The person in the photo below is waiting in the shade for a MARTA bus on Mt. Zion Road in Clayton County, in the suburbs south of Atlanta. The image comes from Google’s street view.
The bus stop itself is not ideal, but it’s fine. There’s a sidewalk with a grass buffer, a crosswalk, ADA ramps. But when we look at the overall urban environment surrounding it, we see a place that’s oppressively car-oriented and unsupportive of transit or walking.
I know nothing about the person pictured above, but let’s assume for a minute she’s riding the bus because she has no other choice. What does the design of this place say about the way Clayton County values transit riders and pedestrians — particularly ones who lack the option to drive a car?
To get a sense of how the local government values her, let’s look at an aerial of the place. I’ve used a yellow arrow to highlight the bus stop where she’s standing. It’s not a lovely area for walking. The thin strip of greenery around her contrasts harshly with an expanse of asphalt for transporting drivers and storing their cars.
Let’s back that aerial out a little. Where did she walk from? A building across the street? Behind the enormous parking lot on her side of the street? The experience of getting there on foot amid the cars must be a difficult one. The urban design says: “This place is for car drivers. That’s who we value. That’s who we’re going to dignify through the design of this place.”
A little further out, the space that holds any speck of dignity for people on foot is achingly tiny when compared to the vast land devoted to cars. The lengths between the buildings and the sidewalks are considerable. The scale of the place is intended to be navigated by car. Provisions for pedestrians and MARTA riders are an afterthought at best, retrofitted carelessly into an environment that’s oppressive to anyone who’s not driving.
This is the kind of environment that MARTA has to serve. The transit agency can’t redesign shopping centers and roads. It’s stuck with what Clayton County produces through its local zoning codes. Those codes are obviously delivering pedestrian-hostile designs.
The resulting built environment makes it clear that the woman who’s waiting for a bus is not valued anywhere near the level that car drivers are.
You’ve probably heard it said that a government budget is a moral document that reflects our common values. The same can be said of urban plans, local zoning codes, and local development incentives. When the outcome is this inequitable, the values need work.
Darin Givens is co-founder of ThreadATL, a nonprofit that advocates for good urbanism in Atlanta.