people (Metro Atlanta) in an area so sprawled out and unwalkable — due to its largely car-centric form — that most of it can’t be served well by transit.
The relatively minor amount of rail transit in Metro Atlanta is, in my opinion, entirely justified. I differ with many people on this point. Without a concurrent plan for building greater densities of population in a format that accommodates safe pedestrian and cycling mobility, I don’t think that there should be an extension of rail transit in the metro.
Rail infrastructure is incredibly expensive to build. Stretching it out into the car-centric nether regions of Metro Atlanta, where rail stations would be built into an urban fabric dominated by suburban sprawl and that offers safe travel to cars alone, would be a bad move. We’d end up with park-and-ride stations of the type that MARTA is finally getting around to undoing, via new transit-oriented-development plans to convert parking lots into housing.
And worst of all, we’d be spending public money on a transportation system that supports a sprawling, unwalkable environment. We’d be subsidizing the problem instead of offering a solution — and that would be a lateral move for the metro’s built environment when compared interstate infrastructure. We’ve already subsidized sprawl enough with our public money and I’m not eager to donate more to that cause.
When there is a metro-wide initiative to retrofit suburban sprawl into more walkable forms via infill and rezoning — reversing the car-sprawl damage of the past — then I think it will be time for talking about rail expansion. The key is getting to a place where a significant number of people can safely walk or cycle to rail stations instead of driving to them.
[I’ll add a caveat that there are a couple of nodes of walkable density within the current radius of MARTA’s rail service area that could sensibly be served by rail stations, like Emory University; but without other nearby nodes that could be served by the same new rail line, that would be an overly-expensive expansion to make.]