Why the BeltLine is so important to Atlantans

The still far-from-complete Atlanta BeltLine is one of the most discussed pieces of non-automotive infrastructure in the country. Two books have been written about its creation.1 A huge number of newspaper stories have also been devoted to it. Furthermore, hundreds of different organizations and individuals have produced websites that argue for (or occasionally against) the building of the BeltLine. Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. alone has compiled what may be the world’s most elaborate website for a single urban project. A Google search on “Atlanta BeltLine” (in quotes) comes up with 374,000 hits.2

For those who do not know, the BeltLine is a proposed 35-km recreational trail/light-rail line forming an oval around central Atlanta at a distance of very approximately between three and six kilometers from the city center.

The Atlanta BeltLine, MARTA rail, the Atlanta streetcar, and the road network of central Atlanta. Note that this map shows only a small part of a sprawling urban region. City limits are shown by a thin black line. Atlanta’s beltway, known as the Perimeter Highway or Interstate 285, is further out. GIS data from the BBBike.org and MetroExtracts versions of OpenStreetMap, somewhat modified

The BeltLine is being built mostly in the rights-of-way of abandoned railroads. The project has numerous goals, among which are: to provide recreational space in neighborhoods that need it; to provide non-automotive transportation in a city that’s as dependent on the automobile as any; to encourage redevelopment to focus on the central city rather than the region’s sprawling edge; and to provide some kind of connecting link among the disparate neighborhoods of central Atlanta. The BeltLine’s official motto is “Where Atlanta comes together.”

The two books about the BeltLine are quite different.

The first is by Ryan Gravel, whose 1999 master’s thesis is at the origin the movement to build the BeltLine (although it turns out that there were earlier proposals that weren’t completely different). Gravel attributes his vision of the BeltLine in part to an epiphany he had while participating in a Georgia Tech year-abroad program that took him to Paris in 1995. He writes as glowing a description of the traditional (that is, the cleaned-up late 19th-/early 20th-century Western European) city as anyone has ever penned.3 I’m sure he wouldn’t claim that building the BeltLine would make Atlanta anything like Paris, but he does imply that it would help alleviate at least a little of what’s wrong with the place: among other faults, its automobile dependence, its sprawl, and conceivably even its social cleavages.

The second book, by Mark Pendergrast, describes the history of the BeltLine in a more conventional way. You wouldn’t think it would take 327 pages to describe the history of an as-yet incomplete project, but the 2017 book is in fact not even quite up to date. BeltLine discussions have been occupying Atlanta’s politicians and journalists since the early 21st century and have been enormously complicated. Perhaps only a description of the travails of New York’s never built Westway would require as many pages.

Part of what Gravel and Pendergrast focus on is the political drama that has accompanied the establishment of the BeltLine. Very few Atlantans are willing to speak publicly against the BeltLine these days, but in the past, as in many places, residents of well-off neighborhoods were sometimes unenthusiastic about making it easier for residents of poorer neighborhoods to move around and either resisted the BeltLine openly or opposed funding. Open opposition may have faded away, but there have still been a number of recurrent issues that have impeded progress. Money has always been a problem.4 Even where the rail properties have been available, they have had to be purchased. Georgia is a conservative state whose legislators have often been quite hostile to its capital city, whose population makes up less than a tenth of the population of the Atlanta urban area and less than 5% of the state’s population. Thus, Atlanta has been pretty much on its own in garnering funding. There are also some fairly substantial structural issues. While parts of the BeltLine right-of-way have been easily available and present few construction issues, there is still rail traffic on others, while, in certain places, massive (and expensive) bridging or tunneling would be required to cross major active rail lines and highways. In addition, MARTA rail stops—set up in the 1970s and 1980s long before anyone had thought of the BeltLine—are almost all far from the four points where the BeltLine is supposed to cross MARTA rail. Then there is the fact that the light-rail component of the BeltLine has never been viewed quite as enthusiastically as the recreational-trail component. Most of the BeltLine’s right-of-way is, as you’d expect of an old railroad alignment, bordered by industrial or formerly industrial land. Population density is generally low. Few important destinations lie along the route. Could one really justify putting rail transit in such a corridor? The fact that Atlanta’s new streetcar line (a 4.3-km loop running mostly east of downtown) has turned out to be slower and less attractive to passengers than had been expected has not helped the case. Finally, there is the painful issue that, despite the BeltLine’s proponents’ hope that the BeltLine would somehow bring Atlantans together, gentrification along the completed Eastside segment of the BeltLine has undermined this goal. People like me would be inclined to argue that gentrification is a sure sign that the BeltLine is a great idea, but it’s been a red flag to some poorer Atlantans, who have probably in any case never been as interested in a recreational trail as their more well-off neighbors across town.

As of late 2017, the BeltLine recreational trail could be said to be maybe a quarter complete, although this very much depends on what one counts. There are finished segments on the Eastside (3.2 km) and in Northwest Atlanta (1.6 km). On the Westside maybe 5 km are open, but these are partly provisional stretches along roads rather than in the BeltLine corridor; a complicating factor is that some connecting Westside trails appear on BeltLine maps. Several additional segments, especially in southern and eastern Atlanta, are under construction (one opened after I’d written this text). There are also some parts of the right-of-way that are available for hiking, but these are still rather rough. Still, it really does seem as though much of the BeltLine recreational trail is well under way, although there remain some sections where intractable issues have prevented even the establishment of a formal construction plan. The projected parallel streetcar route remains very much part of the BeltLine plan, and space for it has been carefully left along some of the completed sections, but there has been absolutely no construction. There hasn’t even been the kind of preliminary engineering work that’s required for major projects these days. No one’s willing to say that the streetcar plan is unlikely ever to come to fruition, but it definitely looks far off.

I went and walked along the completed Eastside Trail, the Eastside stretch of the BeltLine, in late October. I was there twice, at midday and during the late afternoon on a beautiful weekday.

View toward the north end of the Atlanta BeltLine.

I was struck by several things. The trail is quite wide, fourteen feet (a little more than four meters). It is not striped at any point. The right-of-way is shared by cyclists, runners, and walking pedestrians, as well as a few rollerbladers and skateborders. This was less of a problem than one might have imagined, partly because the trail was not that crowded but chiefly because the proportion of walkers was higher than on any North American recreational trail that I’d ever been on. Cyclists simply weren’t numerous enough to be in a position to make walking uncomfortable, as happens on many shared rights-of-way. I don’t know whether things are different on weekends, but, it should be said that there may be few cyclists in part because the Eastside Trail is rather short, only 3.2 km, and doesn’t have an obvious commuting destination at either end.5 The Eastside Trail is now touted in Atlanta’s tourist literature as an important attraction, but it’s as yet a modest one. (The Westside parts of the trail, in difficult neighborhoods, are not mentioned in the tourist literature, and I was advised by the airport tourist office—the tourist office!—not to visit them alone.)

The question remains of why the BeltLine is of such enormous symbolic import to Atlantans.

An obvious answer is that Atlanta is strikingly short of recreational trails. Even with a completed BeltLine, the Atlanta urban area would have many fewer kilometers of recreational trails than, for example, the much smaller Denver urban area. This is especially significant given Atlanta’s success in attracting highly educated immigrants. For something like the last forty or fifty years, millions of mostly middle-class, highly-educated, urban Americans have spent great amounts of time bicycling, running, and walking. While these activities are possible just about anywhere, they are most comfortable on off-road recreational trails. This is particularly true in a place like Atlanta, where traffic and culture seem to discourage the use of ordinary streets and sidewalks for recreational activity.6 The BeltLine is fulfilling a long-delayed, genuine need.

There is also the fact that the BeltLine can be seen as a distinctive Atlanta-specific facility. Most of the new recreational trails that have captured the imagination of the inhabitants of the places where they’re located—and that have attracted funding most easily—give their users privileged access to distinctive local features. Thus, for example, the Lower Manhattan segments of the Hudson River Greenway provide views of the Hudson, of the Jersey City skyline, and of Lower Manhattan that would not otherwise be easily available, at least along a comfortable, linear, non-automotive facility. Atlanta’s virtues are not the same as New York’s, but the views of the row of skyscrapers along the Peachtree Street NE corridor that one can see from the Eastside Trail are pretty impressive and definitely remind trail users that they’re in Atlanta. Furthermore, while actual rails seem to have been preserved only for one trestle on the Eastside Trail, the trail’s topographic features—the embankments and culverts—connect users to the trail’s past and to Atlanta’s history as a railroad town.

There is also the BeltLine’s vague (and perhaps not completely coherent) goal of somehow bringing Atlanta together and possibly even reducing the area’s social and economic disparities, or at least not making them any worse. Ryan Gravel’s writings have hinted at this aim; official BeltLine literature concurs; and some of the legislation authorizing BeltLine expenditures has encouraged it as well. For example, the tax allocation district established to provide some BeltLine funding was mandated to provide a certain number of affordable housing units to offset BeltLine-related gentrification. Its failure to accomplish this even caused Ryan Gravel to resign from the BeltLine Partnership board in 2016.7 It’s certainly arguable that the hope that the BeltLine would do anything to lessen the gap between Atlanta’s richer and poorer neighborhoods in any way except literally was somewhat naive. Other cities—Chicago and Washington, for example—have managed to build vastly larger networks of recreational trails that take one through economically and racially diverse neighborhoods, but, so far as I know, no one’s ever argued that building these trails would lessen the very real divides among them. The trails do encourage movement between these neighborhoods. In Chicago, for example, many middle-class, white people are perfectly willing to use the Lakefront Trail between Hyde Park and the Loop, at least when it’s busy, even though they’d hesitate to walk or bicycle through some of the relatively poor, African-American neighborhoods just across Lake Shore Drive, and it’s possible that residents of the poorer South Side are encouraged by the presence of the Lakefront Trail to explore the North Side. This isn’t a meaningless exchange, but it doesn’t do anything to reduce the social and economic gulf between high- and low-status neighborhoods. It’s a little unclear why the BeltLine has had to take on this enormous—and perhaps impossible—task either. But the BeltLine’s goal of somehow bringing Atlantans together is clearly important to many people and is of course built into its distinctive geography. A circle weaving through very different neighborhoods is itself a powerful symbol, and its appeal is almost certainly one of the reasons that the BeltLine has so much symbolic weight and is actually getting built.

  1. (1) Ryan Gravel. Where we want to live : reclaiming infrastructure for a new generation of cities. New York : St. Martins Press, 2016. (2) Mark Pendergrast. City on the verge : Atlanta and the fight for America’s urban future. New York : Basic Books, 2017.
  2. A similar search on “New York High Line” gets 306,000 hits. This is, admittedly, not quite a fair comparison since “Atlanta BeltLine” is more or less the formal name of the facility, while “New York High Line” isn’t.
  3. Gravel (see footnote 1), especially pages 1-12.
  4. One factor that I haven’t seen discussed is that Atlanta’s physical geography has made it difficult to build recreational trails there. Many North American urban areas created substantial off-road recreational trails years ago, most often along watercourses or waterfronts where it was possible not only to build cheaply without encountering a large number of cross streets but also to furnish trail users with views that focused on landscape elements that were special to a particular place. Atlanta of course has no waterfront, and its watercourses tend to be modest and typically lack floodplains. Atlanta does have a history as a center of railroading, which left a legacy of numerous abandoned, little-used, or unnecessarily wide railroad rights-of-way. Several segments of MARTA rail’s first lines, built in the 1970s and 1980s, follow these rail rights-of-way (hence, unfortunately, bypassing some important commercial nodes), but MARTA had more money to purchase the land than the proponents of the BeltLine have ever had.
  5. At approximately 1.5 km from its northern end, the Eastside Trail does pass by Ponce City Market, a massive former Sears facility that’s become an important shopping center and office and apartment building. Also, its northern terminus is more or less across the street from Atlanta’s largest urban park, Piedmont Park, which could easily be a destination for some recreational users.
  6. See my comments in an earlier post.
  7. Pendergrast (see footnote 1), pages 274-275.
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