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For MARTA Improvements, Do We Have To Think Big?

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Last week, the Midtown Alliance posted early concept images of their plans for putting $80K of ARC grant money to use transforming the district's three MARTA stations. The posted brief lists the project goals as largely experiential — improving "a visitor's first impression" and "user-experience at each station" so that the "convenience of transit in Midtown" is no longer "undermined by lackluster conditions."
Certainly, it's hard to argue against Transit Oriented Development in the general sense — if the plans are successful, they could transform Midtown's stations from mere fixtures along MARTA's north-south line to nodes of activity along the way. But do these improvements, which have been called by online commenters superficial and unnecessary, stand a chance of having a more significant impact? Could they increase MARTA ridership or contribute to economic improvement in the area?

By giving people in Midtown more of a reason to use the areas immediately surrounding the stations, it's likely that they'll be safer and better maintained. In addition — according to a 2008 paper by Georgia Tech architecture students that examined, in part, MARTA station accessibility — "lively walkable environments around transit stations" increase the likelihood of transit usage. This 2003 study from the Journal of Public Transportation, conducted in Australia, underlines the importance of "qualitative factors (convenience, comfort, and prestige)" in capturing the patronage of "discretionary" passengers:

"In a modern, affluent society consumers are accustomed to high quality goods and services. Most travelers place a high value on comfort, convenience, and reliability. Motorists are able to express these values by paying extra for more luxurious vehicles, more convenient parking, and sometimes higher quality toll roads. In contrast, individual transit passengers are generally unable to purchase higher quality service. As a result, transit does not satisfy travelers willing to pay extra for higher service quality — so they generally shift to driving. Ultimately everybody loses, since consumer demand is unmet, transit ridership declines, transit becomes stigmatized, and traffic problems increase. This is actually good news because it indicates that there are many cost-effective ways to improve transit service quality and increase ridership that tend to be overlooked. Many transit comfort and convenience improvements are relatively inexpensive and provide additional benefits such as improved walking conditions, improved mobility for non-drivers, and support for more compact, smart growth development."

Though a 2009 thesis by Tech graduate student Kaleah De'Nay Lambert found that commercial and residential development around MARTA stations has done little to increase area property values as of yet, a 2001 publication by The Great American Station Foundation argues, "Rail station revitalization can, in fact, provide a significant economic benefit to the surrounding community. Station development projects that improve multimodal accessibility and increase passenger usage of transportation services can produce increase in jobs, household income, property values, and property taxes in the community." The study defines "station revitalization" as that which directly improves the transportation system — yes, amping up convenience and the convergence of multiple modes of transit, but also (for smaller markets) increasing the visibility of the transit system itself, as a viable alternative to the automobile, within the urban fabric.

— By Curbed Atlanta contributor Sarah Beth McKay
· A Pre-TSPLOST retrospective on the MARTA mess [Atlanta Magazine]
·MARTA riders love Atlanta more [AJC]