Atlanta: The Black Mecca, MARTA, and the Gridlock of Racism

The population of Atlanta has continued to grow since the early twentieth century. Despite Atlanta’s constant growth, its suburban sprawl and inability to annex unincorporated areas make it the 41st largest city in the nation as of 2007.   During the seventies and eighties, the city started to increasingly become Black. During the 1990s a number of Black people with middle-class incomes and some poor residents moved to the suburbs. While the middle class purchased homes, Black residents with low income residing in the suburban rental units built in the post-1996 Olympics. This created a circumstance wherein long distance from jobs is furthered hampered by lack of public transit.

In 2004 the city had the third-largest Black population of any metro area in the United States. Black Americans flocked to Atlanta due to its growing economy, including Black homeowners and businesses, as well as its proximity to the Atlanta University Center, a consortium of historically black colleges and universities. The early twenty-first century, however, saw an increase in property taxes that adversely affected Black Atlantans leading to gentrification and a declining population as the percentage of white residents. 80% of units built in Atlanta between 1990 and 2000 were single-family homes built mostly in northern Atlanta suburbs of Gwinett, Cobb, and Fulton counties. Thus Atlanta took on a central-city residential segregation pattern that included suburban enclaves for the Black middle class. Thus, Dekalb County exists at a similar race-class nexus to Prince George’s County, Maryland.

Black residents of Atlanta deal with bias in credit and insurance markets. Insurance redlining resulted in Black Atlantans paying upward of 40% more to ensure homes than residents of white suburbs. Predatory lenders also targeted Atlanta’s Black residents with subprime mortgages, particularly if they were in low-income areas. Most Black Atlantans living in poverty do not live near these jobs nor do they have access to public or personal transit. Indeed, over 60% of Atlanta’s jobs are beyond a ten-mile radius of Atlanta’s central business district.

Some commentators blame the Black political class for failing to adequately support poor and working-class Black Atlantans. However, Atlanta’s historic residential segregation and recent urban sprawl marginalized Black people living in the inner city. Interstate 285 formers the perimeter of Atlanta wherein Black residents live within the interior and white residents live beyond it. Similar to the Capital Beltway in D.C., the “Perimeter” acts as a racially and socially coded geographic boundary for neighborhoods, businesses, and residents.

MARTA – Why “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta”
is Only in Dekalb and Fulton

Atlanta’s MARTA transit system was first proposed in 1968 when a referendum to create a five-county rapid rail system failed. Three years later, Dekalb and Fulton County joined with the City of Atlanta to approve a referendum for a one percent sales tax to create a rapid rail and a feeder bus system. Cobb and Gwinett once again rejected the referendum. Clayton and Gwinett also sat on the MARTA board.

Black residents rely on MARTA – nearly 30% of Black men and 35% of Black women. Comparatively less than five percent of white men and seven percent of white women use the system to travel to work. The 9th largest transit system in the U.S., MARTA has nearly forty stations. 73% of MARTA’s customers identify as Black and is necessary for those without vehicles.

Most counties in Atlanta chose not to join MARTA, leaving Fulton and Dekalb residents to fund the system. Other counties like Cobb have their own public transit systems or like Clayton and Rockdale, rely on the Georgia Regional Transit Authority (GRTA) to provide buses. While the U.S. Department of Transportation provided temporary operating assistance to Gwinett, Clayton, and other suburbs looking to start bus systems. Residents of other counties had access to MARTA’s free parking lots, prompting a coalition of Black Atlanta organizations to file an administrative complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation, citing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Americans with Disability Act (ADA).

The Federal Transit Authority (FTA) suggested MATEC mediate with MARTA representatives. This resulted in MARTA’s attempt to expand its services in 2002 via the West Line Alternatives Analysis/ Draft Environmental Impact Statement (AA/DEIS) for Fulton Industrial Boulevard. They also ordered clean diesel buses and upgraded stations in predominately Black areas. They submitted the DEIS in 2005 after spending time identifying services in the Memorial Drive region.

The ARC’s 8.5 billion dollar Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP) offered only $24 million to MARTA. The three governments are opposed to extending the MARTA tax long term. Other counties like Cobb have their own public transit systems or like Clayton and Rockdale, rely on the Georgia Regional Transit Authority (GRTA) to provide buses. While the U.S. Department of Transportation provided temporary operating assistance to Gwinett, Clayton, and other suburbs looking to start bus systems. At the state level, Governor Sunny Purdue proposed $15.5 billion to deal with the region’s traffic gridlock. Still, the budget included only $2 million for MARTA. MARTA is the largest transit agency without state or regional funds.

Rising housing and commerce around MARTA prompted the city to look at its bus system. This includes the use of flex-trolleys and the development of the Beltline which repurposes old “Belt Line” railroads built after the Civil War. The Beltline includes mixed-use redevelopment to create greenspace as well as linking existing transit projects to new ones like the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).

How the Highway Creates Racial Division in Atlanta

Living and working in Atlanta requires a commute. Atlanta has the highest daytime population for a medium-sized city. Its transition from the twentieth to the twenty-first century saw a population increase of 1.25 million people. Most of this growth happened in the northern area as people sought jobs, which the northern suburbs also benefited from. Still, Fulton County continued to be the largest and have the most jobs.

The highway system has created division, isolation, disruption, and various economic, environmental, and health burdens for Black Atlantans. The state funds transportation through a gas tax that enables the repair of roads and bridges. As a result, the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) is much more willing to spend money on roads rather than transit despite the fact that it creates gridlock.

Atlanta’s sprawl creates toxic air quality. Transportation and land-use in Atlanta have contributed to ozone pollution, particularly due to freeway congestion. Indeed, the average distance traveled on a daily basis for Black Atlantans is 34 miles. The low gas tax makes it difficult to discourage driving. Further, there is no incentive to make use of mass transportation.

Atlanta’s failure to get its gridlock together will likely lead to a frozen federal highway dollar. Indeed the federal government critiqued the ARC’s transportation improvement plan (TIP) due to the heavy reliance on roads and failure to improve air quality in the region. So Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division created the Partnership for a Smog-Free Georgia (PSG) to encourage better commuting including cleaner-running cars and tighter emission inspections.

How Environmental Activism Offers a Solution

Environmental justice activists had to step up to confront the ARC about its plan and how it affected air quality, particularly the plan to grandfather in existing roads from compliance to federal standards. Activists also noted that the plan would adversely affect people of color. The lawsuit did, in fact, help eliminate some grandfathered road projects and awarded millions to the improvement of air quality and mobility. Future projects require compliance to federal clean air standards and make traffic modeling public, requiring the Georgia D.O.T. to study transportation and congestion in northern suburbs as well as calling for the U.S. D.O.T to study transportation equity in the region.

Negotiations called for a two-phase plan that would address enhancing access to planning for low-income residents while also redistributing traffic burdens. Governor Roy Barnes created the Georgia Regional Transportation Agency (GRTA) which received final approval in 1999. In 2004 it revised its mission to focus on transportation and land use rather than air quality. Nevertheless, the highway remains the most funded transportation feature of Georgia even as the city grew. Unfortunately, until these issues get resolved, Black Atlantans will suffer a lack of access to jobs and suburbs.

Unless otherwise stated, all insights published here are summarized from Bullard, R.D. ed., 2007. The Black metropolis in the twenty-first century: Race, power, and politics of place. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. (149 – 172)