01 February 2007

Atlanta, Part II

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Atlanta is neither a huge city or a small one, but it is a young-ish community and well-mixed racially: according to information from the U.S. Census Bureau, 2005 American Community Survey, the city’s total population is about 395,000 people for the metropolitan area, and 68% of those people are 44 years old or younger. On my recent visit, however, what most caught my attention was the pervasive emptiness in parts of the city, as well the classic dynamic of another failed American public transportation system.

I stayed in the area called “Midtown,” which is roughly half-way between Atlanta’s Downtown and the fancy Buckhead area further north. Geographically, this was a great place to be, since there are two MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) stations nearby – the “Midtown” station and the “Arts Center” station – as well as a few bus lines; it is central without being all the way Downtown. The MARTA connection mattered: as a New Yorker, I believe in public transportation, and even when I travel, if a city has a system, I try to take it because it changes one’s experience of the place and can speak volumes about the community.

I saw quite a bit of central Atlanta: along the corridor from Midtown to Downtown; from Five Points, east to Sweet Auburn; and from Downtown north and slightly east, to the Virginia Highland neighborhood. The latter part of town aside, what one sees is a lot of empty urban core: massive (new-ish) office buildings and smaller, older structures housing offices, restaurants, and stores – but not a lot of people, unless one counts car traffic. The Highland Avenue stretch in Virginia Highland is lovely, many low buildings with lots of boutiques and restaurants – and because the street runs through a large neighborhood of 1920s middle-class bungalows on cozy, tree-lined streets, it had a completely different feel, a kind of suburbia within an urban context, much like parts of Northwest Washington, DC.

MARTA gets high marks for the modernization and sophistication of its ticketing systems. At the Arts Center Station, which serves as a subway and bus terminal, the computer-driven machines offer a variety of ticket options, and takes credit cards as well as cash. While the subway map is easy to figure out – with two bisecting lines, one’s options are limited – the bus system has not had the same kind of care and feeding; the brochures for specific lines are confusing for tourists, and the stations lack signs indicating whether buses will depart to the north, south, east, or west. The network does get good marks for being responsive to customers: a call to the MARTA hotline got us to a person relatively quickly, who in turn gave accurate information about which bus to take to get to where I wanted to go. But the call shouldn’t have been necessary. (MARTA also offers a series of “tourist bus loops,” but I stayed away from these, opting for the real system.)

Leaving the ticketing area and entering the subway one level down is depressing and oppressive, with heavy concrete walls that feel very close; the space is almost dark. Now, New York City’s subway stations won’t impress anyone, but (like the subway in Berlin) the system itself works so well and is so extensive that its value is clear. In Washington, DC, to take a different example, the “Metro” was designed to impress, with massive vaulted stations that make even the concrete feel like a sophisticated building material; you sometimes feel like you’re visiting the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Subway. Sadly, Atlanta’s MARTA manages to combine the small feeling of NYC’s subway with the oppressive weight of gray concrete, and a two-line plan that has limited functionality. It doesn’t help that the trains seem to take forever: a fifteen minute wait for a train in the middle of a Saturday was not a good start.

With MARTA’s buses, there is another issue: while the buses themselves clearly date from the 1980s, and many show a lot of wear and tear, each bus I rode had been outfitted with a small TV, broadcasting news of one kind or another. This was particularly comical when, late on a Saturday afternoon, the TV was showing market news, with Friday’s closing stock prices for a variety of NYSE blue chip companies. Looking around the bus, it didn’t seem like anyone there had a market portfolio they were particularly worried about. It was a striking incongruity, not to mention a waste of resources that could have been spent on new buses and improved service.

This ties directly to the other part of what makes Atlanta’s system depressing. In a feature on NPR on 30 January 2007 (“Rethinking Social Services in the Des Moines Suburbs”), reporter Rachel Jones begins by saying “The biggest problem for the suburban poor can be summed up in one word: transportation.” I’ll go one further and suggest that this may be one of the biggest problems for the urban poor, too, at least in Atlanta. MARTA clearly has what might cynically be called a symbiotic relationship with the city’s working poor; based on my visit, the riders were primarily African American or Hispanic, mostly older, and mostly looking like there were many other places they’d rather be. No doubt part of their malaise comes from the waiting, the inevitable and seemingly-endless waiting, whether for the subway or the bus, and whether at a large terminal or a bus stop on the street.

It reflects a deep disregard for the value of people’s time: inefficient systems attract the lowest common denominator of rider, because everyone else feels that they cannot waste their time waiting. So instead, those who can afford to, drive. All of which only compounds a range of troubles, not the least of which is significant road traffic (and its terrible environmental impact), but also how and where people spend their time, whether they choose living or leisure experiences that are urban or suburban, how neighborhoods are built and maintained, and even the quality of schools. Jane Jacobs, anyone?


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