How do you improve congestion when there's zero political will to raise money to fix it?

Last July, residents of Atlanta took their long pent-up frustration with some of the worst traffic congestion in the country to the voting booth. On the ballot: a one-cent sales tax increase, projected to raise billions of dollars over 10 years to improve local roads, upgrade the transit system, build out streetcars, trails and Bus Rapid Transit. The vote was, in and of itself, a major milestone in this car-bound city.

"Congestion is bad here and we’re not unaware of it – everyone in Atlanta wants to do something about it," says Ted Bradford, a local transit advocate. "It really came to a head when we decided 'are we going to come together and cooperate and tax ourselves at a higher rate and do something about it?'"

The answer, at the end of the day, turned out to be ‘no.’ Nearly two-thirds of voters rejected the referendum, leaving Atlanta, now six months later, in a particularly painful predicament.

"How do you change something without a budget for it?" says Matt Santy, another Atlanta transit advocate, posing the question as if it were a bleak inside joke.

Atlanta, like a lot of Southern cities, long ago passed on transit infrastructure – and the kind of culture that grows up around it – for an all-in commitment to the car. Now, people like Santy and Bradford will endeavor to make up for that inheritance with the only assets they can afford: human capital and cheap technology.

"Even if we change hearts and minds all over Atlanta and Georgia," Bradford says, "we’re never going to be in a situation where we’re going to start recreating a massive subway-heavy infrastructure like New York. It’s no longer that time. We don’t have a Robert Moses, we don’t have the money. We don’t have anything like that."

There’s no point in waiting for big projects, let alone the next big referendum. "There’s a realism here," says Bradford, who has been planning along with Santy and others to jumpstart the conversation with a one-day conference, TransportationCamp South, on February 9. It's planned as the kind of grassroots, developer-friendly confab that happens regularly in New York City. But even the idea of hacking transit data is novel in Atlanta: The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, one of the last major metro transit agencies in the country still guarding its real-time arrival data, finally opened it to the public in the fall.

So where do Atlanta transit advocates start at this point? The best they can do now, Bradford figures, is to try to improve existing service at the margins – for one thing, make bus service more predictable by building a reliable tracking app. That relates to Bradford’s other goal, which is, as he puts it, to "ennoble" bus ridership.

Southern cities often overly rely on bus service in the absence of more rail infrastructure. But the ridership on those bus systems still pales in comparison to similar-sized cities elsewhere. As Eric Jaffe has previously written, less than 4 percent of Atlanta residents get to work by transit. The city has a small-scale rail network best known for shuttling people to and from the airport, with pretty predictable arrivals every 12 or 15 minutes.

"Most people in Atlanta don’t live close enough to a train station to really care when a train is coming," Santy says. Passengers can wait for the bus, on the other hand, for 45 minutes, and that unpredictability compounds the stigma attached to riding it. There's even a cottage industry of viral videos on YouTube, Bradford laments, mocking MARTA riders.

"There’s definitely a feeling here that the people who ride the bus are not 'people like me,'" says Kari Watkins, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech who is also helping to organize the conference. In other cities, people ride transit for a variety of reasons that go beyond financial necessity: because it’s the quickest alternative, or because it affords passengers the opportunity to get work done on a smart phone, or because it's the more environmentally friendly option.

But those motivations – especially that last one – aren’t terribly prevalent in cities like Atlanta. And it can be hard to understand this from, say, a New York City subway platform.

"They have a storied subway system, and it’s steeped in history, and it’s kind of considered a noble thing," Bradford says. "It’s easy for people to participate in something that’s noble and historic, that has these good connotations with it, whereas MARTA is more of a Great Society, mid-century liberalism project."

And it’s one that many people in Atlanta (and even legislators in the statehouse) never really embraced. Now advocates will try to improve MARTA’s reputation by gradually improving its service. A traffic signal system that prioritizes transit could be one way to do that without a major construction project. And ultimately, slowly, Watkins suggests, as transit’s image changes, maybe more residents will be willing to see the value in it with future funding decisions, even if they don’t chose to ride transit themselves.

Other improvements – like bike lanes – wouldn’t require costly construction either (come to think of it, our emphasis on "shovel-ready" infrastructure projects in the Recession era completely ignores the fact that sometimes shovels aren’t necessary at all). In all of this, Atlanta doesn’t really have other cities to look to.

"I don’t know that there is another model for us," Watkins says. Similar-sized transit agencies and cities are mostly on the West Coast, the Northeast, or in Chicago. “And we are not those,” Watkins says. But Southern cities with similar challenges might make progress if they began to band together, as she, Bradford and Santy now hope they will. “It’s easier to do all of these things,” Watkins says, “if you’re also changing Raleigh and Chattanooga.”

Top image: Rudy Balasko/Shutterstock

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