We asked ThreadATL board member Kipling Dunlap to share thoughts about the plans for the Summerhill Bus Rapid Transit line. He’s a long-time transit advocate, mobility pro, and policy expert who’s been watching the BRT project closely.
1. What are your thoughts on the Summerhill BRT proposal as presented by MARTA recently?
First off I want to say I’m always happy to see MARTA moving forward. I’ve accepted that the era of heavy rail expansion is -for the time being- gone; but I like that we’re trying to innovate and take pages from other big, historically auto-oriented cities’ playbooks and introduce a new mode that might work well for us.
I’m trying to take the view, as I think you have to in the transit planning world, that this isn’t a finished product; it’s a foot-in-the-door. I think of the Atlanta Streetcar in the same way, and I think there are plenty of people looking at this project and wondering why that one isn’t farther along, and rightly so. But we’re moving forward on multiple fronts and, assuming they both keep moving, Atlanta’s definitely got enough anticipated growth that we need to have multiple irons in the fire. Technologically, big picture, I was pleased with the presentation and I’m a supporter of the idea.
But I have concerns.
2. What is MARTA getting right about it?
BRT is most successful when the service emulates rail – dedicated right-of-way (ROW), offboard payment, level boarding, fast headways. MARTA said all of those words in the presentation and I see that they know what the ideal is. I’m pleased with the stated percentage of dedicated ROW: 85% going through Downtown and over 3 interstates and multiple state routes. I think they worked diligently to get to that number.
The technology aspect looks good to me: level boarding for accessibility and a clear intention to facilitate passengers with bikes, it also looks like they’re taking signal priority and real-time-arrival info into the design from the start. That’s good. I’d expect arrival data to be even better than the rail API since it’s all brand new.
3. What are your major concerns about it?
First and foremost, I have some concerns about the route. Transit service planning is always focused on what’s being connected by any given route, and while the Beltline is famous, the southern terminus of this route isn’t a major job or residential center that I’m aware of. Which is not to say people don’t live there and need to get around, but why is this route the first in this program? I would point to Campbellton Road or North Avenue as more densely populated, deserving segments. But maybe MARTA knows something I don’t.
Going back to the nuts and bolts of the service, and again to the question of Dedicated ROW – I found the MARTA Project Manager’s responses on the questions of barrier-separation and the question of local bus access at odds: If there’s no big enforcement push or mechanism being built into this project, then why is MARTA not ready to say that local routes will have free access to the bus lane? Certainly a few local buses won’t put the BRT off schedule in the way that Atlanta’s notoriously relaxed traffic rules are likely to..?
4. Say I’m a person who looks at this and says “no one is going to ride that, why do we need this?” What would you say to me in response?
As a former Transportation Demand Management (TDM) person, I’ve been optimistic about the idea of BRT as a novel compromise between the conveniences of rail at the cost of bus; it ticks boxes in both columns. But I know good and well that bus stigma is real – people don’t talk about buses charitably here. Atlanta now has an opportunity to demonstrate how buses can be different: fast, efficient, desirable. We need to show it on a segment that gets heavy use, that bridges a particular gap in our existing network… and I don’t know that this is it.
Kipling Dunlap is an advocate for public transit, responsible land use, and pro-social public spaces. He lives in Atlanta’s Edgewood neighborhood and currently serves as chief aide to GA State Representative Park Cannon. He serves on the Board of Directors for ThreadATL.