Dedicated lanes for transit are good, but additional steps are needed to reduce perils of car culture
The photos above show two MARTA rail lines, one that’s passing over over I-85 and one beside DeKalb Avenue. They may appear to be sensible options for traveling into the city from these vistas, particularly since they are separated from roadways. But MARTA ridership has not been rising along with population growth in the service area.
The fact is that even when transit lines are fully detached from car traffic like this, they still aren’t as successful as they could be if we truly addressed car culture.
That detachment from car lanes is a solid benefit, no doubt, and I’m glad to see so much conversation happening about giving dedicated lanes to streetcars and bus lines. Dedicated lanes for transit are a good thing, and we need to make sure that our future streetcars and Bus Rapid Transit plans include them. But messaging their benefit is tricky: we have to be careful to not paint them as a sole solution for transit success in Atlanta.
MARTA’s heavy rail has a dedicated “lane” but we still have a huge swelling of cars into the city alongside the tracks. And we still have streets like DeKalb Avenue that flow beside several transit stations, but that lack pedestrians who could be potential riders.
Yes, add good stuff like dedicated lanes for transit. But also address the bad stuff that affects ridership.
Transit doesn’t exist is a vacuum outside the context of our car-oriented policies, behaviors, and assumptions, and it certainly doesn’t exist apart from our car-centric use of urban space.
It’s not enough to add good new things like transit lines and distinct right-of-way for them. Even the addition of vertical developments nearby isn’t enough, nor is upping frequency for the routes.
We also have to address the bad old things, such as the remnants of car culture that linger across the city and the region:
Too much cheap parking near transit stops
A study of light rail systems shows that the biggest contributor to reduced ridership was the availability of cheap or free parking along the route.
Cheap use of highways during peak travel time
On the U.S. DOT site you can read about a series of studies showing that ridership of transit grows when roads are priced during peak travel times.
Disused space near transit
Vacant land has been found to have a negative effect on people’s perceptions of safety, preventing them from wanting to walk in an area. People who don’t want to walk on a street aren’t going to choose to ride a bus.
Uninviting pedestrian conditions
Surveys by AARP have found that half of people over the age of 50 report being unable to safely cross the main street closest to them. None of those people are going to catch a bus or a train in their neighborhoods.
Architecture that ignores the sidewalk
Putting windows and doors next to the sidewalk is essential for making a street feel inviting and safe for the pedestrians who’ll use transit. Buildings that are set off the street behind parking lots or behind a sizable piece of landscaping are not supporting transit well.
Too-high car speeds
In Boston, reducing speed limits has successfully slowed cars down, per study. And any amount of slowing vehicles increases pedestrian safety significantly, making it more likely that people will choose to become transit riders — who are all pedestrians at some point in the journey.
All of those things listed above can scuttle success for transit by not allowing it to compete well with cars. And in a super sprawling, ultra car-centric region like Atlanta, this is particularly important.
Darin Givens is co-founder of ThreadATL, a non-profit that promotes good urbanism in Atlanta.