still more MARTA thoughts

In his rant against Jim Wooten — as an aside: if Jim Wooten and John Sugg were put together in an airtight container, would we have a perfect vacuum of partisan uselessness? — Tony hit the nail on the head as regards to MARTA, and I’m going to take the liberty of quoting him: . . . MARTA needs people to need MARTA, and right now, people don’t need MARTA.

That’s pretty much the long-term problem in a nutshell. It goes beyond the state-funding issue — not to downplay the state-funding issue, but MARTA getting state funding won’t solve the longer-term problem of what the city ought to look like, and what role MARTA (and, to a lesser extent, planned projects like the streetcar and the Beltline) ought to play in it.

I keep going back to that Citizens for Progressive Transit meeting — they’ll be at the Downtown Festival this weekend, by the way — and to something Michael Dobbins said after the movie was shown. I don’t remember the exact quote anymore, but in essence he was pointing out that if you want to promote public transit, you want densification — in other words, more people in a smaller space. The opposite of sprawl, as it were.

I smiled when he said this, mainly because in Atlanta’s current political context, it sounded too honest to be useful. “Densification” can be lovely and nifty from one point of view — I spent a year and a half living in Virginia-Highland, and man was it nice to be able to walk to three supermarkets, a library, my gym, Aurora and San Francisco, and a whole bunch of shops at which my disposable income had no business being. But a good many Atlantans, when they vote with feet and dollars, don’t vote for densification (says she who moved to Brookhaven in part so that the dog could have a backyard to run around in). (Ironically, it’s much easier for me to take a MARTA train from where I live now than from where I lived in Va-Hi.)

The longer-term question, then, is: how do you make densification attractive? Portland did it by throwing up all sorts of zoning laws (here’s a hostile description of what happened in Portland, and a more sympathetic account). That would be considerably harder to pull off outside the city of Atlanta’s boundaries, and I’m not sure it could be pulled off all that well within Atlanta. On the other hand, just saying, “Hey, mixed use!” and going full speed ahead with Atlantic Station (and, to a lesser extent, areas like Technology Square and the Edgewood Retail District) won’t solve the whole problem. Who’s going to live in those mixed-use developments? How would they fare in a housing crash? What happens if their employers move outside city limits? How are you going to attract families who would otherwise move out to houses-with-backyards (a problem parts of Portland and San Francisco have been facing recently)?

But even if all those questions get answered, there will still be a fair bit of the population who prefer sprawl to densification and backyards to mixed-use developments (I will broadly put Wooten in that category). And Tony’s right: those people don’t need MARTA, and aren’t likely to be sympathetic to MARTA’s pleas — unless that they can be convinced that densification is good even if they don’t profit from it directly. The case for the indirect benefits needs to be made, as well as reassurance that pro-densification does not automatically translate to anti-suburb. There has to be some sort of balance struck between areas that should be dense and areas that don’t have to be.

This is a tough order, made even tougher by the politics involved (the mistrust that both caused and was exacerbated by white flight, Atlanta’s status as a blue speck in a red sea). But my own belief — and, admittedly, I’m fairly centrist, so I would think this — is that without some sort of eventual mutual accommodation between the dense city and the less-dense suburbs, Wooten and his ilk are going to keep winning the argument, and MARTA will continue to get the shaft.

2 Comments so far

  1. karsh (unregistered) on May 26th, 2005 @ 10:33 pm

    Great post, Jessica; you make some really good points.

  2. Joe (unregistered) on June 1st, 2005 @ 10:02 am

    Over the past couple of days, I’ve been cleaning my room and throwing stuff out. In my trashbin frenzy, I found an old test from my “Intro to the City” class. Question 3:

    “‘Americans hate two things: sprawl and density,’ said David O’Neil of the Urban Land Institute. Comment on and analyze O’Neal’s quote. Choose Atlanta or another city and analyze whether you think increased sprawl or increased density is better for Atlanta’s future. As a future public policy-maker, how would you go about shaping Atlanta’s growth policies?”

    You’re right that the case needs to be made on how density in the central city will help those in the sprawling areas. The Metro Atlanta Growth Task Force used that idea as their central theme in their land use recommendations. The only problem is that as far as the AJC is concerned (from my experience, at least), the idea is not sexy enough to help them sell more papers. The editors there have literally cut out that concept wholesale from columns and LTEs.

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