‘Pray for Transit’: Seeking Transportation Justice in Metropolitan Atlanta

‘Pray for Transit’: Seeking Transportation Justice in Metropolitan Atlanta


Written by:

Alex Karner and Richard Duckworth

First Published:

23 Aug 2018, 3:10 am

‘Pray for Transit’: Seeking Transportation Justice in Metropolitan Atlanta


Transportation equity is an emerging academic subfield that examines questions of fairness and justice in transportation infrastructure planning and decision-making. Our new article in Urban Studies investigates the extraordinary case of Clayton County, Georgia, where a coalition of everyday transit users, elected officials, non-profit organizations, faith community leaders, and regular residents came together to successfully demand new public transit service after their entire local bus network was eliminated in 2010 by a county commission facing budget pressures.


This transportation equity case is unique in some ways but also provides broader lessons for researchers examining related questions. Located in the south of the Atlanta metropolitan region, Clayton County became increasingly Black and low-income beginning in the 1970s while the economic center of the region shifted northward. This demographic shift made public transit a necessity and bus service began in the county in 2001. When that service was eliminated in 2010, the injustice was clear–low-income and other transit dependent populations immediately suffered quality of life impacts as they were unable to access essential services. The pro-transit coalition emerged almost immediately and pursued a sustained effort to reestablish service. Coalition members held meetings, prayer vigils, and regularly attended county commission meetings to focus the attention of decision makers on the transit issue.


The coalition’s effectiveness presents a challenge to most existing studies of large-scale urban transportation infrastructure development. That work typically focuses on the necessity of coalitions composed of governments and big business to marshal resources and achieve key outcomes. The Clayton County case shows that coalitions backed by non-government and non-business entities can also organize to make large-scale changes under the right circumstances. Clayton County advocates were further aided by the existence of a regional transit agency—in this case the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA)—who was waiting to accept them with open arms. Other locales with substantial disadvantaged populations may not be able to appeal to a regional agency that has the capacity to provide service. This is the case in metropolitan Detroit, where efforts aimed at creating regional transit solutions have repeatedly failed.  


A final point relates to the inherent limitations of relying on legal strategies to achieve just outcomes. Most other transportation equity “wins” in the United States have come about because of legal and administrative challenges that rely on civil rights law to allege discrimination. These cases often face very high burdens of proof and are rarely successful. Further, the elimination of all service within a single jurisdiction would not be considered discriminatory under current legal frameworks. They are designed instead to deal with more common cases involving smaller packages of cuts or one-off improvements.


Clayton County’s success provides some cause for optimism related to the further expansion of regional transit in Atlanta. Gwinnett County in particular is the next logical candidate for MARTA membership. It has been growing increasingly diverse over time and there is some local political support for regional transit integration. The state legislature has also passed legislation that lowers the bar for additional counties to opt into a regional system. Keeping an eye on non-traditional coalitions and working at the regional scale will likely lead researchers to identify emerging transportation equity successes in the United States and elsewhere.


Read the paper on Urban Studies – Online First here