Midtown isn’t taking transit infrastructure seriously. Here’s how it can

This month marks my sixth year as a Midtown resident, and yet last month’s Midtown Alliance annual meeting was my first since moving to Atlanta. In affirmation of the laudatory comments from every speaker at that event, I’ve witnessed firsthand the incredible progress in the district’s rise as a national technology hub and its role as Atlanta’s epicenter for those jobs and more. As someone who lives, works, and plays in the district, I can attest to its ever-improving desirability on each of those fronts.

However, not all is rosy in Midtown. To put it mildly, the district’s transportation planning still leaves much to be desired.

We’re still seeing massive new parking decks rise alongside corporate headquarters purportedly trying to attract younger technology talent. Midtown’s sole bus-only lane, spanning 17th Street between Arts Center and burgeoning Atlantic Station (Civic Center’s is technically Downtown), sees far too much car traffic due to lax enforcement. And the district has taken few, if any, measures to address the source of its primary traffic woes, regional commuters. Even as a strengthened focus on expanding Midtown’s bicycle infrastructure improves connectivity to other areas within Atlanta’s urban core, we continue to neglect our role at the center of a 6-million person region.

Only so many Atlantans have a reasonable commute into Midtown by foot, bicycle, or scooter. World-class infrastructure wouldn’t change that. Though transit-oriented development around MARTA rail stations should increase access to Midtown for those who can afford living within a short trip of their nearest station, bus ridership has been falling across the system. This is partly due to exogenous factors, but also due to newer alternatives offering faster and more reliable service.

The case for bus-only lanes

There’s a solution that can simultaneously improve bus ridership and prepare Midtown for future growth: bus-only lanes on Spring and West Peachtree Streets, at least during peak commuting hours. 

Unfortunately, Midtown Alliance’s street redesign plans for both West Peachtree and Spring Streets completely neglect their increasingly important role as regional transit corridors. First, plans to perform two-way conversions were scuttled due to objections over traffic impacts. The most recent plans for both are almost carbon copies of “complete streets” projects for Piedmont Street and Juniper Avenue, but neither Piedmont and Juniper carry transit service in Midtown. So, while incorporating the pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly elements of those complete streets plans into West Peachtree and Spring redesigns is an important step forward for both corridors, lack of bus infrastructure is a grievous oversight.

Project scopes for West Peachtree and Spring Streets, per the City of Atlanta’s Action Plan for Safer Streets (Courtesy of the City of Atlanta and Kimley-Horn)

Currently, 13 regional Xpress bus lines serve Midtown—entirely on West Peachtree and Spring—from a total of 12 counties in the morning and afternoon peak commute hours. These include 88 commuter buses inbound in the morning, and 87 outbound in the afternoon/evening. Cobb County (CobbLinc) alone runs roughly just as many buses into Midtown, with 80 buses inbound in the morning, and 101 outbound in the afternoon (its outbound routes from Downtown pick up riders on West Peachtree en route to the Interstate). Gwinnett County Transit operates a route with limited service to Midtown, but as that county and others expand their transit systems through sales tax referenda over the next decade, bus service into the district will likely grow.

The Georgia State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA) Xpress system map, featuring commuter routes that almost entirely feed into either Midtown or Downtown during AM/PM peaks

Every day, these buses carry thousands of people without reasonable access to the MARTA heavy rail system, and whose only options for accessing Midtown’s jobs are either those coaches or driving their own cars upwards of 40 miles into Atlanta’s urban core. As Midtown’s explosive growth continues, and it adds thousands of new jobs, demand for those jobs will in turn bring thousands of new daily commuters into the district. We can continue to add parking capacity, but the roads can expand no further. We can continue to cater to the private automobile, but all those cars will further choke Midtown’s street grid. A 45-foot commuter bus carries roughly 50 passengers, and consumes roughly the same amount of space as two or three cars. Even at half-capacity, these buses are 8-12 times more efficient than single occupant vehicles. 

Only by expanding bus service can we accommodate current and future transportation needs, and the easiest way to increase utility of that service is through bus-only lanes. Utilization of high-occupancy managed lanes on our Interstates improves bus access to and from Midtown, but once in the district, these buses are frequently stuck in traffic. Delays reduce the reliability of these routes, and can significantly increase travel times. With Spring and West Peachtree directly adjacent to the I-75/I-85 Connector, and with ample right-of-way to reallocate, adding bus-only lanes would minimize delays within Midtown and significantly improve overall service. Downtown has already provisioned bus-only lanes around MARTA’s Civic Center station for this purpose.

MARTA does not currently run bus service on West Peachtree or Spring Streets, instead using the adjacent Peachtree Street for its 110 and 40 routes. Adding bus-only lanes would incentivize either moving some service to those streets or adding net new routes, capitalizing on dedicated right-of-way to provide faster travel times and better overall rider experience promised by the “arterial rapid transit” in the agency’s More MARTA expansion plans. 

New service could include a circulator route around the district, similar to the existing Atlantic Station shuttle from Arts Center MARTA. While I’m no fan of tech hype, and remain skeptical that fully automated vehicles will fundamentally transform transportation in any meaningful way, these lanes would increase the viability of fully automated shuttles should the technology mature sufficiently. Georgia Tech already runs bus and trolley service on both streets, and would benefit from dedicated rights-of-way. As would emergency vehicles.

Getting it done

I won’t go into too much detail about specific designs for these streets, only because there are so many possible permutations available given the existing four-lane rights of way, with on-street parking and bulb-outs on many blocks along both corridors. Barrier-separated lanes versus open? Bike-only and bus-only or shared? If the latter, do we convert on-street parking to drop zones? The city will eventually want to convert some of that parking to flexible space for delivery vehicles and ridehailing, to prevent idling vehicles from blocking general purpose lanes. But the current planned design for both streets, shown below, is inadequate for the district’s—and the region’s—transportation needs.

Current conceptual design for a one-way cycle track on Spring Street. West Peachtree Street would mirror this design. (Courtesy of the City of Atlanta and Kimley-Horn)

Those broadly concerned about the traffic impact of removing a general purpose lanes on both streets during rush hour should consider that Midtown’s building boom over the past five years has frequently consumed lanes on one or both streets, for entire blocks at a time. Midtown’s rush hour congestion has less to do with the number of lanes on its north-south arterials, and instead is almost entirely due to the high volume of single-occupant cars entering and exiting the I-75/I-85 Connector on major cross-arterials. Also, from those cars entering and exiting parking garages. The only way Midtown can address congestion today, and in the future, is incentivizing a shift from cars to transit alternatives. 

It’s time Midtown started thinking seriously about its regional role in Atlanta’s transportation system. Bus-only lanes on Spring and West Peachtree Streets would achieve this and more.

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