This is the question that frustrates me the most. For the physical project to be enjoyed equitably, we have to do more than build the physical project. We must also follow through on the policies and investments that protect people who are vulnerable to change and that ensure that project benefits are shared. But that effort requires a lot of people, organizations, public agencies, and private developers to also care about these issues. And we have to provide the people charged with implementing the project with the support and resources required to deliver those outcomes. We have made progress, but we have also been slow to deliver.
The result is that the Atlanta Beltline is doing fairly well on some fronts – land acquisition, engineering, construction of trails and parks, improving physical activity, and private economic investment – but poorly on things like affordable housing, workforce development, economic opportunity, and transit. For the Atlanta Beltline to live up to its promise, we must deliver all of these benefits. Because we haven’t yet – understandably – frustration is building among many equity advocates.
This gets to the current question of transit implementation. Some argue that transit will amplify our housing affordability crisis by making land along the Beltline even more valuable. And because we haven’t followed through on strategies for managing that crisis, we’re left with a difficult question: Should our slow delivery on issues like affordable housing delay our implementation of transit?
Here’s a little context for my perspective.
Conditions are urgent and changing. As a region, we are way behind on affordable housing. Without aggressive new tools to manage change, the urban core is going to be completely gentrified in short order – with or without the Beltline. According to the Atlanta Regional Commission, metropolitan Atlanta will grow to 8 million in the next 20 years. That’s an increase of 2.5 million people. For a lot of reasons – not the least of which is traffic congestion – the urban core of the region is likely to see a larger share of that growth than it has historically. This means that the powerful economic forces we see today are likely to continue to grow. For intown Atlanta – Beltline or no Beltline – the urgent challenges posed by this growth should be driving every policy and investment discussion. We can vote to not change if we want, but as we outlined in the Atlanta City Design, not changing is not really an option.
Every good thing makes it worse. It’s fair to acknowledge the Beltline’s impact on the geography of this change, but there are a lot of other influences driving these powerful forces for urban revitalization – shorter commutes, better lifestyle options, better jobs, better nightlife, better schools. Just like the Beltline, these things are driving up prices and rents. In fact, it seems like you can’t even mow your yard in some neighborhoods without increasing the price of homes on your street. Somehow, however, it’s the Atlanta Beltline that has become a convenient proxy for blame about the city’s larger lack of preparedness for growth.
Solutions are multiple and interdependent. Our response to that lack of preparedness should be a more aggressive approach to everything – not just housing – that can help people manage growth and change. And while most neighborhoods do need affordable housing, that is not the only equity issue. Things like transit, health, education, pollution, public space, parks, and venture capital are also often equity issues – and their interdependence is worth noting. Transit, for example, can improve access to fresh food, schools, and healthcare, and it often incentivizes revitalization, which brings new jobs and economic opportunity. So, while affordable housing is also essential, if we focus solely on housing, we’re missing other equity investments that can help people manage change. And only by advancing these issues together, can we build a truly equitable city.
Our efforts are imperfect and messy. Unfortunately, things don’t always go as planned and advocates for equity issues don’t always agree. We get stuck in the weeds, step on each other’s toes, don’t speak with a clear voice, drive away the people we need to influence, and in the process, limit our effectiveness for change. Working together is messy, time-consuming, and difficult work, and it’s easy for advocates to find themselves fighting each other. A more strategic approach would be to forgive each other for disagreements and missteps, and instead stand together to achieve our mostly-shared vision. Progress on things we understand, such as affordable housing and transit, is urgently needed because looking ahead, there is a tsunami of change coming – a wave of new challenges for equity around issues that are not understood – things like climate, privacy, technology, and automation.
With that context described, here are my thoughts on how transit advances equity on the Atlanta Beltline.
- It claims equity. The vision for the Atlanta Beltline was shaped before equity was a buzzword, but because our movement was truly inclusive, its promise was built organically around a range of equity goals. It’s fair to critique the project’s delivery on those goals, but it is also important to note that our ability to hold it accountable to those goals is precisely because we framed our vision in that language. Other projects and initiatives that do not claim equity as their goal either go unchallenged on equity or seem impossible to steer toward a more equitable vision. The Atlanta Beltline’s aim for equity should not stand alone – it should catalyze a new kind of thinking and be a model for every investment.
- It follows through on promises. It’s amazing that people in certain positions today seem so willing to reject the findings and decisions made through hundreds of public meetings involving thousands of participants over nearly two decades – far more engagement than has been asked of any other project in the city’s history.
- Rail transit for the entire loop of the Atlanta Beltline was always central to this story of public engagement and is the primary reason that the project has gotten this far.
- That story was about real communities of people. Anecdotally, I remember how south and west Atlanta were particularly focused on transit – much more than new parks and trails. Today, looking more technically at equity measures like income, car ownership, disability, and poverty, it’s not surprising these communities wanted transit – the question is whether today’s leaders are willing to follow through on those plans.
- The arrival of electric scooters and automated vehicles should not substantively change our commitment transit on the Atlanta Beltline. These are interesting advances in technology, but they also beg all kinds of new questions about equity, access, culture, and who this new Atlanta is for.
- It generates compact urban growth along transit. Instead of sprawling new housing and jobs for millions of new neighbors across the region, the Atlanta Beltline organizes sensible, sustainable growth along an otherwise-underutilized belt of land circling the city. Because the urban core of the region is under tremendous growth pressure, most of this former industrial land would be transformed by private developers anyway, but by implementing transit on the Beltline, we can create opportunities for everyone to benefit.
- The Beltline trail is great, but it’s useless in the rain. It doesn’t work for everybody, or for every trip. Transit makes the Beltline for everyone.
- Unlike buses that follow increasingly traffic-jammed streets, Beltline transit offers free-flowing connections directly to MARTA stations.
- Beltline transit helps incentivize housing supply – a big factor for housing costs in the face of growing demand.
- Beltline transit allows people to ditch the expense of car ownership – eliminating major household costs for car payments, fuel, and insurance.
- Residents in transit-oriented buildings can save as much as 20% on housing – that’s the average cost per unit for a parking space in a typical apartment building.
- Walkable, transit-oriented growth supports local businesses and startups.
- It provides traffic-free access to jobs beyond the Beltline. People say MARTA doesn’t go anywhere, but that’s not true. The rail system already connects most major concentrated employment centers in the Atlanta region – Downtown, Midtown, Buckhead, Airport, Perimeter Center, and Decatur. What it doesn’t do well is connect into communities where a lot of people live. Only the Atlanta Beltline connects MARTA rail directly into reasonably-dense intown communities along a free-flowing, traffic-free route. As regional traffic gets worse and growth in the urban core intensifies, transit on the Beltline helps both existing and future residents get to jobs throughout the region.
- It comes with other partners and resources. The Atlanta Beltline is more than a transit line and it has many other partners ready to deliver a wide range of equity outcomes. While it is fair to critique the success of these partnerships so far, we must also acknowledge that no other transit project is even trying. The Atlanta Beltline is the only transit project in the region that comes with built-in relationships across a spectrum of public agencies and nonprofit partners to support the project on everything from affordable housing to economic development, job creation, and public schools.
- Protect, expand, and take advantage of traditional housing subsidies.
- Loosen regulatory barriers to housing supply and generate new types of housing.
- Spark innovative financing solutions like the Community Land Trust Collaborative.
- Leverage public land holdings.
- Funnel economic development incentives to disinvested communities.
- Create ladders of economic opportunity for community entrepreneurs.
- Reflect community history through artwork and signage.
- Provide traffic-free, active transportation routes to neighborhood schools.
- Attract wraparound services like healthcare and afterschool activities.
- Embed workforce training and job development programs.
- Bring in state and national partners for housing, transport, environmental protection, health, art, and land conservation.
Seriously, people. Transit on the Atlanta Beltline advances equity by laying a more equitable and sustainable foundation for a future Atlanta – a city much larger than the one we see today. This future is fueled by powerful economic forces of change, but the Atlanta Beltline – especially its transit component – will help the city manage that change so that it benefits existing residents and businesses. If we also follow through on policies and investments for other equity goals like affordable housing, economic opportunity, and workforce development, Atlanta can be a model city of the future. We can catalyze new ways of thinking and set new expectations for project delivery that reach beyond transit to define success by a wide range of equity goals. >> Ryan Gravel