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Atlanta: if expanding transit is all we do, we may fail

A new article from City Lab – “Los Angeles Passed a Historic Transit Tax. Why Isn’t It Working?” – offers an important warning to Atlanta by way of a failure in L.A..

Similar to Atlanta’s More MARTA referendum, L.A. voted to pay for an expansion of transit called Measure M. They did so with expectations of increased ridership. But after the new lines were built, ridership not only didn’t grow – it declined.

Why? A study of the vote shows that people who supported the expansion were expecting others to ride transit. Individually, they had no expectation of riding it themselves. (A strange case of life imitating satire, considering this piece from The Onion.)

As the article points out, relief of car congestion was a major concern for people who voted “yes” on Measure M. Folks wanted to have a smoother car ride for themselves by luring fellow Angelenos off the road, and it didn’t work.

Raise the chance for transit success with urban design, reduced car trips

It’s possible that the failure of this effort came largely from two things: 1.) The fact that it’s happening in a silo, one that divorces transportation from overall urban design, and 2.) The fact that not enough is being done to actively discourage car trips. Too much carrot and not enough stick.

The problem is that we’ve spent many decades being very intentional about building out U.S. regions like L.A. and Atlanta at a scale for cars, with urban fabric and streets that are largely hostile to walking. Which stinks for transit, because a lot of those trips involve walking city streets to and from the stops.

As a counter measure to that problem, there are definitely good reasons to expand transit right now in Atlanta, especially since we went many years without building a scrap of new rail. But if all we do is expand transit, the chance for success in terms of systemwide ridership seems too limited. There’s not going be a strong return on that investment.

In addition to building transit, we have to also design our streets and buildings to be not just accommodating to walking, but to be truly attractive to people as mobility routes. And we also have to bite the bullet and take actions that deter car trips, regardless of how unpopular that will be (and it will be).

Let’s be at least as intentional about these actions going forward as previous generations were about building our urbanized places for cars. That way, riding transit becomes an obvious choice for a lot more people, and the presence of automobile congestion won’t be such a widespread burden on residents.