🇺🇸 Future of Movement - Interview Series - PART 6
Greetings 👋 from Atlanta,
We're loving that southern hospitality from our new friends in ATL 👽 🧇 so much we decided to stay another week! This time we're catching up with transit advocates Tejas Kotak and Tanner Barr. 🎙 🎙
Tejas Kotak is a transit rider and advocate living in Atlanta, GA. He lives a car-free life, and enjoys seeing his favorite strangers on MARTA buses and rail. 🤩 🚍 Tejas is the Transit Chair for the Georgia Sierra Club, where he advocates for better transit across the state. He works as a transportation planner for the Atlanta Regional Commission, where he works on how best to direct federal funding for local projects.
Tanner Barr is the County Planner for Rockdale County Georgia, a growing and diversifying suburb east of Atlanta. Tanner is a Georgia State Graduate and has worked in both public, private, and volunteer capacities with a range of planning projects including Safe Routes to School, Transportation Demand Management, Historical Preservation, and Transit Planning. His immersion in local, state, and national dynamics helps keep him up to date on issues regarding the built environment and subsequent intersections, including, environmental justice, minority rights, public-private partnerships, and a plethora of other planning issues. Tanner continuously works to bring quality design and planning practices that will prove to raise the quality of life for residents, visitors, and commuters alike. 🙌
Tell us about the current state of public transit in Atlanta
Tejas: Transit is an important part of Atlanta. ☝️ It helps connect people inside the city and in the surrounding counties to jobs, healthcare, and other essential and recreational destinations, but it has been undervalued and underfunded for far too long. 🤝 Largely due to MARTA being the only major urban transit agency to receive zero money from its state government. That's due to a mix of anti-Black racism and anti-Atlanta sentiment from our state legislature.
Tanner: That is an interesting question to pose considering the varied perceptions of where Atlanta starts and ends. 🤔 In all honesty, public transit in Atlanta is advantageous, especially for commuters that live in walking distance to the City's train stations. MARTA provides dependable service and I have only had one massive headache riding transit and believe it or not that was due to horrendous vehicle traffic that was spilling over from the expressway and clogging up the bus route I utilized. I think once you leave the City of Atlanta, the state of transit changes drastically. The physical design poses several challenges in implementing effective transit service that I think transit planners are still trying to hack. In suburban landscapes, it can be quite difficult to strike a balance between effective, efficient, and practical transit solutions. I know the areas that I work in and drive through on the east-side of the metro area, there is a need and desire for enhanced transit options, but density and the housing-workplace mismatch creates too many hurdles that make designing effective transit difficult. I have faith that leaders and planners will be able to solve this puzzle. 🧩 👍 The answers may not all come at once, but it is evident that we are getting closer and closer to uncovering the key!
What are the three most important actions that Atlanta can take in order to improve public transport across the city?
Tanner: I am not sure that improving public transit in the city is that straightforward. I think there might be a range of steps the City can and is taking, and many of those steps may not even be directly related to mobility, or even confined to the City. I mentioned earlier that the region as a whole is seeing a sizable mismatch between housing and places of work. My previous job with Georgia Commute Options worked heavily with commuters who experienced the side-effects of this mismatch. We have huge employment centers that are scattered around the City of Atlanta and throughout the region. I remember working with folks at a call center in Alpharetta who commuted almost 2 hours ONE WAY! 😲 ⌛️ These commuters faced housing challenges that prevented them from living where or even remotely near where they worked, and this I think is a core issue in improving transit, improving housing options! So it is larger planning challenges, like the previous example, that I know the City of Atlanta is working to improve, and I think in turn this will better set the stage for more effective transit options for everyone.
Tejas: Create a streamlined process to designate and build dedicated bus lanes, make sure there are sidewalks everywhere a bus stop is, and make parking cost more and spend some of the revenue on improving transit. 🌆
Citymapper has recently launched features that empower active travel (walking, cycling, scootering). How do you see these modes evolving in a post-COVID era?
Tanner: I think that post-COVID will change how people view traveling. After working from home for several months, I was almost excited to get back on the train. Just like with other sectors of the economy, I think people will be looking for enhanced experiences and transit is not an exception to this movement. Citymapper has a unique opportunity to help cities and transit authorities across the globe in enhancing the transit experience. MARTA has done a great job in the past, working with the City of Atlanta and other organizations in creating fun and influential experiences. Station Soccer, MARTA Fresh Markets, and even the pianos I see in some transit stations all work in creating a memorable commute and adds personal touch that I think will be increasingly important post-COVID. 🎹 🤩
Tejas: I see walking and cycling becoming more important in Atlanta. Especially with the development of trail systems like the Atlanta Beltline. 🛴 🤓 Scootering seems to be here to stay, but unsure if it can really be a sustainable mode or just a tech bro waste of money.
In a world where we're successfully coming out of the pandemic, what needs to be done to encourage residents of Atlanta to ride public transit without worrying?
Tejas: Education campaigns that encourage masking and social distancing until we are well past the pandemic, advertise when all bus and train operators are vaccinated, and find ways to make sure buses are fast and reliable. 😷 🚌
Tanner: Well, this is probably the most straight-forward question yet; sanitation. I know that before the pandemic, sanitation was already a talking point among various groups of people waiting on train platforms. I would take that a step further and put out there that in addition to sanitation, there will have to be a change in the perception and that can be easily accomplished through design. I know that prior to the pandemic, the More MARTA program included line items for train station redesigns. I hope that is something still on the docket for transit expansion in the City, because design has an exceptional influence on perception, which could be leveraged in providing an experience where commuters aren't thinking about the cleanliness. ✨👌 I think that is the ultimate goal, if riders are thinking about sanitation and cleanliness, then they've seen something to trigger those thoughts.
Are there any lessons, case studies, innovations that other American cities can learn from Atlanta?
Tejas: The development of the Atlanta Beltline is a case study of how walkable corridors can spur significant development, but also how these new corridors can lead to displacement and gentrification when the incentives are structured poorly. Atlanta also has decades of history to show the limited value in funding transit primarily through sales taxes. While the long term value of sales taxes can be high, the low annual collections mean that simple projects have multi-decade timelines. 💸 👟 Injections of money from the state, federal government, or even grants from the city would help accelerate project timelines a lot.
Tanner: Hell yes! I have always thought that Atlanta sits at an awkward geography between older, denser (arguably tangled) east coast build-out and Sunbelt-styled sprawl. I think ALL cities can look at Atlanta for how to best merge and bridge the gap between these two types of geographies. ☝️ There are plenty of case studies across the region that other cities can learn from, both in terms of consequences the region has endured and benefits we've enjoyed. Look at the City's NPU system. That planning process has done a great job at preserving and promoting smaller neighborhood centers while still incorporating some of these larger (not neighborhood scaled) connections with the greater region. Of course there are other areas that have been razed and forgotten only to create more congestion when regional traffic pours into some of the region's older, physically tighter communities.
Tell us about your favorite journey in Atlanta and what makes it special.
Tanner: It is always the walks, you tend to notice more when you walk. Everything feels slower and a bit more relaxed which is great for people like me who enjoy observing places. The most memorable is the walks I used to take from Downtown to Lil' Five Points (Quirky Neighborhood on the Eastside). When I was living downtown while attending Georgia State University, some friends and I would take the 3 mile or so hike along Freedom Parkway. That trail would have some of the best views of Downtown Atlanta. 🌅 😍 The neighborhoods along the route are quite exceptional as well, and there is always LOTS of other people, which tends to make me feel more at home.
Tejas: Any journey to/from the airport. ✈️ 😍 We have one of the best transit-connected airports in the US, and it's always nice taking the bus and train to Hartsfield-Jackson and avoiding the expense of a rideshare and waiting in the drop off car line. Other cities like Chicago and DC have rail connections at their airports, too, but it's such a long walk to the main atriums. MARTA drops you off right where everyone else is.
Do you have public transit envy of any city in the US? If so, why?
Tanner: Yes, Washington, DC🏛. Of all the metropolitan areas, DC is one that I think Atlanta 🐝🍑 can take notes from. DC sits at a similar geographic crossroad between sprawl and older, denser development patterns. Plus the two regions are of similar size and enjoy similar demographic make-ups. But DC's transit network is so NICE🤩! I think Atlanta does a great job of covering the basic points of interest, but DC! DC has really done a great job, and continues to do a great job at incorporating transit 🚌 into the suburban fabric of that region while still being able to enhance existing infrastructure in the urban core. Atlanta has a great blueprint for something similar, I am just envious that this already exist and works well in Washington DC.
Tejas: I envy Chicago 🌬🏙 because they have longer bus and rail hours, more frequency in their routes, a better fare payment system, and connections to other types of transit including commuter rail and several Amtrak lines 🚆. Atlanta has one Amtrak line, but our transit connection to it is bad.
First city you're going to visit post-pandemic?
Tejas: New York City or Chicago. A good friend is in Chicago, and I need to visit him. New York has great transit and walkability, and always has places and experiences to try.
Tanner: Los Angeles, no doubt. I love the city, ecological features, and the pace of life. I know LA is not the first place you think of when discussing good transit, but for a region that spans over hundreds of miles, LA's transit has got some good focal points that are worth checking out and utilizing.
Favorite transit meme of all time? Which one is the G.O.A.T?
Tejas: This meme shows love to two of my favorite public services. 😎
Also, not a meme, but I'm a big fan of Transit Supply. They have great pins, stickers, and prints of various buses and trains.
Tanner: I am going to defer this to the users, hopefully there will be some NUMTOT folks that read this! 🧽 👌 But this one always hits close to home:
Thank you, Tejas and Tanner!
Thanks for showing us a good time, Atlanta! ❤️ 🖤 💛 Our train is picking up some steam - tune in next week to find out where we're headed!
The Citymapper crew 💚
P.S.S. Late to the party? Catch up on the rest of our U.S. Future of Movement interview series below:
Atlanta - Alyssa Davis & Bakari Height