Ah, Atlanta. The city where I was born, and the city where I now live.

Atlanta has many nicknames, but recently I’ve started hearing people refer to it as the “New York of the South.” It drives me nuts.

Hearing this nickname gives me the ick (TL;DR it sounds snobbish), but it also doesn’t make any sense to me. Atlanta has very little in common with New York. This is true for many reasons, but the first one that immediately comes to mind is how differently the two cities are built and how people get around them.

New York City is perhaps the only place in the United States where you can feasibly (and easily) live without owning a car. In fact, it’s probably more convenient to not own a car for most places in NYC. Sure, parking is expensive, but the biggest reason why so many New Yorkers forgo car ownership is simply because the city’s built environment makes it unnecessary.

New York is the most densely populated city in the US. The only other big US city that comes close to touching it is San Francisco, and even it isn’t that close. New York has (by North American standards) exceptional public transit, and a very high walk score of 88, meaning most errands can be accomplished on foot.

Atlanta, on the other hand. Well…

Atlanta is a sprawling metro area spread across five to 11 counties, depending on who you ask. Unless you live in some particular neighborhoods in the city core like Midtown or Inman Park, it is damn-near impossible to accomplish any errands without a car. Atlanta’s walk score is 48, and, I shit you not, 25% of Downtown Atlanta is literally parking.

We do have MARTA, the rapid transit authority servicing the metro area through a combination of trains, buses, and one humble streetcar, but as a whole, public transit in Atlanta is woefully inadequate for a city of its size.

Atlanta is a car city, making it a nightmare to get around. But that’s not to say everyone is fine with keeping things the status quo.

ATLiens love the walkability of the BeltLine, and they will love its planned light rail, too

If you’ve ever played tourist in Atlanta, you have probably visited the BeltLine. The BeltLine is a series of over 20 miles of walking trails that, when complete, will encircle the entire city. It’s loved by locals and visitors alike and has been called “a staggeringly ambitious engine of urban revitalization” by the New York Times (gift link).

It’s an ongoing project envisioned by urban designer Ryan Gravel, who originally dreamed up the BeltLine in his 1999 Master’s thesis as a loop of walking trails and light rail. Transit enthusiasts (read: people who don’t want to waste their lives inching across town in a metal box for hours each week) have long been cautiously optimistic about the second part of that vision, but it looks like it’s finally going to happen.

As of this past October, MARTA surveyors started walking the BeltLine as a first step in engineering and building light rail transit on the eastside part of the loop. For many — myself included — news that light rail would finally be coming to the BeltLine was cause for giddiness. I mean, look at these renderings.

An artist's rendering of what the finished light rail project will look like on the BeltLine. Pedestrians walk along a footpath past restaurants with outdoor patio seating while a tram rolls past on grassy train tracks.

Gorgeous, right? What is this, Finland?!

I kid, but the images truly are exciting and do evoke images of real-life light rail lines you would encounter in, well, lots of other countries. The Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. website shows example photos from different cities and towns in France, but plenty of other places like the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, and, yes, Finland have similar transit systems.

The ‘Dutch Dream’ comes to Atlanta — well, sort of

Americans want transit systems like this, and overall there seems to be an encouraging trend of more of us waking up to the hellish reality of the transit and urban design landscape we all seem to be trapped in. I’ve even started seeing people half-jokingly post on social media about ditching the American Dream for the “Dutch Dream,” one in which kids can safely bike to school and you can get pretty much anywhere on fast, convenient, affordable, and safe public transit.

Just take it from the popular YouTube channel Not Just Bikes, run by a Canadian guy who immigrated to the Netherlands with his family to chase the so-called Dutch Dream. One of his most recent videos was filmed in Germany, and it will

give you second thoughts about one day owning a single-family home in the burbs so you can drive a gas-guzzling SUV an hour each way to work.

Transit expansion projects like the one MARTA is about to begin with the BeltLine seem too good to be true in the US. And while that’s sad considering that comparable and even superior transit options are not uncommon in many other developed countries, it’s a cause for hope that things can get better here.

Atlanta is very lucky to have visionaries among us like Ryan Gravel and the others involved with the BeltLine project who are working to make increased walkability and better transit a reality in our city. Maybe one day we’ll create our own version of the Dutch Dream, but for now, we’ll at least catch a glimpse of it.

Every party has a pooper

Growing up in Metro Atlanta and living here most of my life, this does feel like a “pinch me, I’m dreaming” kind of moment for the city. That isn’t to say the BeltLine isn’t without its own set of legitimate problems (gentrification and inequity being some big ones), but compared to the status quo of harrowing traffic and soul-sucking urban sprawl, it is a breath of fresh air.

This is why I was so pissed, frankly, to see that the light rail project — which, to reiterate, has been the plan for the BeltLine since its inception — has attracted the ire of a local NIMBY group called Better Atlanta Transit. A few months ago, I noticed some signs near Krog Street Market opposing light rail on the BeltLine, and just a few weeks ago The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a second story about them (paywall).

Honestly, I was concerned to see this. NIMBYism has become a serious hindrance to renewable energy projects around the country, for example — even from people who are otherwise big fans of renewable energy, so long as it’s in someone else’s backyard.

It’s true that these cases aren’t always as simple as a bunch of grouches wanting to rain on everyone’s parade (I’ve covered NIMBYs that have some legitimate concerns), but in the case of light rail on the BeltLine, it seems pretty clear that some well-to-do cranks got their panties in a wad.

I tried to take a step back and keep an open mind. Like I said, these issues can be complex, and there are some groups opposed to sustainable infrastructure projects like light rail with very legitimate concerns.

That sentiment kind of fell apart when I perused their website and read one of their objections being the questionable relevance of transit projects like light rail in the age of Lime scooters and autonomous vehicles, which, everyone knows is going great. I wish I were kidding.

A screenshot reads 'Are we betting on a technology of the past?' that suggests light rail would not be popular due to more recent technology like e-scooters and autonomous vehicles.

As is so typical in these cases, the group even cynically co-opts language used by proponents of good urbanism and public transit to advance their own wrong-headed thinking. Even its name, Better Atlanta Transit, sounds like a group that would be for advancing public transit.

The whole website has the same kind of uncanny valley feel you get from questionable think tanks. You know, the kind with names like “Americans for Freedom” that really just exist to hawk talking points from weapons manufacturers or tobacco companies.

The “About us” page on their website lists their founding advisory board members, but only their names. I can’t say for certain that it’s the same person, but one of these people has the same name as a certain dot-com era businessman turned “new urbanist” private town developer turned climate denier and — wait for it — COVID anti-vaxxer, a kind of tired character arc that has sadly become a trope.

Anyway.

It looks like light rail is in the clear…?

Why must people like these always emerge from some crack in the earth to ruin everyone’s fun? I guess we’ll never know, but I suspect it has something to do with greed.

Thankfully, in this case it seems that (knock on wood) plans are moving forward to build light rail along the BeltLine, despite some cranks throwing money at a lackluster campaign to sway public opinion against it. And that’s a really good thing.

Atlantans deserve so much better than the horrific web of seven-lane highways and crisscrossing interchanges and all the traffic and, yeah, death and injury and unhappiness that they cause. Hopefully, we can be an inspiration to other cities around the country to change for the better in this regard.

Until next time.