King Williams: Decrease Our Car Dependency

There I was, a 17-year-old version of myself, hands sweatily clinging to 10 and 2, staring straight through a windshield in the Moreland Shopping Center parking lot. Adjusting my mirrors and quickly scanning through a bunch of knowledge in my overburdened teenage head, I made the harrowing 20-minute trip.

A driver’s license. For so many people growing up in Atlanta, a car meant freedom. At long last, I was ready to exercise that freedom.

Eventually, though, I grew up and realized a greater truth. Ten years later, I spent some time in New York City, enjoying all that its public transit had to offer, and learned just how wrong we were here. In order for Atlanta to become a true world-class city, it has to free itself of automobile dependency. If we’re going to be a city for everyone, multimodal living is the answer. 

Atlanta has to facilitate greater physical accessibility for people from every age of life, for those able-bodied or with a disability, from birth to death. Our city must be accessible in its physical design for anyone, regardless of physical need—no excuses. If we can pull this off, other things will follow, ultimately creating a place where it’s possible for people to spend their entire lives happily.

But in order to get there, we need to think about how we got here.

Decades of suburban sprawl have left ATL lacking in high-density neighborhoods, streetlights, sidewalks, and public transit. All of these are design choices, choices that emphasize car ownership and decrease quality of life. The car-first model of suburban design was emboldened by the isolationist and segregationist ideas of the 1950s-present. Everyone in the suburbs is a king or queen of their respective castles, but to live like this requires being away from other people.

How do we start undoing all these decades of poor decision-making inspired by greed and racism? One huge first step would be to decrease our reliance on automobiles.

According to Atlanta’s 2021 census data, 5.4% of our population is five years old or younger, 18.3% is aged 6-17, and 11.5% is 65 or older. Put another way, around 35% of our population doesn’t drive or won’t be driving soon. It shouldn’t be difficult to age-in-place in a major American city. Solving the needs of autonomy for these folks should be high on our list.

Atlanta is getting both younger and older as it continues to grow, which only exacerbates this issue. One clear answer is going multimodal with our transit. This means expanding our walkways, building out citywide bike lanes, making the BeltLine live up to its potential, and expanding bus service to where it’s actually needed. When the car is only one option of many, many more can be served.

Without a personal vehicle, most of Atlanta is very nearly inaccessible. If you depend on MARTA, the time, transfers, and availability of routes might leave you stuck. If you go rideshare, the price and inconsistency of experience might force your hand toward car dependency. This situation also clusters economic growth around places that are already built for multi-modality such as Buckhead, Midtown, and downtown Decatur.

Let’s take a page from the late Jeff Parker’s $100 billion dollar mass transit plan from 2019. In this scenario, MARTA is expanded inside and outside of I-285 to a level that will facilitate future stability, plus unlock new economic growth. As Andisheh Nouraee wrote in the first installment of How I’d Fix Atlanta, it’s big ideas such as this that are “an invitation to wish for a better future for Atlanta by loosening the past and present’s grip on our civic potential. Before we can demand it, we have to imagine it.” 

Believe it or not, Atlanta originally had a proper grid system. It was also a hub of public transit that, from the late 1800s through the 1940s, included more streetcar lines than San Francisco. So, what happened? A love affair with highways, proliferating car culture, the ongoing influence of racism: all of the above and more led to ATL’s departure from the grid. As a result, Atlanta’s highways deliberately cut through historically black areas of the city but also cut the city itself in half, destroying its grid and general accessibility in the process.

Going back to our streetcar roots would be an exciting way to decrease car dependency. Why not create a unified interior transit system that includes the BeltLine, MARTA, and the Atlanta Streetcar as one coherent experience? Let’s go big and leave the cars at home.

If there’s one thing Atlanta has, it’s ideas. But you know what they say about best-laid plans. It’s time we actually start implementing them—or at least uniting the most tenable parts of them into something resembling a unified master plan. That means getting aggressive with a hyper-local focus, using the Department of City Planning’s goals as a framework.

It’s perhaps telling that the man responsible for coming up with some of ATL’s best plans—former planning commissioner Tim Keane—recently decided to leave his job with the city.

His parting words sound like a dire warning. “With the amount of growth, the scale of growth, and the pace of growth in Atlanta, it’s an emergency situation,” Keane told Axios Atlanta. “There are things we know that are critical that are urgent. Let’s deal with those.”

We should supplement the goals Keane laid out during his time here with larger regional goals within the Atlanta Regional Commission’s 2040 plan. That would include adding in the Complete Streets project, Auburn Avenue master plan, expanding MARTA and the streetcar, plus adding rail to the BeltLine. Georgia Tech, Georgia State, The AUC, and Emory all have separate master plans—why aren’t they working together? The list goes on.

Atlanta’s biggest problem might just be our car dependency, but it’s exacerbated by all these plans that are underutilized and siloed, all the suburban sprawl, the transportation system that can’t quite thrive as it should. As we find ways to stop relying on cars to move our people, our city’s evolution will follow suit.

The future of Atlanta must be a unified one, a city that works for everyone, where they can age in place. Right now, we’re sweaty teenagers who think we’ve got it all figured out. But we need to upgrade our expectations and learn from other cities doing it right, just like when young me realized how much I’d yet to learn. Only then will we know true freedom.

King Williams

King Williams is an Atlanta journalist and documentary filmmaker. He hosts two podcasts, The King Williams Show and The Neighborhood Watch. His documentary, The Atlanta Way: A Story of Gentrification, comes out later this year.