Getting up to speed on public transit in Atlanta

Branch Politics
5 min readOct 13, 2021

Atlanta is what experts call a “car city”. On average, Atlanta neighborhoods have a walkability score of 46, meaning that they are “car dependent” and not very easy to get around on foot.

Each election season, local representatives talk about ways to improve walkability and reduce traffic by improving public transit. Public transit is different ways that people can move around a city that are built and maintained by the government. Proponents of public transit say that it is cheaper, safer, better for the environment and less trafficky than if everyone owned their own car and drove to work everyday.

In this article, we’ll give you a quick overview of the 3 major categories of public transit. We’ll also talk about the big public transit debates happening in Atlanta and how you can shape the future of how the city gets around.

Rapid Transit

Rapid transit (also called heavy rail) is one of two types of train-based public transportation. The other one is light rail, which we will get to a bit later. Rapid transit systems are trains that have their own dedicated space, so they don’t interact with other vehicles, like cars or buses. Examples include the Subway system in New York City or the Metro in Washington D.C. Rapid transit can be more efficient for riders, since having their own space means that they can go faster without interruption and can carry more people. The downside of rapid transit is that these trains take a long time to stop in emergencies and, of course, need a lot more space to be built.

Atlanta’s rapid transit system is the MARTA rail (MARTA stands for Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority). MARTA has 4 color coded lines that all meet at Five Points Station Downtown. The gold and red lines run north/south, while the green and blue lines run east/west. The trains run until 1 a.m. and arrive every 10 to 20 minutes.

MARTA was founded in 1965, and the first train line opened in 1979. MARTA is run by a board of directors and is funded by the city of Atlanta through various taxes and fees. Atlanta voters approved a tax increase of half a penny to fund more than $11.5 billion in potential Atlanta public transportation projects in 2016. In 2018, MARTA approved a $2.7 billion forty-year-long plan that prioritizes transit along the Beltline and light rail services, but not a proposed bus rapid transit system along Campbellton Road.

Buses

In addition to a rapid transit system, many cities, including Atlanta, have a system of buses that allow riders to get to and from stops where the rapid transit system doesn’t reach. Buses can be safer than rapid transit, because they are easier to stop and slower overall. They also typically have more stops, and riders can tell the driver exactly where they want to stop, improving efficiency by removing unnecessary stops. However, buses are slower than rapid transit trains, can get stuck in traffic, and can carry fewer people.

The main bus system in Atlanta is run by MARTA, and it consists of hundreds of buses that run 103 routes. Overall, the bus system covers over one thousand miles. In 2014, MARTA upgraded its bus fleet with 200 new buses that are more comfortable and fuel efficient.

There are also a few other bus systems that run locally in different cities around Atlanta. There is the CobbLinc, which is a bus in Cobb, Downtown and Midtown. There is the Gwinnett County Transit, a bus in Gwinnett, Downtown and Midtown. And there is the Xpress, an express bus in Cobb, Gwinnett, Downtown, Midtown, Buckhead and Perimeter Circle.

Light rail

Light rail is another type of train-based transportation. Unlike rapid transit, light rails share space with other types of traffic, like cars and buses. This means that light rail is typically slower than rapid transit, but it can stop more quickly in an emergency and is easier for a city to build, since it can be integrated with existing streets and pathways. Atlanta’s main use of light rail is the Atlanta Streetcar, a 2.7 mile loop that connects Centennial Olympic Park to the King Historic District in Downtown Atlanta.

The biggest proposed light rail project in the city is the BeltLine Rail, which would run alongside the BeltLine. Construction of the BeltLine Rail has been delayed and is now supposed to be completed in the 2040s.

Some movement has been made in making the project a reality. In 2016, Atlanta residents voted to approve a one-cent transit sales tax to go towards funding transit projects, including the BeltLine Rail. This sales tax funded seven miles of the project, but since then, MARTA has asked for more funding for the project.

Currently, MARTA is doing a study about how feasible building the BeltLine Rail is. Many people are suspicious that the agency is going to back out from the project and make a new bus route instead. This remains one of the biggest questions about the future of the BeltLine, and it’s one of the biggest ways in which your vote in 2021 can affect the future of public transit.

The future of public transit in Atlanta

There are a lot of options for new public transit in Atlanta, and what happens with these options will really depend on who we elect as the new Mayor and City Council.

Some ideas proposed by candidates include building a high speed rail between Atlanta and Savannah, a light rail or bus line along the BeltLine, a Clifton Corridor light rail line, a Capitol Avenue/Summerhill MARTA line, new bus routes, new transit centers and renovating existing train and bus stations. MARTA also plans to extend the Atlanta Streetcar from Jackson Avenue to the BeltLine at Irwin Street and up to Ponce City Market.

Our website (www.branch.vote) makes it easy to quickly understand candidates’ positions public transit, and other policy areas. Look up who is going to be on your ballot by entering your address at www.branch.vote.

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Branch Politics

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