By heavily investing in transit of all kinds, Gwinnett County would be setting itself up for decades of sustainable population growth, for helping people of all walks of life enjoy what Gwinnett has to offer, for continuing to attract competitive businesses, for reducing its impact on the environment, and for providing alternatives to clogged roads. Read more about how transit would address each need below:
Preparing for our Growing Population
How Transit is Good Economics
How There's not Enough Space for Everyone to Only Use Cars
Being Prepared for Emergencies
How the People of Gwinnett Already Want Better Transit
By 2040, our metro is projected to reach a population of just over 8 million people. We are already feeling the strain of our current 5.8 million, with ever lengthening rush hours and clogged roads. Imagine another 2.3 million on top of what we have now. The simple reality is that there's no way to handle everyone in cars. There's no way to pave our way out of the traffic nightmare bearing down upon us. That's why it's important, as a region, to embrace transit and alternatives to driving.
To give some context to this growth, we can look to the Philadelphia metro area, which has a modern population roughly 6 million people. The Atlanta metro is not much farther behind that, yet we certainly do not have the robust regional rail / high-capacity transit network that Philly does to support that population.
Furthermore, the City of Atlanta is projected to grow to 1.5 Million on its own by 2050 (That's 3.2 times the city's 2015 estimated population) putting it (1,500,000 people; 134.00 square miles; 11,194 people per square mile) on the same level of modern-day Philadelphia (1,517,550 people; 135.09 square miles; 11,234 people per square mile). Generally speaking, the roads in both the city and metro are mostly built out, and many are already over capacity. We must, therefore, look to alternatives to roads to pick up the slack.
Looking to Gwinnett, specifically, is projected to surpass Fulton County as the most populated county in the metro. With that, would come Gwinnett's rise to the second most densely populated county in the metro.
The capacity of a single 10-foot lane (or equivalent width)
by mode at peak conditions with normal operations.
Now, traffic, as much as it might feel otherwise, is something of a good sign. It shows that people are busy, getting to work, going to school, and running errands. It is a sign of growth and of an active economy. That said, there's a point where simply using roads just doesn't make sense any more. In many cases throughout the metro, roads are already as wide as they can get before we start tearing into businesses and homes. So, what do we do if we physically can't handle more cars?
The answer is to look at the problem differently. Are we trying to move cars, or people? The answer should be obvious: people. The point of a transportation system is not to necessarily move the most of a certain type of vehicle, but rather to attempt to handle the volume of people trying to get around. To that end, the answer to increasing the capacity of built-out roads, is to use a method of moving people that is more space-efficient than a car.
This, is where transit comes in. Even adding a simple, mixed-traffic frequent bus line to a road has the potential to double its capacity of moving people. When we start looking at dedicating lanes for transit use, the capacity grows even more. These are simple, even relatively inexpensive methods of getting more mileage, as it were, out of a seemingly full road.
As Gwinnett, and the metro, continues to grow, there will be ever fewer opportunities to expand our existing roads to accommodate everyone in cars, but with expanded transit services coupled with other modern road designs, we can keep people moving even as we swell.
For those corridors needing even more service than frequent service and/or dedicate lanes, we can look into truly high-capacity transit, by dedicating area for fully separated transitways, making use of existing rail corridors, and by even burying transit in tunnels or lifting it up into aerial structures. Even these, though they may seem cumbersome at first, can move far more people than if the equivalent amount of land were solely dedicated to cars.
As our metro grows, the already painful traffic will only seem to grow worse, as more cars try to make use of roads not well equipped to deal with the growing population. The instinct may be to want to simply build more roads, and expand the ones we already have. This, though, will only bring more traffic to fill in road's new capacity with what's called induced and latent demand.
The basic idea is that people have been avoiding the road, or foregoing trips because they don't want to deal with the congestion of the road. When capacity is added, everyone who were avoiding the road now come to use it; extra trips are made, and even new development attempts to take advantage of the new capacity. Soon enough, traffic feels just as bad as it did when the road was first planned to be expanded.
There is good evidence to show that, despite the extra traffic they bring, these road expansions just do not pay for themselves. Generally speaking, the low-density development patterns, which cars require to remain viable as a useful transportation system, just do not generate enough tax revenue to pay for the long-term upkeep, nor the replacement costs of that infrastructure. The graph to the right shows the cash flow from low-density developments supported by extensive, car-centric road networks. Over time, the cost of maintaining and replacing all the infrastructure supporting the low-density development overtakes the tax revenue collected from that development. This can very well cripple a government’s finances.
The picture to the left shows how the more dense core of a city supports the less dense surrounding area financially. Green means the property produces more than it costs to maintain in supporting infrastructure; red means the property produces less. The taller the bar, the more it produces or costs.
While pure density is not always the solution, it is very much part of the answer. Dense, mixed use developments built to take advantage of the capacity efficiency of non-car transportation can more than pay for themselves and their supporting infrastructure in the long run. A review of research on the topic by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute concluded that:
Credible research indicates that Smart Growth community residents consume less land, own fewer vehicles, drive less, rely more on alternative modes, spend less on transport, have lower traffic crash casualty rates, consume less energy and produce less pollution than they would in more sprawled, automobile dependent areas. These savings filter through the economy, increasing economic productivity and development. […]
Smart Growth often provides substantial benefits, including net economic savings that total thousands of dollars annually per households, plus significant health benefits, improved mobility options for nondrivers, and external benefits including reduced traffic congestion, accident risk and pollution imposed on others. Since physically, economically and socially disadvantaged people tend to rely on affordable housing and transport options, Smart Growth tends to provide social equity benefits.
Transit oriented developments built around stations, high-density corridors along frequent transit routes, and strong supporting networks for pedestrians, bikes, and general buses would all be able to secure the financial future for whatever municipality takes up those practices. This is already starting to occur within the metro area, around the existing MARTA network. Research within the metro has shown that proximity to a high-capacity transit station is a massive boost to values and demand for that land. 61% of new office construction is within half a mile of an existing MARTA station, and rents near stations ask for nearly 25% higher rates than the over all market due to the high demand for access. All of this is a trend that is continuing from previous study that found general trends of lower vacancy rates and higher rents near stations than beyond them. The more direct manifestation of this is in MARTA’s efforts surrounding Transit Oriented Developments, which help fund the transit agency by leasing out land around the station to developers who know they can fill residential and commercial spaces if they have direct access to high-capacity transit.
Though not an everyday occurrence, the Atlanta metro is no stranger to events suddenly bringing our roads to a halt. Whether the crippling snow storm in 2014, or the catastrophic fire, and resulting collapse, of Interstate 85, we have been shown that, at a moments notice, our metro's road networks can come to a screeching halt at the hands of, often, unpredictable events.
Transit has proved, in these times, to be an invaluable asset. In 2014, MARTA maintained rail operations through the night, shuttling those stranded on the interstates and the airport to hotels, friends, and family near transit stations. In 2017, MARTA again rose to the challenge of helping to handle an entire interstate's worth of commuters by extending rail operations for new riders joining the system at its park-n-ride stations, while GRTA and GCT shifted their express bus routes to take full advantage of those same stations. Immediately after the I-85 collapse, MARTA managed an average system-wide increase in use of 11.5%, with some stations seeing 40% and higher shocks. MARTA’s ability to not only handle this emergency, but keep up with demand throughout the shutdown is a testament to its usefulness as an alternative transportation system.
Even in times of lesser direct affect to our city, transit has shown to be able to pick up the slack whenever a major storm brings with it a wave of stranded airline passengers needing easy access to hotels for the foreseeable future.
We all hope that such events will be the last, and that we can learn enough to avoid them in the future, but the way of the world is that there will always be something, no matter how hard we try. Yet, part of preparing to handle such events is in the ability to keep the metro mobile through them, and to that end, transit has already proven to be an essential part. Expanding transit only adds to its ability to handle the needs of a metro in crisis.