Suburban exclusion of MARTA and access to the Braves stadium

Cobb County has a history of rejecting MARTA & its connection to the city. The stadium seems to be an extension of that trend, entrenching one of Atlanta’s cultural institutions firmly outside the MARTA system.

The connection that might have been. This map shows how MARTA heavy rail was intended to connect with Cobb County, through a northwest line. The county rejected joining the system.

Earlier this year I was quoted in a Deadspin article about the Braves move to Cobb County: The Braves new ballpark is an urban planner’s nightmare. Below are some further thoughts on the subject. Note: I was born and raised in Cobb.

There is a way to get to the Braves stadium, SunTrust Park, by using Cobb County’s transit service. A shuttle bus ferries game attendees between a CobbLinc bus stop and the stadium. But that transit service is nowhere near as extensive as MARTA and it doesn’t meet the needs of the people who live in suburban poverty in Cobb (a demographic shift from recent years that has been studied well, particularly in Rebecca Burns’ “Sprawled Out in Atlanta: What happens when poverty spreads to a place that wasn’t built for poor people?”).

Car-sharing services like Uber have proven popular as means to get to SunTrust Park, but the prices those services charge can be considerably higher than what you pay for bus fare, and reports of racial redlining of customers is a practice that has dogged Uber in the media, which potentially hurts the level of service received by people living in poor communities. It’s a service that seems more likely to be used by wealthier people who want to get to a game without driving themselves and dealing with parking, versus poor people who can’t afford a car.

The map of Braves season ticket holders that the ballclub used as a means of explaining their move to the suburbs.

It would be fascinating to see data on the economic classes of attendees at the Cobb stadium versus the previous ones and find out how this difference in access of non-car types of mobility has played out in the seats.

The history of Cobb County blocking MARTA

The 1965 and 1971 votes against MARTA by residents of Cobb, Clayton, and Gwinnett weren’t votes about transportation. They were referendums on race. Specifically, they were believed to be about keeping the races apart.”
 — Where It All Went Wrong, Atlanta Magazine, 2012

What the new stadium seems to be an extension of to me, as far as anti-urban trends in Cobb County, is a location that could be called exclusionary on an economic-class basis. Which fits in with the county’s history of attempting to prevent people of color and those with lower-incomes from feeling welcome there.

The rejection of MARTA by suburban counties in the 1970s was based on a bias against race, with the demographics of the time showing a much more vivid split between white suburban populations and black city ones. As recently as 1990, only one in 10 people in Cobb County was black — now, it’s more than one in four.

In the 1970s, suburban zoning (which enforces a strict separation between detached-homes and commercial uses and also from multi-family housing) supported the aspirational goals of many middle and upper-income people to live in a “safe” environment of exclusivity. The suburban form kept the detached homes of upper-income subdivision dwellers away from the traffic and noise of commercial buildings and also from the crime that residents associated with lower-income people, who made up a larger percentage of the inner-city population in the 1970s.

“In the 1950s and 1960s, as suburbs like Cobb County sprung up in the pine forests and red clay of the farmland that used to surround Atlanta, it was wealthier people who fled the city while the poor stayed behind. By the 1970s, the poverty rate was about evenly split between the city of Atlanta and its surrounding suburbs. But over the past half-century, the urban poverty rate has held steady…while in the suburbs it has ticked ever upward.” — Burns, Politico, 2014.

Allowing MARTA into Cobb, something that was rejected by its residents in two separate votes in 1965 & 1971, would have connected the county to the largely-black population of the City of Atlanta and Dekalb County.

It would have also connected Atlantans living in inner-city poverty to jobs and destinations in Cobb. People who couldn’t afford to buy and maintain a car would’ve had an “in” to the exclusive suburban environment, where car ownership was fairly a prerequisite for residency given the unwalkable urban fabric. A MARTA bus would have compromised the perceived safety of people in the county’s suburban bubble.

A Braves game at the old Fulton County Stadium near Downtown Atlanta may have been one of the few opportunities for people from largely-white Cobb to mix face-to-face with people of color and people in lower economic classes. That’s because you didn’t need to own a car to get to the games. You could take a MARTA bus there, or even walk if you lived in Summerhill, Peoplestown, or Mechanicsville — all neighborhoods where most residents are historically black and lower-income.

The bigotry that prevented Cobb from accepting MARTA can be easily sensed in a stadium location that is not as accessible to lower-income communities as the Atlanta stadiums were.

The relationship between Cobb and the City of Atlanta

There is definitely a rift between Atlanta intowners and Cobb because of the suburbanization of the Braves. But I don’t sense it’s one that will last. The thing to keep in mind is that the population of this area is under constant change. The Atlanta Regional Commission expects the population of the metro to grow by 2.5 million people by 2040. That means millions of new people who have no history with local city/suburban rifts about professional sports, and who just want to live in a successful urban area.

The city will heal. And I think the relationship with Cobb won’t suffer long term because of the Braves. But — and I do think this could be significant — if Cobb ends up rejecting MARTA again as transit becomes a bigger issue in the growing region, that could create a rift that would be felt for a long time.