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Making Sense of Atlanta's Mixed Messages on Transit

In the past month or so, we've reported both the heralding of Atlanta as a bastion of public transit and lamented the (numerous) shortcomings of our public transit options. It's confusing, right? Well now, a fortuitously timed analysis of major American cities and their usage of public transportation sheds light on why Atlanta can simultaneously be praised and rebuked. The study, completed by an Atlantan with a penchant for interactive infographic production, weighs population density against per capita public transit use in every U.S. city with more than 1 million residents. The manipulable charts offer an understanding of just how we excel according to one metric while floundering in others. And the sources for all of this scrumptious data appear to be solid.

Atlanta has a sizable population, with most methods of ranking placing us among the top 10 largest cities in the country. Atlanta is also characterized by sprawl, distinguishing us from the majority of our peers with whom we share the list. Therefore, when compared with the denser urban areas of the country, our public transit usage looks paltry. But compare us with other cities with low densities and all of a sudden we're looking dandy.

The first chart compares per capita trips in various cities. While Atlanta is fairly middle of the road, with .07 daily trips per capita, when compared to cities of similar density, we come close to leading the pack. However, this defense does neglect the fact that we're among the most-populous, least-dense cities; therefore, we have to understand that our lack of deployment of a comprehensive system has a bigger impact over a larger area and more people than in, say, Oklahoma City. The second graphic is an interactive plot which basically demonstrates what all that means.

The third chart offers a slightly disheartening statistic. Interestingly, even as the population of Atlanta has grown over the last decade, the overall usage in transit has decreased a startling 9 percent. While the analysis offers no clear explanation of the data, it is important to note that many metro transportation networks pared down service during the Recession, with C-Tran even becoming defunct.

While a scaling back of public transit service is a troubling way to look at the information, on the positive side of things the decrease in ridership has coincided with a densification of the core of the city. The reurbanization of inner-city Atlanta has increased walkability and bikeability for the segment of the population that has moved to the core, therefore reducing their reliance on public transit. In reality, there is likely some of both factors playing into the numbers, though without doing a lot more research it is hard to demonstrate correlation and causation. Who's up for that task?

If nothing else, the post offers an interesting analysis of just how Atlanta stacks up in the public transit game. And a good work distraction with those fun, colorful graphs. Is that your boss staring over your shoulder, you urbanophile? Get back to work …

· Public Transit: All About Density [Numbers Box]