Here is a recent article published in the Federal Highway Administration’s Public Roads Magazine. WARNING: it’s a bit on the long side (3,600 words) so you may want to print it out. The article, which I authored, provides a short history of the project from its conception in Ryan Gravel’s thesis through the present day. Interesting to see how far we’ve come.
The Atlanta BeltLine: A Green Future
by Ethan Davidson
A grassroots solution to transportation challenges, this pedestrian-bicycle-transit loop will encircle Georgia’s largest city. Could this be a model for other communities too?
|These young people are walking their dog on the Northside Trail, shown here in April 2010. The trail is one of the completed sections of the new Atlanta BeltLine.|
Atlanta, a city built around the intersection of railroad lines, is known today for its congested highways and sprawling developments. The Atlanta region consistently ranks in the top 10 for the worst traffic congestion and commute times in the Nation. Is it possible that a partial solution to these chronic transportation problems could come from a graduate student’s thesis about repurposing old rail corridors in Atlanta? The region will soon find out.
In 1999, Ryan Gravel wrote a graduate thesis, titled “Belt Line — Atlanta: Design of Infrastructure as a Reflection of Public Policy,” that proposed reclaiming a 22-mile (35-kilometer) ring of mostly abandoned and underused rail corridor and transforming it into a new public transit system combined with economic development and connectivity strategies. Gravel’s thesis sat on a shelf for a few years after graduation before it inspired a grassroots movement to build the most ambitious public works project in the city’s history: the Atlanta BeltLine.
The completed Atlanta BeltLine will encircle the city’s core with pedestrian- and bicyclist-friendly shared-use paths that are replacing the rail lines and connecting to parks and transit. The transit cars will be able to accommodate bicycles, and the shared-use paths will help reduce highway congestion by decreasing the number of short-distance motor vehicle trips. The goal is a total of 33 miles (53 kilometers) of trails to be built out over the life of the project: 22 miles (35 kilometers) are envisioned to follow the transit alignment in the corridor, with an additional 11 miles (18 kilometers) of “spur” trails that veer off the corridor, creating greater connectivity for many abutting neighborhoods. To date, roughly 11 miles of the trail system are open, including permanent paved trails and temporary hiking trails.
By attracting some of the region’s future growth, the Atlanta BeltLine corridor, its promoters hope, will improve mobility and change the pattern of regional sprawl, while creating more vibrant, walkable, and livable communities.
According to Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) Commissioner Vance Smith, Jr., “The Atlanta BeltLine is a significant project not just for the Atlanta area, but for all of Georgia as well. This innovative approach to improving transportation challenges could potentially be implemented in any community. Reclaiming existing infrastructure for new uses, transit, trails, and green space will benefit all citizens. From an economic and a transportation perspective, it is an investment that will make the region better for generations to come, and that is one reason why we have helped fund some of the early trail projects through Transportation Enhancement grants. We also have partnered with the city of Atlanta to use State-owned right-of-way for the future transit and trails. We know this project is being watched by communities across the country and encourage everyone to keep working together toward its success.”
Atlanta’s Mobility Challenges
The city’s uneven and low-density growth pattern is one reason for Atlanta’s mobility, housing, and economic development challenges. Other causes include a lack of affordable housing, deficiencies in transportation connectivity across all modes, and limited transit, bicycle, and pedestrian options.
“Individually, each of these issues contributes to reduced quality of life, mobility, and economic competitiveness,” says Brian Leary, president and CEO of Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. “Together, they constitute a severe impediment to creating sustainable growth and a vibrant livable community in the years to come. If the city is to address these problems proactively, a comprehensive and progressive solution is required to holistically integrate land use, economic development, social, and transportation needs.”
Major barriers, including interstates and active and abandoned railroad lines, fragment the city’s existing transportation network. These conditions are particularly acute along the proposed route of the Atlanta BeltLine where numerous large tracts of underutilized industrial land lacking an urban street network disrupt the continuity of the transportation network. Other issues along the route include several freeways and railroad-related facilities that have few existing crossings; discontinuous local roadway, bicycle, and pedestrian networks; and large blocks of retail development, such as strip malls, with little internal circulation.
|This map of the Atlanta area shows the 22-mile (35-kilometer) loop that originally was railroad track and now will become the Atlanta BeltLine. For most of that loop, a trail will run adjacent to the loop, and another 11 miles (18 kilometers) of spur trails will connect neighborhoods to the loop. The transit vision is evolving but at present includes building streetcar segments that will connect to the loop. City officials hope to substantially complete the entire green corridor within the next 10 years.|
The railroad right-of-way divides many adjacent neighborhoods physically and, in some cases, socially. Transit options are limited, and existing services are hard to access. As a result, Atlanta residents use their personal automobiles for the most common sort of travel within the city — short trips between communities, neighborhoods, and activity centers. They make many of these trips on the interstates and arterial roads, reducing capacity for regional and national through traffic. The overall impact for the city and region are reduced global competitiveness and local quality of life.
Turning an Idea into a Plan
Gravel’s fascination with improving Atlanta’s infrastructure was inspired by a senior year spent in Paris as part of Georgia Tech’s architecture program. “When I lived in Paris and ate fresh food at the local market and walked and rode transit to everywhere I needed to go, it was an unbelievable experience,” says Gravel. “When I moved back to Atlanta, where I grew up, my daily experience moving about the city was sitting in a car in traffic. While there are lots of great things about Atlanta, that isn’t one of them. I wanted to live here, and I was interested in finding ways to make Atlanta the kind of place [where] you would want to live your whole life.”
Gravel saw Atlanta’s physical problem as rooted in the separation of land uses, residential from commercial, higher income residents from lower income residents, and an increasing dependence on the automobile to accomplish the most simple of daily tasks. Adding to this problem is that a city expanding into undeveloped areas is faced with the costs of providing infrastructure such as water lines and sewers over greater distances. Emergency vehicles, schoolbuses, and transit must travel greater distances to reach people, and public health declines due to more sedentary lifestyles, degraded air and water quality, and traffic-related injuries and fatalities.
Gravel began grappling with the question: “What kind of city do we want to be?” He thought the city should be asking itself this question before adopting policies about how to grow and the kinds of infrastructure to invest in. “It seemed like we were basing today’s decisions on yesterday’s answers,” he adds.
After graduation, while working for an Atlanta architecture firm designing a mixed-use loft development, Gravel and his colleagues were trying to decide where to locate its parking garage. Should they place the parking along the abandoned rail corridor, or should they have the development face the corridor, which might develop into something else in the future? At that point, Gravel and his coworkers thought the BeltLine idea was worth sharing with government and business leaders. They put together packages with letters, Gravel’s thesis, and maps and sent them to the region’s elected officials and transportation agencies.
Former Atlanta City Council member, and later City Council president, Cathy Woolard, who chaired the council’s transportation committee, was increasingly frustrated with the region’s transit infrastructure. Upon receiving Gravel’s thesis, she immediately thought the idea had merit and was worth exploring with the community. She and Gravel began meeting with neighborhood groups in her district, and, after her successful election as president of the council, they expanded the conversation across the entire city.
|These railroad tracks are shown in November 2009 before construction of the Eastside Trail in the BeltLine’s northeast corridor.|
|Shovels ready, Atlanta officials and stakeholders are posing at the groundbreaking of the Eastside Trail in October 2010.|
They discovered that neighborhoods in the northern and eastern areas, which were already experiencing significant new development, saw the BeltLine as an opportunity to preserve their quality of life in the face of the new growth and traffic. On the southern and western parts of Atlanta, which had experienced economic disinvestment over several decades and had large transit-dependent populations, the BeltLine was an opportunity to attract growth that would bring jobs, improve transit options, and attract neighborhood amenities that were lacking, such as grocery stores.
As Gravel and Woolard were building grassroots support, other key individuals and institutions set in motion a series of events that would propel the project forward. In 1992, the PATH Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to building trails for the purposes of recreation and transportation in the State of Georgia, developed a comprehensive master plan for a trail system in Atlanta. The PATH Foundation is one of the Atlanta BeltLine project’s key partners, building out its trail system.
|Although still under construction, the Eastside Trail section of the Atlanta BeltLine is already attracting hikers and people walking their dogs, suggesting that the Atlanta BeltLine will be very popular indeed, once completed.|
Ed McBrayer, executive director of the PATH Foundation, recalls that back in the 1990s, the Atlanta region was out of compliance with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s air regulations: “When we decided that we wanted to try and retrofit Atlanta with a trail system, we were responding to a need to clean up the city’s dirty air. Our primary focus was to build trails that would promote nonmotorized commuters. When the Olympics were awarded to Atlanta, our mission was expanded to include connecting the primary Olympic venues to encourage visitors to walk and bike during their visit. After the Olympics, all of the trails we built were used for both commuting and recreation.
“Most of the BeltLine route was part of the original trail master plan we developed back in 1992. We envisioned what is now the Atlanta BeltLine as a circumferential trail that would tie the city’s trail system together. It is very rewarding for us to still be involved and to see our original thoughts put into the ground.”
Another key partner that has helped turn the Atlanta BeltLine into a reality is The Trust for Public Land (TPL), a nonprofit that secures land to preserve it as public green space. In 2004, TPL commissioned renowned urban designer Alexander Garvin to study the BeltLine concept as an opportunity to expand parks and green space in Atlanta. Garvin produced a report, The BeltLine Emerald Necklace: Atlanta’s New Public Realm, that called for the addition of thousands of acres of green space along the BeltLine’s route. Garvin says, “The idea of introducing parks into the BeltLine concept was a way to further build support for the project because it brought together several constituencies. I think of planning as having a political and financial dimension, not just design.”
With the momentum generated by the activism of Gravel and Woolard, the research of Garvin, and the support of the PATH Foundation, a broad coalition of supporters from environmentalists to community groups was galvanized to influence the city to implement the project. Building on Atlanta’s history of collaboration between the public and private sectors, the business community embraced the project. In recent decades, the city has attracted a number of corporate headquarters relocations. To maintain this momentum, the business community recognized that Atlanta must attract and retain talent in an increasingly dense urban core served by new mobility options with a quality of life enhanced by new green space. Atlanta’s corporate leadership has been crucial in raising private sector capital to leverage public sector investment.
In 2005, then Mayor Shirley Franklin turned to the business community to create the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, which began raising private funds to support the BeltLine concept. She also tasked The Atlanta Development Authority, the city’s economic development agency, with developing the BeltLine Redevelopment Plan, a 25-year financial plan that the city council approved in 2005. Around the same time, the council approved the project’s main source of funding, a 6,500-acre (2,633-hectare) tax increment financing district, which is expected to generate $1.7 billion for the project over 25 years.
In 2006, the development authority created a new entity, Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., to plan and execute the implementation in partnership with other public and private organizations, including city departments.
Progress to Date
Now in its fifth year of implementation, the BeltLine is well underway. Land acquisition and construction have begun, and four new parks and nearly 11 miles (18 kilometers) of shared-use paths have opened to the public. The environmental impact statement for transit and trails is complete, and nearly half of the 22-mile (35-kilometer) right-of-way is now set aside for the project. In addition, the corridor design process is well underway, and a transit implementation strategy is complete.
|This artist’s rendering shows a section of the Atlanta BeltLine corridor that will include transit, trails, green space, and abutting development.|
Since 2005, more than 50 new developments have been completed or are under construction within the tax increment financing dis–trict, with a value of more than $1 billion. These new developments have created more than 700,000 square feet (65,100 square meters) of new commercial space and more than 9,000 residential units.
Equally as important as the implementation is the planning activity. Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., and the city’s Department of Planning and Community Development divided the Atlanta BeltLine planning area, roughly 16,000 acres (6,480 hectares) within a half-mile of the rail corridor, into 10 subareas for the purposes of master planning for land use, transportation improvements, and green space. As of May 2011, the Atlanta City Council had adopted seven of these subarea master plans with the remaining three ready for adoption.
The master plans call for future land uses and street networks that will support transit; denser, more compact urban development that promotes walking and bicycling; and green spaces large and small along the corridor. The master plans support a framework for urban growth that will be more sustainable for the city and the region and will be served by the planned improvements in infrastructure the Atlanta BeltLine will bring.
|Shown here is D.H. Stanton Park with the rail corridor in the foreground where the Atlanta BeltLine’s transit and trail will run.|
So far, the Atlanta Regional Commission and GDOT have provided nearly $21 million of Federal Highway Administration funds to the project: $18 million in Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) Improvement Program funds and approximately $2.8 million programmed through Transportation Enhancement grants.
Continuing Community Involvement
Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., and its partners have maintained the project’s grassroots spirit and engaged the community to an unprecedented degree for Atlanta. Community engagement is a cornerstone of the project, as first documented in the community engagement framework — a new structure adopted by the city council in 2006 with various channels for the community to become involved. The structure includes study groups for the five geographic regions of the Atlanta BeltLine with two subareas in each study group, dedicated staff, and two citizen advisory boards.
In addition, Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., has used social and digital media extensively, as well as traditional public and media relations, engaging tens of thousands of passionate, grassroots advocates. The Atlanta BeltLine Partnership has helped maintain and grow enthusiasm in the community through programs that include free tours; an Atlanta BeltLine Ambassadors program, which promotes the project and shares opportunities for residents to play a role; and a cadre of more than 1,000 volunteers to help spread awareness in the community. Working together, the community engagement framework and the Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., have helped deepen the community’s awareness and support for the project.
Current Mayor Kasim Reed has made implementation of the Atlanta BeltLine one of his administration’s top priorities. Under his leadership, the city submitted a successful ap-plication to the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) for the beginning of a network of streetcars to connect key points along and within the Atlanta BeltLine. In October 2010, USDOT awarded Atlanta $47 million for the first new segment of its streetcar system in downtown Atlanta, which will soon include the Atlanta BeltLine.
“I am proud of the work we have accomplished to date,” says Mayor Reed, “and I am eager to keep accelerating the transformative elements of this project, which will create a more economically competitive, environmentally sustainable, and increasingly connected city and region.”
|Historic Fourth Ward Park, one of the first new Atlanta BeltLine parks to be completed, is shown here in April 2011. Adjacent to the rail corridor on the east side of the Atlanta BeltLine, the park already has spurred the development of more than 1,000 new residential units in the immediate vicinity.|
Ethan Davidson is director of communications for Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. Davidson has a B.A. in history from Columbia University.