Better mass transit is fueling live-work-play development in Atlanta

104 minutes a day. That’s how long the average Atlanta commuter spends in traffic. 

No wonder we’re always trying to one up each other with how long our drives to work are.

But the traffic snarls are loosening, thanks to a new regional transportation system that not only could relieve the gridlock but likely will change the future of Atlanta’s economic development.

Introducing the city’s new regional transportation system: The ATL

Last April a state bill created the Atlanta-region Transit Link Authority, or ATL, to combine transit systems from 13 counties into one body. The ATL will form a single payment system — so passengers don’t have to purchase separate fares for separate systems — as well as fill gaps in service with new lines. Organizers also expect it to streamline and increase transparency around the city’s public transit planning, funding and operations.

This new approach to mass transit hasn’t come without hitches. In 2012, a similar bill — which required 10 area counties to vote on a single levy — failed because not many people in the middle of urban Atlanta cared about building connections to the suburbs.

Decision makers and voters across the metro seem more open this time around, though—probably because this bill allows each county to opt into the ATL by passing its own tax levy. Plus, people are finally seeing the value of a strong, regional transit system. They recognize that public transportation can be a magnet for the type of live-work-play environments that are in high demand.

New project developments underway in 2019

Transit-oriented developments (TODs) are already underway near the MARTA stations in Edgewood, Chamblee and Avondale. These projects will bring more than 1,200 residential units, 80,000 square feet of office space and 68,000 square feet of retail space to these areas. Similar developments at the King Memorial, Arts Center and Lindbergh Center stations are on tap.

The region’s outer markets are getting on board with accessible public transit, too. Gwinnett County is set to put an ATL referendum on the ballot this spring, and traditionally anti-transit suburban counties such as North Fulton, Gwinnett and Cobb are contemplating what the ATL could mean for them.

Changing demographics and labor trends driving change

The transit evolution in Atlanta is the logical response to changing demographics and living preferences. We are attracting more young talent as our tech companies grow; younger families are relocating to the suburbs because the city is becoming more expensive; and millennials tend to prefer mass transit over personal vehicles.

These demands are driving significant changes in development patterns: Since 2012 the percentage of new office construction within a three-quarter-mile walk to a MARTA stop has increased from 8 percent to 22 percent, compared to office development in the late 1990s.

Proximity to buses and rail is becoming important all over the country. More than 60 percent of jobs in U.S. cities are now within one-half mile of a transit stop, according to the Center for Neighborhood Technology. CNT research also indicates that U.S. metro areas with populations of 100,000 or more have an average of 16 square miles of accessibility within a 30-minute transit commute.

Light rail, including the system planned for Atlanta’s Beltline development, is also becoming a common complement to cities’ traditional heavy rail (like subways). These systems operate smaller, lighter vehicles in dedicated lanes on streets shared with cars.

Transit usage changes still need to happen for improved results 

Accessibility is one thing, though. Habit change is another. People still love their vehicles: 77 percent of people over the age of 16 in Atlanta drive to work. But respondents to a recent Atlanta Regional Commission's annual survey also said they believe that transportation is the region’s biggest problem. More than 70 percent say that an improved public transit system is very important to the metro’s future.

They’re right.

If we don’t find a way to get people out of their cars, we will stay stuck in traffic that’s not taking us where we want to go.

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