Anti-Transit Design in the Atlanta Suburbs: Aiming for Exclusion, and Failing

Atlanta’s I-85, as viewed from a MARTA train.
From the 1998 Atlanta Regional Commission transportation plan. The sprawling, outward population growth is intense. Interesting note: that outline in the center is not the city limits of Atlanta, it’s the “railroad cordon” which we now know as the Atlanta BeltLine. It’s worth considering that this former rail line is now where so much population growth is happening, versus the exurban explosion of the 1990s and 2000s.

The intentional design for automobiles-only growth in Atlanta

The unwalkable, automobile-oriented plan for Atlanta growth in 1952
Fans of suburban zoning in the 1940s, which maintained a car-centric environment where homes were set apart from businesses and retail, and which excluded people who couldn’t afford cars. (NOTE: turns out this is a photo from Los Angeles, not Atlanta, though one can imagine this scene taking place in many cities.)

Riding the bus to steal suburban TVs

Voters in suburban counties rejected MARTA in 1971. The system would have served those suburbanites with rail and bus lines, but instead residents decided to stick with the limitation of car mobility. Why? Certainly the car-scale design of the suburbs made automobiles the logical choice for transportation and limited the ability of buses and trains to serve the area well. But there was another element at play: exclusion.

1967 map of a proposed rail transit system for the Atlanta region. It shows lines reaching into both Cobb County and Gwinnett County. But both of them were scrapped when those counties voted to not join the transit system.

Suburban switcheroo: middle-class, white dominance declines

Cut to 2017, when suburban poverty is an increasing problem in Atlanta. According to a POLITICO piece on the issue, poverty was evenly spread throughout the suburbs and the City of Atlanta in the 1970s. But things have shifted dramatically since then:

Majority-minority neighborhoods in Atlanta, 2010.

Planting a new seed for better growth

Look closely at this graphic that’s posted above — the one of sprawl patterns in the 1980s-90s. Focus on that thin outline in the center of the image. It’s not the city limits. It’s what was known at the time as the “railroad cordon,” but today we know it as the Atlanta BeltLine.

Railroad cordon in the center of sprawl

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Darin Givens

Darin Givens

ThreadATL co-founder: http://threadatl.org || Advocacy for good urbanism in Atlanta || atlurbanist -at- gmail.com