Transit ridership, especially rail, has collapsed post-pandemic, but the Atlanta BeltLine Coalition says now is the time to take federal dollars and build a $2.5 billion streetcar.
Twenty-three years ago, Atlanta-native and architecture and urban planning student Ryan Gravel had an experience that opened his mind to what urban living could be.
“My senior year I spent abroad in Paris and lived without a car for a year and traveled by train everywhere,” says Gravel. “And within a month of arriving, I had lost 15 pounds. I was in the best shape of my life because I was walking everywhere, and the role of the physical city was made clear to me in a way it really had never been before.”
For his Georgia Tech master’s thesis, Gravel sketched out a plan to make Atlanta more like Paris. He proposed redeveloping the land along the city’s historic rail lines to create a 22-mile loop called the Atlanta BeltLine. He proposed turning the city’s abandoned industrial areas and single-family home neighborhoods into business districts and walking trails. And he proposed connecting downtown to the rest of the city all with a new train running along the entire Atlanta BeltLine.
“I never imagined we would actually do it,” says Gravel.
But they did—for the most part. Cathy Woolard, who was president of the Atlanta City Council, read Gravel’s thesis and decided to use it as a blueprint to remake much of the city. Today, the Atlanta BeltLine is a walking and biking trail, parts of which are bordered by retail and condos.
But one piece of Gravel’s grand vision didn’t get built: The train.
Today, Gravel runs a co-working and event space along the BeltLine, which also serves as a gathering place for urbanists interested in making Atlanta less dependent on cars. He says that the train line is essential for improving city life.
“In those early days, when we built the movement behind the [BeltLine] project, it was around transit,” says Gravel.
The three COVID relief bills set aside $69 billion in federal funding for local transit agencies to operate and add to their transportation systems, meaning that Atlanta might finally get its train—with many American taxpayers who will never step foot on it picking up much of the tab.
Many American cities have used federal money in the past to build rail transit lines that suffer from dismal ridership, that are expensive to maintain, and that are a major drain on their budgets.
Produced by Zach Weissmueller; edited by Danielle Thompson; additional graphics by Isaac Reese; camera by David Lyman; production assistance by Addie Mae.
Music: “Sur Le Manège” by Francesco D’Andrea via Artlist; “Poligon” by Crazy Paris via Artlist; “XIII” by Angel Salazar via Artlist; “Manhattan” by Will Van De Crommert via Artlist; “Blink: by Swirling Ship via Artlist; “Sunrise City” by Sebastian Borromeo via Artlist; “Cold War” by Maya Pacziga via Artlist; “cdHiddenDir” by Out of Flux via Artlist; “Attracting Drama” by Rhythm Scott via Artlist; “Always Ready” by Rhythm Scott via Artlist; “The Woodworks” by Jacob Kinstle via Artlist; “Happy on My Own” by Kyle Cox via Artlist
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