Natural Resources Defense Council: Lessons from Atlanta on First and Last Mile Connections

November 5, 2015

By Logan Sand, Intern, Natural Resources Defense Council

The existing and expanding transit system in the Denver region will only be successful if all residents can easily and safely access the station areas. Many of the RTD stations are lacking critical infrastructure and connections to meet the needs of residents. Addressing these First and Last Mile Connections (FLMC) deficiencies are an important part of the Mile High Connects work plan. FLMC refers to the facilities, infrastructure, and services that allow people to get from their front door to their final destination via transit without driving a personal vehicle. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) conducted national research, resulting in three case studies that examine innovative ideas, replicable models, and collaborative partnerships to consider in the Denver region. The first body of research and case study takes place in Atlanta, GA.

In 2013, the spread out Sun Belt city of Atlanta was coined the “Sultan of Sprawl”. Ineffective and disconnected mass transit correlated to nationally recognized issues around social immobility. The mere separations and distances between rich and poor neighborhoods represented a faltering urban and suburban social fabric of the otherwise “economically thriving” region. Low-income and communities of color suffered the most from the transit system gaps and inefficiencies. After being subjected to some negative attention and publicity the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), the City of Atlanta, and the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) have tightened individual and collaborative efforts to improve FLMC strategies, programs, and policies.

MARTA recently dedicated $550,000 to last mile improvements at 26 identified stations that include: $100,000 for bike parking, $150,000 for curb channels to move bikes up stairwells, $150,000 for pedestrian accessibility improvements, and $150,000 for wind shelters. In early 2013, MARTA launched a new transit¬-oriented development program that converted excess parking lots into strategic and desirable real estate. Included in the transit-oriented development (TOD) policies, 20 percent of new development or redevelopment was allocated to affordable housing. The City of Atlanta took the lead on planning, designing, and implementing the Atlanta Streetcar. The Atlanta Streetcar began operating in December 2014 with the purpose to connect east and west downtown Atlanta, and serve as a compliment to local and regional transportation systems. While these developments are having positive impacts, they have not solved Atlanta’s infrastructure problems.

ARC addresses regional poverty through policies and equity performance measures in the regional plan. The Livable Centers Initiative (LCI) is ARC’s competitive planning grant program. As part of LCI, ARC created the Equitable Target Area (ETA) Index to address environmental justice issues in the region. ETAs are based on five demographic and socioeconomic parameters to facilitate project prioritization and evaluation, resource allocation, and regional and local decision-making. ETA analyses are used in LCI applications for proposals and project submissions, and also to subsequently assist in ARC’s grantmaking decisions. ARC also participates in the TransFormation Alliance to partner with nonprofits, developers, banks, transit providers and government agencies committed to forging innovative solutions that address issues of economic vitality, job creation, equity and opportunity within a framework of well-planned TOD. The Poverty, Equity, and Opportunity Committee of the TransFormation Alliance is tasked with developing a strategic inventory of organizations working to address poverty in the region through policy development. The committee cultivates web-based tools and fact sheets that show key indicators related to poverty by county.

As Denver moves forward, several useful recommendations can be distilled from the Atlanta case study. DRCOG should create a working committee similar to that of the TransFormation Alliance’s Equity and Poverty Committee. Tracking regional work around poverty and equity is not only important as a general best practice, but this will also broaden and strengthen relationships and partnerships with local jurisdictions, nonprofits, and community-based organizations. Denver’s planners and policymakers need to leverage the Regional Equity Atlas to develop Equitable Target Areas for prioritizing equitable projects. The current DRCOG and Mile High Connects (MHC) Regional Equity Atlas is already a useful public resource, so let’s put it to better use. DRCOG needs to develop a funding program more comparable to the LCI. DRCOG’s current Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) funds studies on land use and housing infrastructure issues around transit and activity centers. Additional designated funding for infrastructure improvements in these TIP areas would provide significant benefit. Lastly, as Denver approaches securing a future Better Denver Bond Program, capital projects and investments should have an explicit emphasis on FLMC strategies, policies and transit-supportive infrastructure. Atlanta has by no means “fixed” the problem of connecting people through transit. However, they have made some positive strides from which planning professionals and decision-makers in Denver can learn.