If you live in or around the booming city of Atlanta, you know that traffic is nothing short of a nightmare. From jam-packed commutes in the morning to 5 o’clock rush hour on the evening ride home, traveling in and out of the city has proven to be a daily inconvenience. For residents without cars the commute can be even tougher because of limited and unreliable public transportation systems.
That’s why the founder of Atlanta-based nonprofit Partnership for Southern Equity is looking to expand the city’s metropolitan transit system, making dependable transportation equally accessible to all regions of the city, particularly those that have been cut off from adequate transit options due to a history of structurally racist and discriminatory public policies.
To achieve this lofty goal, company founder and CEO Nathaniel Smith is calling on the leaders of metro Atlanta’s public and private sectors to embrace contemporary funding strategies that would expand the city’s transportation options while also reducing displacement in the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.
The nonprofit’s latest report, titled the “Opportunity Deferred: Race, Transportation and the Future of Metropolitan Atlanta,” proposes a series of innovative strategies and frameworks for future initiatives aimed at creating a more equitable and inclusive Atlanta. It also shines a light on the history of racially discriminatory housing and transportation policies enacted at the local, state and federal levels, and how leaders can begin reversing these practices that led to income inequality and residential segregation.
“These differences have very real effects on the lives of the Atlanta metropolitan region’s residents,” the report reads. “The separation of economic opportunities means that workers face long, cross-regional commutes and crippling congestion. Transportation has repeatedly topped the list of the ‘biggest problems’ facing the region — which currently fails to meet federal air pollution standards for ozone and fine particulates. Income inequality and racial segregation in our metropolitan area are some of the worst in the nation.”
“Opportunity Deferred” went on to highlight the historic displacement of low-income African-Americans due to widespread gentrification and limited affordable housing options. For instance, the report mentioned the construction of the Atlanta BeltLine‘s light-rail corridor on the city’s West and South sides, which equity experts like Smith worry has the potential to negatively impact vulnerable communities and households. Such was the case after the development of city highways, which erased portions of Atlanta’s historic African-American corridors like Auburn Avenue, according to the report.
The concentration of entry-level jobs in regions without reliable transportation and the ever-expanding carbon footprint from commuters forced to drive to their intended destinations also have become pressing issues.
But before delving into solutions that could help remedy these situations, Smith emphasized the need to understand the history of transportation and land-use policy in Atlanta.
At the start of the 20th century, Atlanta was both a residential and commercially segregated, as were other cities across the nation. African-Americans, who comprised 40 percent of the city’s population in 1900, were concentrated in specific areas around local Black schools and churches, living on land deemed unfit by whites. Though Blacks were thriving economically in their own communities during this time, federal housing and transportation polices meant to keep African-Americans from enjoying wealth and prosperity in suburbia were set in motion by the 1930s.
Discriminatory policies such as the creation of the Home Owners Loan Corporation in 1935, which utilized “residential security maps” of Greater Atlanta for redlining purposes, and the Federal Housing Administration in 1934 further alienated urban Black communities from the sprawling suburbs north of the city. The FHA’s race-based lending practices, as well as the rapid construction of expressways after passage of the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act kept Blacks in low-income communities — some of which were leveled to make way for further highway development.
Then came the introduction of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) in 1975, which several predominately white communities initially rejected. As the demographics of these counties began to change, becoming increasingly diverse, subsequent votes to join the MARTA system passed by large margins.
“Some feared that [MARTA] would promote the scattering of Blacks throughout the metropolitan area,” the report read. “Racial fears and prejudices would play an even more apparent role in attitudes towards MARTA as it expanded and the region became more segregated.”
So how do city leaders go about rectifying years and years of systematic discrimination?
The Partnership of Southern Equity looked to effective transit infrastructures in other locations — like King County, Washington, and San Francisco Bay’s transit justice — that have experienced similar equity issues to serve as potential models for the city of Atlanta. The nonprofit also suggested the implementation of regional transit governance, the creation of new streams of revenue and increasing the supply of affordable housing in the metro Atlanta area.
“The results are clear: Policies and practices that lead with equity create outcomes that are better for the region as a whole,” the report concluded. “This region must seize the opportunity presented by new transit funding and ongoing demographic shifts; it can no longer afford to be deferred.”