September 11, 2000
Volume 53, No. 3
Transportation: Are we as progressive as we think we are?
Allison Adams is managing editor of Academic Exchange.
Last winter, I made a life-altering decision. Instead of entangling myself in Decatur's daily downtown traffic snarl on the drive from my home in Winnona Park to Emory, I began taking the #36 MARTA bus from the Avondale station.
My new commute is inconvenient and time-consuming. It takes me 40 to 45 minutes each way, as opposed to the 15 to 20 minutes I used to spend in my car. Running an errand or scheduling an off-campus appointment during the day is virtually impossible. The bus home often runs as much as 20 minutes late. I have rearranged my lifestyle around riding the bus.
Decatur's strategic planning process for its next two decades offered an occasion for reflecting on my new commute. The plan includes some admirable goals such as encouraging "alternative means of transportation, including pedestrian, bicycle and public transportation, in and through Decatur" and maintaining "racial, ethnic, economic and cultural diversity."
Riding the bus every day, however, has taught me that for our all pride on social progressiveness in Decatur, we become stymied when faced with difficult choices about public transportation. But we cannot think of those two goals as distinct from one another. In order to support racial and economic diversity, we must address the transportation infrastructure. We must have a system that is accessible to all of Decatur's diverse citizenry.
We do not have such a system. I've concluded that most middle- and upper-class people in Decatur opt for their cars instead of MARTA because of the sizable inconvenience, while most of the people who ride the bus (generally working-class African Americans) do so because they have no choice.
A great number of people traveling to and through our city every day are headed to jobs at Emory (one of DeKalb County's largest employers) and other major employers, such as the county itself in its downtown Decatur offices. We stay in our cars because the buses, trains, and shuttles do not go where we need them to go when we need them to go there.
And yet we as a community make it virtually impossible for MARTA to become more accessible to us. According to an analysis conducted as part of the city's strategic planning process, traffic on South Candler Road, a main artery from South to North Decatur, grew 25 percent from 1989 to 1998. If we do not minimize the presence of automobiles, the congestion will only get worse.
But two years ago, we flatly and angrily rejected a proposal for a light-rail line up South Candler. "No More MARTA," we declared. "Decatur has its share." Have we let the short-term view kill the most promising solution to the long-term problem? Which do we prefer-20,000 cars a day on South Candler, or a quiet light-rail line that would significantly reduce current traffic?
Decatur, along with the entire metropolitan Atlanta area of which it is inextricably a part, needs a public transportation system that will alleviate the growing burden of traffic on our streets. It will ameliorate its citizens' challenge of getting to work-whether you are sitting in a Ford Expedition in a traffic clog on Clairmont Road on your way to your law office or sitting behind that Expedition on the #19 bus in the same jam on your way to your job as a groundskeeper at Emory.
If the problem just gets worse, Decatur will inevitably lose its treasured racial, ethnic, economic and cultural diversity (not to mention the further decline in air quality). The impossible commutes, combined with unaffordable housing costs, will alter its demographics.
Are we progressive enough to make what may seem like sacrifices now in order to live into our strategic plan's stated vision of maintaining "a high quality of life for our residents, businesses, and visitors today and in the future?" Are we willing to revisit the MARTA issue in Decatur and support a public transportation system that will offer the best answer to an enormous and otherwise intractable problem?
These are measures I hope will be firmly and fully incorporated into Decatur's future. Let us return to the negotiating table with MARTA and not leave it until we have a promising, workable plan.
This letter first appeared in Decatur's Community Review.