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So, a brief history of Atlanta…


200 years ago, Atlanta was not there.  The land was not rugged enough to worry about ridge lines as a resource, and the rivers and creeks in the area were good enough, but they didn’t have much to do with each other.  The area had been inhabited by Cherokee and Creek Americans, since they split from the Iroquois before Plato was born in Greece. English settlers first started trespassing in the area in the 1820s, ten years before the Americans were forcibly removed.   Between 1820 and 1840, Atlanta changed from the conflict edge of the frontier to a gateway to the west.

With new rail technology, Atlanta’s ridges were an ideal conduit for the heavy steam engines of the 1830s and 40s.  The city was first called Terminus because Atlanta was it for the rail roads.  Rail freight could go no further with the rails, locomotives and bridges of the day.

Until the 1870s, Atlanta was a walking, horseback and rail town.  Atlanta was still a one-mile circle by the 1860s, even if much of that circle was filled with factories and train yards.  It was possible to walk or ride a wagon to get whereever you needed.  Between 1871 and 1882, the Atlanta Street Railway Company built and extended six horsecar lines on rails connecting the city to its hinterlands within a mile of town.  Between 1883 and 1888, four more horsecar companies operated their own lines.  Just as drivers on Cascade rarely use LaVista, riders on any given line would use it for their daily commutes, while rarely if ever doing business with other horsecar routes and companies.  Transfers would simply cost extra for the convenience of a crosstown trip.

One of the competing horsecar lines, the Metropolitan Street Railway Company, started using faster “steam dummies” in 1887.  A steam dummy was a small steam locomotive, disguised as a streetcar and towing a trailer for passengers behind it.  It was disguised, fancifully, to avoid disturbing the public and horses.  Notwithstanding the paneling and fake work, the horses and public just got used to the noise, smoke, and smell.  Steam dummies could travel a blistering 6-10 miles per hour through foot and horse traffic traveling at 3-4 miles per hour.  A revolutionary doubling of speed, if they could get out of the mire of downtown traffic.  Steam dummies were most appropriate for speculative routes into the countryside for exclusive access to yet undeveloped lands, such as the roads (Arkwright and Oakview) that curl along between Memorial and Dekalb Avenue between downtown Atlanta and Decatur today.

The next revolution in streetcars was getting the power supply off of the vehicle entirely. Electric streetcars; trolleys, came soon thereafter, with the first line running directly from downtown to Atlanta’s first commuter suburb, Inman Park by 1888.  By 1891, the six major horse, steam, and electric line merged into one Consolidated Railway Company, operating 50 miles of streetcar throughout the city.  By 1894, 44 of these 50 miles were converted to electric trolleys. The Trolleys were the first large scale consumer of electricity in Atlanta.  One of the first power plants for the trolleys was the hydroelectric dam across Peachtree Creek, next to Houston Mill Road.

By 1900, there were six major railroad lines running through Atlanta, converging in downtown.  Citizens got squashed with some regularity by the multi-ton trains running to and through downtown, which led to the raising of the streets by viaducts in the 1920s.  This was an expensive and disruptive operation, but it had to be done to manage the intersection of traffic, trains, horses, and people. To avoid the delay of going through all the rail switches near downtown, a “belt line” was completed in 1902 to allow through traffic to avoid downtown entirely.  The belt line was modeled on one built seven years earlier around the oldest railroad town in America, Baltimore.

Of course, the bicycle and the automobile were freer and more democratic ways of getting around town.  Bikes and automobiles were more dependent on smooth pavements than horses and foot traffic.  A rough surface is footing and purchase for a walker or trotter, but an obstacle for something rolling like a bike or a car.  Between 1900 and 1920, Atlanta worked to pave most of its streets.

With paving, Atlanta tried to control the traffic on those newly expensive streets.  When automobiles first came to Atlanta’s streets in the 1900s, they were novelties, then the sole province of the rich.  When they began to multiply, they became a nuisance, especially in their interactions, wrecks, and backups with the frequent train traffic moving through downtown.  In the 1910s, traffic policing was about control, with a significant number of Atlanta’s police doing duty as cornermen at every corner, writing tickets for moving violations and trying to punish the wayward into good behavior.

By 1930, the principle was efficiency and freedom of movement.  For cars.  The gas tax was adopted in Georgia by 1921 to pay for the cost of road building and maintenance in the state.  The automobile drivers rightly saw this as their purchase of the roads, and expected free movement among nothing but cars as a result.  If a particular stretch of road was congested, what were they paying gas taxes for except the addition of new lanes to clear that blockage out?

While a horse and wagon took up more space than a 20 foot truck does today, they were relatively rare in Atlanta and other cities.  The automobile had a footprint 13x as large as a bike, and 40 times as large as a walker.  And that was just parking at the curb.  Once they started driving cars around, each passenger and driver in a car took up much more space than the modest walkers and bikers or crowded trolleys.  All space in the road, between the curbs.  If a road gave up a lane to parking cars so people could visit that block, that was lane that could not be used for through traffic.

So they built parking garages instead of buildings downtown.  Dozens of dilapidated buildings at the edge of downtown were torn down and replaced with parking lots, just to accommodate parking. Sometimes the basement concrete was just left bare and cars parked there for their convenience.  The need for parking got even worse when the interstates came through, since everyone arriving downtown by car for a job needed a place to park their car.  So more garages had to be built.  Instead of building places people wanted to go, builders had to build first for parking, then for what people came downtown to see.

In the final push for a connected road network in the 1960s and 1970s, the Federal government offered a 90% match for local and state dollars to build the interstates.  When high-speed, divided highways were first conceived in the 1920s, they were thought of as a transcontinental, interstate and rural pursuit.  Not urban.  But urban mayors had different ideas about that sweet 90% federal match and construction jobs right in the center of their cities.  As early as 1955, the National Bureau of Roads drew the map of what Atlanta’s interstates would look like.  Unlike Baltimore, New Orleans, Memphis, Philadelphia and San Francisco, Atlanta got almost exactly what it asked for.

A final word about transit.  By the 1950s, planners began to mention the need for a heavy rail transit system to supplement and organize the congested streets and disparate trolleybuses of the time.   Much has been said about the the racist limitation of the Marta rail system to just Fulton and Dekalb counties, but I’d like to point out three more factors which should be understood if Marta is to succeed in the future.

  1. Marta rail is a commuter rail system with a small piece of urban service.  The spacing of most of the stations is more similar to BART in Metro San Francisco than MTA in New York.  The headways between the trains are not as long as in Philadelphia’s commuter rail (30 minutes at best on 150 year old rail rights of way), but nowhere near as good as on Washington’s Metro (as little as 2 minute headways during peak.
  2. A decade before Marta was ever built, Atlantans had already figured out that there were more jobs and thing in other suburbs than in downtown.  And yet Marta was designed as a edge-center system.  Right from the start, it was serving  declining demographic, as more Atlantans forgot about downtown Atlanta.  Except for the billions of dollars in rail and road infrastructure built to carry people from the suburbs to downtown, of course.
  3. Finally, the reason Marta rail still founders is that planners have not done anything in response to the presence of the station.  You can bet if Atlanta built a new highway like Ga 400, they would rezone the areas near the exits to enable more density, more commercial, and require more parking.  I can tell you from a lifetime within a ten minute walk of a Marta station that the most important thing was the defunct trolley stop, not the rail station.  Marta’s planners surrounded most stations with parking lots in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, since the function of transit was congestion management and mode switching, not land use.

Except it wasn’t.  There was money from the (precursor to the) Federal Transit Administration earmarked in the early 1970s for station area planning as part of developing the system.  That money fell through at a critical moment in the mid-1970s, and the stations had to persist surrounded by parking.  That potential is still largely untapped, Radial Cafe, Castleberry Hill, and the Universal Joint notwithstanding.  Try biking three miles from any Marta station to see how much more wlakable or bikable the the city could be.


(c. 1971 Boyd Lewis)

I’m not a big believer in the tyranny of the past to forever doom us to our wretched existence.  For the last two hundred years, Atlanta has been improving for most. If Atlanta wants to make walkable and bikable places, it can, it just needs to see the point and profit of it.

Friday, I’m going to take a minor detour into education, based on some lessons I’ve learned this month.

Wiki History
Atlanta History
History of Traffic
History of Streetcars
History of Gas Tax
BPR documents on Interstate Highways
Atlanta History Center (Pictures)