Transit in a divided Atlanta

Racism in the 20th century led to many of today’s street-connectivity problems. Can buses bring us together?

A site called Routelines sells posters that show only the streets of cities. Below is a section of the Atlanta street map. Notice the little pockets of street grids. At first glance they seem to blend in together, but if you look closely, you’ll see that some of them don’t connect well to each other.

Detail of a poster of Atlanta streets, sold by Routelines

This lack of connectivity highlights a challenge for transit service. Imagine you’re trying to put logical bus routes through here. There are interstates, rail lines, cul de sacs and more that leave a lot of streets unlinked. It’s not easy to find common threads through this labyrinth.

Discrimination in both housing & road design set the stage

How much of this disconnectivity was intentional? If we look at the racial segregation of housing in Atlanta’s history, it seems likely that some streets were purposely designed to provide limited connection between black and white neighborhoods. From an article in Southern Spaces:

“If the home-owning whites…were uncomfortable with the presence of African Americans in the area, it did not surface publicly until 1910. That year, local whites attempted to remove historically black Morris Brown College to another part of the city. When blacks declined to move, whites drew and announced a boundary line to prevent what they called “Negro encroachment” and “invasion.””
Interstate highway under construction in Downtown Atlanta in 1962, right through the city’s historic street grid and some low-income neighborhoods.

Additionally, Atlanta’s interstate highways were designed to put a wall between black and white commiunities, as described in this Atlanta Magazine article:

“The interstate highways were designed to gouge their way through black neighborhoods…The highway now called the Downtown Connector, the stretch where I-75 and I-85 run conjoined through the city, gutted black neighborhoods by forcing the removal of many working-class blacks from the central business district.”

When you look at the Routelines map above, consider that the thick lines of the interstate highways — along with other seemingly random gaps in street connectivity — were sometimes intentionally designed to keep communities scattered and separated along race lines. This is the troubled, historic framework of public roads within which we have to create modern day connections for transit, and upon which pedestrians must attempt to navigate in order to get to and from buses and trains.

Let me clarify: I don’t mean to conflate the terrible displacement and racism of the 20th century with the troubles caused by today’s mobility problems. Obviously they’re two very different issues. But the detritus of the former — meaning the built environment that resulted from discriminatory practices — has undoubtedly had an effect on the latter.

Can public transportation pull us together?

City thinker and writer William H. Whyte said long ago that “the street is the river of life of the city, the place where we come together, the pathway to the center.” I’ll argue that the same thing can be said about public transportation, which has the potential to bring a diverse group of people together face-to-face, on even ground. By “even ground” I mean that no one is in a Lexus bus versus a 15-year-old Hyundai bus. They’re all sitting in the same seats.

Yes, for a long time there’s been a huge bias against buses in the US, where riders are looked down upon by some as being part of a desperate, low-income underclass. And as I’ve established above, unlinked streets in Atlanta offer another big stumbling block to ridership, making car trips much more desirable than walking through inefficient, winding routes to and from transit stops. But these aren’t insurmountable problems.

Seattle has seen a big rise in bus ridership in recent years. 1 in 5 commuters ride the bus there — twice the rate of transit commuting in the City of Atlanta (and I mean the city proper, not the region).

And that’s happened with no small number of connectivity problems in Seattle’s landscape, which is challenged by a wobbly coastline.

If they can overcome their natural connectivity issues and have a thriving transit ridership, surely Atlanta can overcome its manmade issues. We can invest in a bold redesign of bus lines with the revenue from our new transit tax. We can invest in dramatic changes to streets that make them safer and more inviting to walk on for transit riders.

Doing so could offer great cultural rewards. If a city that was intentionally separated by car infrastructure became joined by a public resource that’s used daily, that’s a success that we can share.