A Project for Better Journalism chapter

Where the Sidewalk Ends

Atlanta has a problem. No, I’m not talking about racism. Not sexism. Not terrorism. It’s a problem largely undealt with by local politicians. Yet millions are intimately familiar with its wrath. I’m speaking, of course, about Atlanta’s traffic problem. But more specifically, its need to ditch a car culture which it has sorely outgrown.

Atlanta is a global city. The cultural capital of the South. And a host of the Olympic Games, an honor with which cities like Chicago and New York have still yet to be graced. Atlanta is undoubtedly a great city. Our public policy, however, is not.

The Atlanta metro ranks second in the country in terms of vehicular-related air pollution. So it seems fitting that rates of childhood asthma are double the national average. Considering that the average commuter loses around 60 hours of time sitting in traffic every year, it also seems fitting that one in three Georgians are obese. With the area’s population expected to grow by 2.3 million in the next 20 years, the situation will only get worse.  

I suppose it is easy to dismiss the woes of Atlanta car culture as a problem we must accept. A problem not worth fighting. A cultural force simply too great to be reckoned with. But perhaps such a meek attitude is why the situation continues to worsen. Do not forget, this is our city, nobody can solve our problems but us.

In 1864, the city of Atlanta was burned to the ground. Only churches and hospitals were spared. Nothing else. But with their feet planted firmly in the ground and their eyes on the stars, our forebearers rebuilt. Undoubtedly, the process was gradual. At times painful. And assuredly, I can say that they did not expect this city to grow into the great southern metropolis that it has. Their work, however, is not complete. It is our solemn responsibility to finish the mission which these great men and women started. So with this in mind, I urge all Atlantans to leave any preconceived notions behind. The state of Atlanta traffic can change. It should change. And with hard work, it will change.  

The improvement and expansion of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, MARTA, rail system appear to be a logical step in the right direction. Currently, MARTA does not serve enough people. Its daily ridership hovers around 215,000 while systems in similarly populated metropolitan are moving over 100% more people on any given day. Chiefly, this is because the system needs a bigger footprint. The Washington Metro, for example, has 117 miles of track. MARTA only has 47.

An expansion, however, is not enough to solve the problem. The existing infrastructure must be upgraded as well. A recent audit found that MARTA’s computer network is vulnerable to a failure of catastrophic proportions. Trains need Wi-Fi. Breeze card machines need to work more reliably. And fare gates must be more efficient.

MARTA’s reputation, though, still may be its greatest handicap. The system sorely needs a rebranding campaign. It is still largely accepted by many Atlantans that the system has a crime problem– despite statistics that say otherwise. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the New York subway had a similar problem. Though fears in New York were more substantiated than those in Atlanta, the subway was able to clean itself up. The problem in Atlanta is not really about crime, it is about a perception of crime. Regardless of reality, Atlantans need to see an upgrade in security if MARTA is to find support among middle-class commuters again.

Unfortunately, a shiny new metro system still will not be enough to remedy the woes of Atlanta traffic. Throughout the metro area, a push for more sidewalks and mixed-use trails must be made a priority as well. Few children are able to walk or bike to school. Yet it has been well proven that children who walk to school get better grades. They arrive to class more awake. The exercise reduces stress. And traffic volume is reduced by as much as 14%.

Many office-dwellers can benefit from walking to work as well. It’s healthier. Better for the environment. Stress-relieving. Undoubtedly, it’s a win-win scenario. The benefits are enormous.

With MARTA, however, Atlantans often cite safety concerns as a great hindrance to walking; unfortunately, this may truly be the case. The Atlanta metro ranked eighth in the nation in terms of pedestrian danger. But this is precisely why we need a robust system of trails and sidewalks in the Atlanta area. We need to foster a culture where people prefer to walk or bike over getting in the car. That simply is not possible with the current state of our infrastructure.

Granted, some steps are being taken to reduce traffic. The BeltLine project, for example, is touted by local politicians as evidence of real change. But this simply is not going to cut it. Vast swaths of the metro are still polluted. They are still congested. Childhood asthma rates are still double the national average. Obesity rates are still higher than they should be. The reality is, most Atlantans are still sitting in traffic more than they should.

This city was founded on doing the unthinkable. When nothing but ashes remained, what did our ancestors do? They rose to the occasion. They built this city into the great metropolis that it is today. If we want to solve our current problems, we must think like these founders. We must do the extraordinary. Our politicians may tell us it is simply not possible to do much more. But let us remind them– this is Atlanta. It is in our blood.