by Sarah Collier
Atlanta’s primary public transportation system, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), has recently released plans to expand their railway transit lines to the North Fulton in the Georgia 400 corridor, an area with a growing job market. While this expansion provides those north of Atlanta easier access to a Jamba Juice, it also represents a significant first step towards decreasing the racial inequality perpetuated by MARTA’s current railway transit routes.
Having worked for two summers in Atlanta, my most prominent memory was the long commute between the white suburbs north of Atlanta, where jobs are plentiful, to its impoverished black neighborhoods downtown. I would have used public transportation, however the MARTA suspiciously ends right before white suburbia begins.
MARTA’s transit route design is sorely lacking. With its simple cross-shaped track, it has a local reputation as only being useful for getting to either a Brave’s baseball game or the airport. My long drives to work gave me ample time to wonder if it was simply unskilled urban planning or some other factor that had caused MARTA’s limited route design. As it turns out, MARTA’s history reveals racial discrimination as a key player in this debacle.
MARTA began building its railway transit system between the 1970s and 1990s. During this time period, counties took strong stances in the determination of MARTA’s expansion. Richer, suburban counties north of Atlanta fervently opposed the extension of the MARTA railway to their area. In 1987, MARTA board member Charles Loudermilk stated:
“Many of the people I talk with in [suburban] counties say ‘we just don’t want blacks’ – whom they equate with crime. I went to a public forum in Gwinnett County recently and the people who got up to oppose MARTA all mentioned what MARTA would bring to the county.Two of them said they moved from Atlanta to get away from what they call ‘the undesirables.’”
MARTA chairman J. David Chestnut echoed Loudermilk, stating: “The development of a regional transit system in the Atlanta area is being held hostage to race.” The influence of racial discrimination on MARTA was highlighted in a Brookings Institute Center study in 2000, which noted that race issues have prevented MARTA’s transit lines from expanding to richer counties. The lack of transportation infrastructure in these counties has prevented minorities in the city from accessing areas with high job growth including Gwinnett, Cobb, and Clayton County. MARTA has not had any transit route development since 2000.
Conventional knowledge holds that racial segregation in transportation ended soon after 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to move out of her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. But as of 2013, MARTA’s railway route design still prevents blacks from accessing employment opportunities in richer, predominantly white counties.
MARTA’s new plan to expand their transit lines to reach North Fulton County is the first step towards ending racial discrimination in Atlanta’s railway transit system. The transit route will also provide greater access to Cobb, Gwinnett, and Forsyth County, one of Forbes’ 2013 top 10 Fastest Growing Counties in America.
Hopefully the trend of northward expansion will continue, moving MARTA transit lines closer toward Forsyth, Cobb, and Gwinnett County. These expansions would finally alter the racially motivated design that would prevent the Rosa Parks of today from catching a ride.
Sarah is a public policy major from Prattville, Alabama. Her policy interests include sustainable development and social welfare. She spent the last two summers working with a non-profit organization to lead student service trips to downtown Atlanta.
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