Atlanta Fast-Tracks Its Sustainable Transportation Goals

Under the leadership of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, the City of Atlanta has put itself on a fast track to meeting its climate and equity goals with the creation of the City’s first Department of Transportation (ATLDOT).
MARTA bus in Midtown Atlanta
Credit: Courtesy of MARTA

The City of Atlanta is putting itself on a fast track to meeting its climate action goals with the creation of the City’s first Department of Transportation (ATLDOT). Launched by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms this past November alongside the One Atlanta Strategic Transportation Plan, the newly formed department has hit the ground running with a suite of policies and projects that center safety, equity, and sustainability in order to ensure that the City’s transportation system serves all residents as best it can.

“Our region is expected to add 2.5 million people by 2040, which underscores the urgent need to address the challenges…and build a more accessible, equitable transportation system,” says Bottoms. The transportation plan, developed with support from Bloomberg Associates, puts Atlanta in good company with other major US cities—including Oakland, California, Denver, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—that have recently created transportation departments to build critical long-term capacity to improve the ways that people get around. With this deepened commitment to delivering improved transportation projects and policy, it’s no coincidence that Atlanta, Denver, and Pittsburgh are three of the 25 cities selected as member cities in the Bloomberg Philanthropies American Cities Climate Challenge.

Prioritizing transportation equity

In Partnership with Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), the City of Atlanta is in the midst of making an unprecedented $3 billion investment to transform its transit system via the More MARTA program funded by Atlanta voters in 2016. Just last week, Atlanta’s City Council took a major step forward by passing legislation authorizing ATLDOT to implement transit-only lanes on three key transit corridors.

Transit-only lanes are a relatively low-cost way to reduce travel times and improve reliability for thousands of transit riders—who are disproportionately likely to be essential workers, to have lower incomes, and to be people of color than the population at large (including in Atlanta). Investing in high-quality transit can be an investment in restoring transportation access to communities of color whose neighborhoods have too-often either been disinvested from or bulldozed within a racist 20th century transportation policy paradigm.

The three transit-only lane corridors in the City’s new legislation align strongly with Mayor Bottoms’s One Atlanta vision by prioritizing two routes serving predominantly African-American neighborhoods in Southeast and Southwest Atlanta, and a third north of Downtown, making travel easier for transit riders on some of the City’s busiest routes between booming Midtown and Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward.

In addition to delivering dedicated transit lanes, ATLDOT has been busy developing an equity framework as a part of its Vision Zero efforts.The framework seeks to identify communities of concern, or those communities with the highest percentages of no vehicle access households, school-age children, seniors, and persons with disabilities, as well as high percentages of transit reliance, and low-income or no health insurance households. Utilizing these data indicators will allow the city to focus strategies and resources for improving access, removing barriers and creating safer streets within these communities. The City will partner with a local community-based organization to develop an equity-centered engagement strategy for vulnerable communities.

Moving people more efficiently

With current traffic congestion expected to increase along with future population growth, Atlanta’s updated transportation priorities will also ensure that all its residents can keep moving. As documented by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), a Climate Challenge partner, transit-only lanes allow cities to move more people in less space—while the average street can accommodate up to 1,600 people per hour, a dedicated bus lane can transport up to 8,000 people per hour. Eliminating congestion from bus lanes also increases public transit reliability, allowing people to waste less time waiting for unreliable buses.

The City is working to complement these core transit efficiency benefits by improving transportation options and reducing the number of people who choose to drive through the implementation of modern parking and transportation demand management (TDM) programs. To decrease reliance on cars, improve housing affordability, and make the parking system more efficient, Climate Challenge partner Urban Land Institute’s Atlanta chapter convened a Technical Assistance Panel with local and peer-city experts to provide input on ways to leverage parking policy to advance the City’s climate goals. Underappreciated transportation policies, like shared parking incentives to reduce the number of spaces that go unused or eliminating or reducing required parking minimums in new building developments, can offer significant transportation access benefits to city residents, while also making housing more affordable.

Safer streets, safer city

Led by new commissioner Josh Rowan, the ATLDOT has been built with a strong focus on eliminating traffic deaths, starting with the mayor’s Action Plan for Safer Streets, a two-year, $5 million program to increase safety for people walking, biking, or driving through improvements to sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, and bike/scoot infrastructure. By the end of 2021, the city aims to offer more than 20 miles of safer roadways and triple its network of on-street, protected bike lanes—for a total of 12 miles—that better protect people riding bikes or scooters from dangerous interactions with motor vehicles.

Building on the action plan, Mayor Bottoms signed new legislation announcing a formal Vision Zero commitment to eliminating traffic deaths. This legislation includes an ordinance that reduces the city’s default speed limit to 25 miles per hour, as the speed of vehicles contributed to over half of Atlanta’s 73 traffic deaths in 2019. This policy aligns with new national best practices for setting speed limits, which ATLDOT has also already begun to implement—within only two weeks of their release. Using NACTO’s new guidance for establishing safe speeds on Marietta Boulevard, one of the city’s arterial streets with a 45mph speed limit, Atlanta was able to justify reducing the speeds to 35, and anticipates future corridor redesign work that will support reducing the speed limit even further. The city also worked with NACTO on safer street designs for the city’s high-injury corridors, as well as best practices on getting street designs on the ground, fast. Climate Challenge local partner Atlanta Bicycle Coalition is also supporting public engagement for safer streets through its Community Advocates Network, which brings together neighborhood representatives with the shared goals of addressing zoning, public safety, and transportation issues.

Atlanta is proving yet again that accelerating climate action demands a broad array of complementary strategies—including institutional reform, road safety, crowdsourced policy expertise, and bus priority improvements—to deliver a transportation system that keeps our cities moving, sustainably and efficiently. ATLDOT’s emphasis on improving public transit and making streets safer for all, paired with supportive parking and TDM policies, adds up to a self-reinforcing transportation policy agenda that’s focused on delivering near-term quality of life improvements for the residents who need them most—and delivering on the city’s climate change goals in the process.