There’s also a critical role for mass transit in the long-range plan. While rail expansions sound sexy, Atlanta’s low density — population and employment — makes buses a better transit option. The continuing decline of transit trips per capita, which have decreased since MARTA first opened, suggests the current approach to transit is failing.
Atlanta needs a transit system that’s flexible and offers a variety of bus services. In regular traffic, buses are unpopular because they don’t go any faster than cars. But buses in express lanes can move significantly faster than autos, encouraging commuters to leave their cars at home. SRTA already offers express bus service on area interstates, including the I-75 and I-85 express lanes and should do the same for future express lane expansions.
Bus rapid transit (BRT) service typically travels on major surface streets, complementing the express bus routes on highways. BRT utilizes several tools to create faster service, including giving buses priority at traffic signals to help make the bus trips faster than car trips. BRT would work particularly well with managed arterials, which would allow the buses to bypass busy intersections.
Keith Parker at MARTA deserves credit for improving the agency’s bus network. However, gaps persist and most suburban county bus networks are deficient. The state could provide matching funds to transit agencies, counties, and cities for local bus service. The local entity would put up 50 percent of the funds and the state would match. This type of funding could help improve local bus service in all of metro Atlanta’s counties.
But perhaps the most intriguing options come from automated vehicles, which could transform the way we travel and are expected to cause the demand for transit services to decline by up to 50 percent over the next 30 years. Self-driving cars and the sharing economy offer the possibilities that future auto ownership and traveling habits will be significantly different than today’s.
If self-driving cars and buses are the future, Atlanta will need infrastructure for them. If adoption rates are slow or self-driving cars don’t catch on, Atlanta will still need better infrastructure just to keep up with the expected growth in population. Investing in cost-effective transit and embracing infrastructure projects that can be directly funded by their users — like toll roads and managed arterials — will enable Atlanta to meet the coming demand.
Baruch Feigenbaum is assistant director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation, a non-profit, libertarian think tank. He divides his time between living in metro Atlanta and Washington.