BeltLine Rail Now! Match MARTA to our Mental Model of Atlanta

Let’s not reinvent the wheel. Can we leverage how we already think about Atlanta to build our dream transit system of the future?

Atlanta is on the verge of its largest transit investment in history. On October 4th, “MARTA’s board of directors is expected to vote on a plan to expand the city’s transit network by way of roughly $2.5 billion in tax funds, to be spent over the next four decades.

The current proposal is ambitious—if implemented well, it’s surely going to be a more robust and accessible system compared to what we have today. I assumed that the design of the More MARTA plan was born from a cross-functional team of hard-working government officials, city planners, and transit experts. Probably the opinions of a few local industry tycoons were taken into consideration as well. And. allegedly, the list of projects was prioritized by “Atlantans like you.” MARTA is even soliciting additional feedback in the form of an open survey (kudos!).

But, while all these opinions and expertise are important, I wonder if anyone is looking at the usability and understandability of the system as a whole? Because right now, the plan looks a little bit like spaghetti.

Sure, many cities with established transit systems look like spaghetti. Like New York and London:

Blur your eyes when looking at the systems above and all the lines sort of mush together. Sure, you can “get anywhere”—if you know what you are doing. But how user-friendly are these thorough-yet-chaotic webs? Could an expert rider napkin-sketch the system to a visitor, explaining the “basics” in a few minutes? Are there any “basics”?

Not all big cities with popular transit systems are a tangled tapestry. Some of the most easy to use and least intimidating systems all have something in common: a circle around the city center. Chicago has “The Loop”, Berlin has the Ringbahn, and Kraków has the Planty Park pedestrian path, encircled by trams.

This hub and spoke design (which I wrote about in 2017) is simple to understand and efficient. Atlanta is perfectly set up to mimic this design and capitalize on its easy of use. We already think of Atlanta like circle with crossbars.

  • We have the outer loop of Interstate 285, “The Perimeter.” It’s common lingo to talk about living and working ITP (inside the Perimeter), OTP (outside the Perimeter), or ATP (around the Perimeter).
  • We have Interstate 75/85 that runs North/South directly through the middle of our city. MARTA’s Red and Gold rail lines roughly mirror and reinforce this North/South backbone.
  • We have Interstate 20 and MARTA’s Blue/Green rail lines that intersect the vertical channel, creating a distinct cross.
  • Now we have the BeltLine, our transformational inner loop, currently a really wonderful sidewalk. Its planned 22 miles of connectivity is almost the exact same circumference as Berlin’s Ringbahn (23.3 miles). And of course, Ryan Gravel’s original idea was always to line the pedestrian and bike path with light rail.

But now, this original vision, a vision that many Atlantans have come to share, is in jeopardy. The More MARTA plan only graces ~30% of the BeltLine with light rail. Gravel himself has been actively criticizing the plan on Twitter with the hashtag #twothirdsnotserved (and he’s created some compelling pizza visuals to state his case).

original tweet here: https://twitter.com/ryangravel/status/1033756336432062464

I agree with Ryan and everything he argues about proper tax allocation and equity. But my argument (and proposal) comes from a different angle: system design and usability.

Based on the previous truisms bulleted above, here’s my “napkin sketch” of existing mental model of Atlanta. This should be immediately recognizable to most Atlantans.

My Proposal: Build World Class Transit atop Current Understanding

This hub and spoke design works and it’s how we already think about the city. Why reinvent the wheel? My proposal is in orange: line the BeltLine with transit and add four lateral lines that stitch East and West neighborhoods and parks.

My Proposal: Beltline rail and four east/west lines.

A) Lindbergh Connection: Connect Upper Westside to Peachtree Hills to Lindbergh Station to North Druid Hills.

B) North Avenue Connection: Connect Reservoir Park (Bankhead) to North Avenue Station to Ponce City Market (Virginia Highlands) and up to Druid Hills and Emory. (Yup, just like proposed North Ave Hollowell BRT.)

C) West End Connection: Connect Westview (Lionel Hampton Park) to West End Station to Summerhill (Old Turner Field) to Grant Park to East Atlanta.

D) Oakland City Connection: Connect Cascade Springs Park (down to Campbellton Road) to Oakland City Station to Pittsburgh/Capitol View to Chosewood Park and all the way down to the Drive-in.

E) Build the full BeltLine light rail loop! (Such a no-duh.)

Routes A-D are conceptual rough drafts. I have not conducted a formal right-of-way study, but here’s some more detailed thinking on which roads we could put on a car-diet in favor of a dedicated lane for street cars or BRT. I’ve also illustrated where these East/West lines would touch the BeltLine. Stations at these points would allow easy to and from the inner loop.

Eventually, A-D lines would connect to I-285. Provide safe parking at these terminal stations and allow OTP commuters to transfer to rail before entering the city with their big stinky cars.

Usability Needs to be a Priority

If MARTA could accomplish these five big projects while also helping out riders with “last mile” connectivity, we’d have a world class connected transit system that is elegantly simple to understand. And let’s be honest. To get Atlantans to stop driving and start taking more public transit, we must reduce any barriers to entry. For a population with deep-seeded car-centric habits, we’ll need this to be a system that you can pick up and just start using.

Found and Lead UXer at Rewired. Speaker on object-oriented UX. Recovering perfectionist.