Changing suburbs outpace mass transit

Martha Brown, 66, a former Atlanta resident, moved to the Marietta area two years ago to escape urban crime and find suburban calm. But she relies on mass transit, and in some of Atlanta's suburbs, that's a problem.

To visit her daughter in Henry County she takes a taxi, three buses and one train, just to meet halfway. She had to give up regular attendance at her home church, because Cobb transit doesn't operate on Sundays.

Mobility is "vital to my living, to my independence, " Brown said.

Atlanta's suburban population is changing. But according to interviews with residents, elected officials and metro Atlanta planners, many of these new suburbanites will need or desire transportation options --- mass transit and walkable communities --- that the region does not have serious plans to fund in the coming decades.

Older people, low-income residents --- Brown is both --- and immigrants represent a growing part of the metro Atlanta population. It's a historic change that is permanently altering this Southern capital, and even nudging at its deeply rooted suburban car-centric culture.

And in the long-haul game of building transportation, time is running out.

"Will our transportation infrastructure be prepared to handle that demographic from a suburban perspective?" said Dana Lemon, a state Transportation Board member who represents a suburban swath stretching from Henry to Cobb counties. "If you were asking me that question now, the answer of course would be no."

What's ahead:

A doubling of retirement-age residents by 2025, many of whom will be unable or unwilling to drive as they age. They'll be coping with a medical system that is increasingly outpatient, requiring some form of transportation to get to and from appointments.

An exploding population of suburban poor. It's risen by 249 percent in the last two decades, expanding 60 percent faster than the rest of the suburban population --- often without the money to keep a car. In 1990, 7 percent of residents in Brown's census tract were poor. Ten years later, 12 percent were. In 2010, 24 percent were.

A rising immigrant population, sometimes able to afford cars, but often expecting more options than that. Regional figures show an increase of nearly 100,000 immigrants in metro Atlanta in just the last six years. Six counties in the 10-county area are majority-minority, with Hispanics, blacks and Asians out-numbering whites.

The continued influx of young, educated tech savvy workers who federal statistics suggest are less apt to apply for drivers' licenses; according to an Oregon researcher, they prefer a more walkable lifestyle. The number of these workers has slowed recently, but they've been an important part of metro Atlanta's economic growth.

To be sure, metro Atlanta will remain overwhelmingly car country for decades to come; on that the statistics are clear as well.

A key question is what to do about the part that wants another choice.

"Transportation is definitely a barrier for the families that we serve, " the working poor trying to get or keep a job and get around, said Lee Freeman, project director at the Marietta-based Center for Family Resources, which assists some families with transit passes. "The routes have been cut, they don't run on Sundays. They don't run a third shift, and some of our families work midnight to 7. Families are having to walk long distances to get to a bus."

The suburban need is not only for transit, but for walkability --- the sidewalks people take to get to the bus stop, or just to get to a nearby store.

"It's partly changing demographics, both immigrants and different nationalities, and it's also the aging population, " said Kim Conroy, Gwinnett County's director of transportation. "We have over $100 million in requests for sidewalks right now, " an amount the county can't possibly fill. "As good a job as Gwinnett did in building activity centers, shopping centers and roads in the 1980s and 1990s, the concentration wasn't as much on sidewalks."

Since Gwinnett County Transit started up in 2002 as a county-funded transit option, its ridership has risen steeply, both on its regular service and its service for the elderly and disabled. Last year the service provided 1.4 million rides.

Jurline Crawford, 69, can't afford a reliable car. Her eyesight is bad, and at her age she's wary of traffic. On occasion she said she has canceled a doctor's appointment when she didn't have the $8 round trip fee for Cobb paratransit. "I can't afford a cab, " she said. "If I don't have no money I just don't go." Another senior, Obie Williams, 80, said she had lost much of her mobility when Cobb had to cut her regular bus route.

Transit views divided

Not everyone sees the need for mass transit.

"Atlanta is a car culture, " said Randy Darnell, 49, of Conyers. "It wasn't planned from the beginning to be something like a New York."

Rudy Bowen, a member of the DOT board who represents Gwinnett County, concedes that all forms of transportation will be important to the suburbs in the years to come. But he cautions not to overstate it. "As long as I can get a driver's license I'm going to be driving, " said Bowen, 73, who spent his career as a developer building single-family homes.

Chloe Kim, a Duluth resident and now a Korean-language journalist, agrees that after living here several years people get used to their cars and often prefer them.

Not her, not yet. After coming to Atlanta from transit-rich Seoul four years ago, Kim, 28 --- young, chic and university-educated --- was forced to buy a car for the first time in her life, with help from her parents.

"At first I felt there is no transportation. I couldn't see any bus or anything, " she said of her arrival in the Atlanta suburbs. "Maybe six months later I learned there is a subway here" --- or a couple pieces of one, anyway.

She still rides the MARTA train sometimes, pricked by nostalgia for home. But mostly she's in her car.

"It's comfortable, " she says. "But I feel it's not healthy."

Jorge Lopez hosts a Spanish-language radio show in Atlanta.

Do his listeners want more transportation? Yes --- but that doesn't primarily mean wider roads. "Not exactly, " he said. "We need more options of transportation. That's what we need."

The once-dominant visceral opposition to mass transit in Gwinnett, where minorities now outnumber whites, is a mystery to many immigrants, Lopez said, even after they acquire cars of their own.

But before they can afford to choose, Lopez said, they simply need to get around, to work and live. "The people that have driver's licenses, other people are paying them for rides."

The demand is so great that private bus operators along Buford Highway have arisen to fill it. But the service area that's profitable never covers all the demand.

Transit funds limited

The mass transit here is a patchwork with gaping holes.

One of Atlanta's five core counties, Clayton, canceled local mass transit service altogether in 2010. Cobb and Gwinnett have established local bus services, but with limited routes and hours. Where they do operate, routes run into a confusion of jurisdictional borders.

In spite of demand, Cobb, Gwinnett and MARTA have each faced cutbacks and fare increases in recent years.

The future doesn't bode much better.

The failure of this summer's T-SPLOST sales tax referendum for transportation, which proposed $3 billion in new trains and bus lines, was devastating for mass transit. Unlike roads, which are marked for gas tax money in the state Constitution, transit has no deep pocket here for expansion.

Metro Atlanta plans to spend $60.9 billion on transportation projects over the next 30 years. The majority is just upkeep for what's already here. Where there are expansion projects, overwhelmingly, they are roads, such as suburban toll lanes and interchanges, and not transit. The major transit expansion that is in the plan is based on funding that may have to be revisited, and in any case is mostly not suburban.

The Atlanta Regional Commission has been trying to plan for the aging population and is funding projects, thinking not just in terms of transit, or of sidewalks, or close-in communities, but of whole systems of those things planned together. Laura Keyes, who manages the senior program for the ARC, is reluctant to order her board what to budget. But if all that's built is big highway projects, "We will not solve this problem with that, " she said.

Gov. Nathan Deal told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that transit was still possible, but "the amount of money that had originally been included in the Atlanta regional T-SPLOST?" --- the really big bucks --- "That was foreclosed by the failure of the T-SPLOST vote."

Filling the transit gap

In the meantime, a patchwork of smaller services are trying to fill the gap.

In Cobb County, Pam Breeden, director of Cobb Senior Services, is excited about the growth of her senior shuttle service, which has decreased wait times from 60 days to 30 days by bringing on independent private shuttles that are paid with vouchers. Two of its centers where seniors can get rides and participate in activities have just expanded.

But there are limits.

"You get Mrs. Jones who needs to go into Piedmont because she needs something and that's the only place her doctor can do that. Well I can't go to Piedmont, " she said, because Piedmont is in Fulton County. "And neither can [Cobb] Paratransit. Each niche serves a purpose, but there's these stumbling blocks."

Even within their service area, demand to get to medical services is pushing the bounds of her resources. "That's huge right now, chemo and dialysis is really eating up our ability to serve everybody without waiting lists, " Breeden said.

Similarly, DeKalb County has started up a "Golden Shuttle" in three areas to serve elderly.

Private sector solutions include subsidizing taxis. Some favor a regional transit system, but the Legislature has balked at who would control it.

The political calculus

A major question is whether these changing demographics will produce more voters who would change the politics of transit.

Lemon, the DOT board member, believes that in 10 or 20 years their voices will propel leaders to create a more complete system.

This soon after the T-SPLOST defeat, transit is still a white-hot political potato among public officials.

Some suburban government transit officials interviewed careened between arguing that there's a significant need for more services, but saying it wasn't up to them to argue for more money.

But a poll commissioned by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found 68 percent of Cobb and Gwinnett respondents favored funding to expand train service beyond Fulton and DeKalb. The poll suggests the longstanding opposition to transit is softening.

For the moment, the body with the most power to do something, the Legislature, seems stymied.

Asked if the suburban emphasis on roads could give way to any state funding for mass transit, House Speaker David Ralston this fall told the AJC that the rejection of the T-SPLOST put the funding issue back to square one.

"I think we're dealing with our priorities, " Ralston said. "Mass transit will be a part of the equation."

Planning, he said, was important. But execution? With state funding?

"Well, I'm not sure."

About the series

Our reporters are dedicated to bringing you the latest news about the economic and demographic trends shaping metro Atlanta. Today, reporter Ariel Hart reveals how older Americans, new immigrants and the poor --- a growing demographic --- are coping with Atlanta's limited transit options and what that means for our region.

Transit options available in metro Atlanta

Regular local buses in Cobb and Gwinnett counties serve the high-demand areas. MARTA serves Fulton and DeKalb counties. Clayton County's C-Tran shut down in 2010, citing financial concerns, and leaving thousands without local bus service.

County "paratransit" service picks up elderly or disabled passengers at their curbside, if they are within the service area. Reservations are made in advance, and fares are a bit higher than local bus fare. Available in Fulton, DeKalb, C0bb and Gwinnett.

Senior services vans take qualified registrants on regular errand routes and some on-demand service, though wait lists for reservations can be long. Available in all metro counties.

Xpress bus service. The one true regional transit service, this caters to suburban commuters on long-haul commutes to Atlanta. Might go bankrupt in 2013. Serves 12 metro Atlanta counties.

Source: Atlanta Regional Commission, Cobb County, Georgia Regional Tranpsortation Authority

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-- Note: This story originally ran Dec. 27, 2012, in the Journal-Constitution