On Wednesday, September 23, Advance Atlanta partnered with Civic Dinners to host a virtual conversation titled The Future of Transit and Traffic. This unique event included presentations by transit leaders from several transit organizations in Atlanta, followed up by breakout sessions based on each attendee’s home county. Over 125 individuals logged in to hear the most up to date information on how transit agencies throughout the region are adapting to the challenges of 2020, and take part in a conversation about what transit in Atlanta should look like moving forward.
To kick things off, MARTA CEO Jeff Parker and Assistant General Manager Marsha Anderson Bomar spoke about the state of Atlanta’s largest transit system. In spite of low ridership numbers for both rail and bus over the last six months, both Parker and Anderson Bomar were optimistic for the future of transit in Atlanta. Although MARTA ridership is down overall the drop is not as dramatic as many other cities throughout the US, and they noted that the lower levels of demand presented the opportunity to fast-track maintenance and renovation projects for both the transit system itself as well as the 23 transit oriented development projects throughout the city. They also emphasized the steps being taken to prioritize sanitation and rider safety, and the soft-launch of Breeze mobile so that patrons can pay their fare through their phones.
Following the MARTA presentation, ATL/GRTA/SRTA Executive Director Chris Tomlinson and Chief Planning Officer Cain Williamson spoke about the role of ATL in ensuring coordinated transit planning and funding. They spoke on the current state of the Atlanta Regional Transit Plan, and teased the release of the final 2020 ARTP update document. Currently, ATL is hosting regional District Download meetings to solicit public feedback on the proposed plans and projects. All in all, the ATL emphasized that the long-term vision for transit in the region is still in play as it focuses on building a seamless and integrated service network, securing diverse funding streams for operations and expansion, leveraging technology to streamline service, and improving regional coordination between state agencies and local government.
Finally, Atlanta Regional Commission’s Executive Director Doug Hooker spoke about the future of transportation overall in metro Atlanta. He noted that although remote work increased dramatically in response to COVID-19, employees and executives both are indicating that it is not going to be a permanent change in commuting and working habits. There is likely to be a permanent bump in overall remote work rates, but the reality remains that most jobs are not suited for 100% remote work and many people also prefer to work in an office if at least part time. He also spoke about the coming growth in the region’s transportation network that is just around the corner which includes over 150 miles of Bus Rapid Transit routes, 30 miles of light rail/streetcar service, and 22 miles of commuter rail. Ultimately, working remotely is sure to be an important part of our future, but that future will also include a more robust multimodal system that provides a variety of options for getting around the city.
After each of our speakers presented their view of the future of transit in Atlanta, we turned things around and broke our guests into smaller group sessions where they had the opportunity to share their own views. Because we recognize that each community has different needs and wants for their transit system, placement in each of these sessions was based on the attendee’s home county. Although participants represented 9 metro counties and shared many unique viewpoints reflecting their region’s particular challenges and opportunities, the responses we heard made it clear our collective goals for transit often transcend geography.
We asked participants to discuss several topics, and have shared below some of our favorite responses:
How will COVID-19 and the increased prevalence of remote work transform transportation networks and transit in the future?
- Even if more people work from home, we are still connected as a region and people still like to travel to local destinations. Just because someone from the suburbs doesn’t have to commute to downtown anymore doesn’t mean they will never want to visit
- Not every job can be done remotely, and many people will always need to commute. With the projected growth of the city, we will still need more transportation options even if remote work becomes more common.
- Commuter transit like Xpress buses may become less significant, but as people rethink the need for multiple cars per household the need for local routes will likely increase
- People will want to ‘return to normal’ even if that means riding a crowded train to work!
What barriers currently exist for people who rely on public transit, and what can we do to make transportation access more equitable?
- Zoning and walkability issues have isolated communities from access to transit and jobs
- Expand service hours to better serve patrons who work odd shifts
- Improve ‘first mile/last mile’ connectivity
- More creative pricing models that lower the barrier to entry for those without other options or limited financial means
- We need to address pockets of poverty in the periphery counties, and the gap between transit service to these communities and their current and future needs.
What is one thing we can commit to in our daily lives to help more people choose transit? What is one thing that you want your community to change in order to have a world-class transit system?
- Make the trains more “fun”. Make the trains a tourist attraction – decorate them to make them more lively and reflect Atlanta’s great cultural significance.
- We need more places like the historical Terminal Station. Make stations beautiful and an attraction/destination in and of themselves.
- Change the culture to emphasize walkability and transit access as the symbol of a good neighborhood
- Take ownership of your community’s relationship to transit — maybe come together as a neighborhood to place a bench near the local bus stop?