For most of the past decade, I commuted by MARTA, taking the train from our house in Avondale Estates to Atlanta magazine’s offices – first in Midtown, later Downtown. I’m not crazy about cars and found the train relaxing. Instead of worrying about the road, I could read, or, after getting an iPhone, check email and play "Words with Friends." Any aggravation triggered by schedule cutbacks, broken escalators, or persistent panhandlers, was mitigated by the sheer convenience of not having to deal with a car. It was cheap, too. Our company covers the cost of a MARTA pass. Parking Downtown, even with a corporate discount, is steep. Then there's the smugness factor; I loved to log into my Clean Air Campaign account and click on the button that calculated how many pollutants I’d kept out of the air.
The only problem was getting to MARTA. The Avondale station was less than a mile from our house. In theory, a great way to add a little exercise at the start and end of the workday. In practice, it was like maneuvering a basic-training obstacle course. Sidewalks stop at the city limits (i.e. three blocks from my home) forcing you to navigate footpaths worn through the easement and hop in and out of parking lots, as shown in the photo above. One business (You know who you are!) erected chain-link around its parking lot, forcing pedestrians to venture onto the shoulder of College Avenue, risking five lanes packed with speeding cars, trucks, and buses. Walk on the south side of the street, and you dodge drunks lollygagging around two liquor stores. Walk on the north side, and you pass a salvage center that was reportedly the site of a homicide. When it rains, the whole thing turns into a red-clay swamp.
I’m luckier than most MARTA commuters. I didn’t always have to walk to the station. When my daughter was in high school, we shared a car. On rainy days, she’d drop me at the station before driving her carpool to school. If I came home when it was too dark to comfortably pass the liquor stores and/or scrapyard, my husband would fetch me. When I had an important meeting, I commandeered one of the cars.
When we were looking for a new place this summer, one of my first wishes was something with a pleasant walk to a MARTA rail station. Finding the right space at the right price that also had access to a mile of sidewalks leading to MARTA proved practically impossible.
You can walk to MARTA from my new Cabbagetown home, but it's hardly pleasant. From the windows of our loft, you can see the King Memorial station. It’s much closer than my old MARTA station; according to googlemaps, just 0.7 miles. But, even google advises, “Use caution – This route may be missing sidewalks or pedestrian paths.” Google's algorithms are on to something. Freight train tracks run between my place and MARTA, which means that to get to the station you have to go through the Boulevard tunnel under the tracks. This dark, dirty passageway ferries cars and container trucks by day and serves as a makeshift homeless shelter by night. To avoid the tunnel, you have to hike down Memorial Drive, all the way around the cemetery, and up Grant Street. This is a mile-plus route and not exactly blessed with surplus sidewalks and crosswalks.
I bought a car.
The drive from Cabbagetown to my office on Peachtree is less than two miles. It takes fifteen minutes with traffic; seven without. Do I feel a twinge of guilt when the MARTA train whizzes past? You bet. Do I realize I am ridiculously fortunate to be able to make this choice? Absolutely.
Thousands of Atlantans have no option but to take MARTA or some other form of public transit. It’s an extremely challenging way to live in this city. I know firsthand; my first years living here I had no car or access to a car and it affected everything from my health (I could only go to doctors accessible by MARTA or buy food I could carry on transit) to my income (I turned down job offers because I had to way to get to the workplaces).
There's no question we need more, and better, transit options. But beefing up the bus schedule and adding rail lines isn’t going to solve the problem. We need to fix sidewalks, traffic lights, bus-stops, parking lots, and everything else that allows you to safely get from your front door to your transit stop. This need is underscored by two recent news stories.
First, there is the case of Raquel Nelson, the young mother who was charged with vehicular homicide after her four-year-old son was hit and killed by an impaired driver when the family crossed a busy Cobb County street without using a crosswalk. Yes, some may point fingers and say she shouldn't have jaywalked with her kids, but when is the last time any of those critics rode a bus or train, or walked home at the end of the day, let alone with youngsters in tow? Certainly none of the jury members who initially convicted Nelson. Reportedly, few of them had ever used transit, and then only to take the Braves shuttle. Plenty of sidewalks and closed streets when you go from the shuttle to Turner Field, and a shorter walk than the one Nelson and her kids would have had to take to reach the crosswalk closest to her bus stop.
Second, there is the latest edition of the report from Transportation for America on pedestrian fatalities. The national “Dangerous by Design” report looks at how infrastructure — or lack thereof — threatens pedestrians and transit users. Metro Atlanta ranks No. 11 on their list of the most dangerous areas. Between 2000 and 2009, the study shows, 798 pedestrians died in traffic incidents here. If that many people were shot, we’d be outraged. Heck, if that many people died of food poisoning, we’d be scandalized. But, as the study demonstrates, nationwide and in Atlanta, the people more likely to be killed in such events are poor, elderly, minorities, or all of the above. I’m a middle-aged white woman. If I got run over by a car while crossing Memorial Drive, or mugged in that murky tunnel under the tracks, it would probably make the news. If I was a member of one of the groups over-represented in Atlanta’s appalling pedestrian fatality statistics, that would be less likely.