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Black Atlantans Stranded by Legacy of Inequality (Part 2 of 3)

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ATLANTA, GA As Atlanta goes green and sustainable, the city's African American population finds itself left on the side of the road because of residential segregation, inadequate public transportation, location of major job centers, and persistent inequality. The State of Black Atlanta Summit 2010 raised a number of issues, challenges, barriers, and opportunities facing Black Atlanta, often hyped as the Black Mecca. During the one-day Summit, some of Atlanta's leading academics, analysts, planners, and advocates critiqued the dynamics of racialized place in shaping the city's transportation, land use, and environmental policies.

The smart growth movement aims to combat urban and suburban sprawl by promoting livable communities based on pedestrian scale, diverse populations, and mixed land use. But as illustrated in Growing Smarter, some "smart growth" initiatives largely failed to address social equity and environmental justice. Smart growth sometimes results in gentrification and displacement of low- and moderate-income families in existing neighborhoods, or transportation policies that isolate low-income populations. And if provisions and safeguards are not put in place to address social equity, many of Atlanta's "greening" initiatives will follow this same trend.

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All Atlanta neighborhoods are not created equal. Some are more equal than others. If a neighborhood happens to be poor, working class, or a community of color, its residents generally have fewer choices and opportunities--on a range of residential amenities such as housing, schools, jobs, shopping, parks, green space, hospitals, police, fire protection, and transportation--than affluent, middle-class, or white residents.

Left Behind by Transportation Apartheid

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Black Atlanta has been left behind by the region's sprawl development pattern. The region's job sprawl exacerbates various dimensions of racial inequality. The majority of entry-level jobs in metro Atlanta are not within a quarter-mile of public transportation. In 2006, only 9.3 percent of Metro Atlanta's jobs were located within a 3-mile radius of the CBD, 27.5 percent were located within a 10-mile radius, and 63.2 percent were located outside the 10-mile ring. American society is largely divided between individuals with cars and those without cars. The private automobile is still the most dominant travel mode of every segment of the American population, including African Americans.

The American society is largely divided between individuals with cars and those without cars, creating a form of "transportation apartheid" in many our cities and metropolitan regions. According to the 2003 national study, Moving to Equity: Addressing Inequitable Effects of Transportation Policies on Minorities, only 7 percent of white households own no car, compared with 24 percent of African American households, 17 percent of Latino households, and 13 percent of Asian-American households. Nearly 35 percent of Black Atlantans do not own cars compared with less than 10 percent of whites. Clearly, private automobiles provide enormous employment access advantages to their owners. Having a car in Atlanta can make the difference between employment and unemployment.

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The economic isolation of Black Atlanta is complicated by inadequate public transit (limited, unaffordable, or inaccessible service and routes, and security and safety concerns), lack of personal transportation (no privately owned car available to travel to work), and spatial mismatch (location of suitable jobs in areas that are inaccessible by public transportation). Addressing transportation equity in Metro Atlanta will have positive impacts beyond improved mobility and access to opportunity, but will have added health benefits by reducing deadly air pollution, decreasing automobile dependency, and shrinking the region's carbon footprint mitigating climate change.

When the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority(MARTA) was conceived in the 1960s and began operation in the 1970s, many whites jokingly referred to it as "Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta." The system was originally conceived to cover five counties (Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb, Clayton, and Gwinnett). Only Fulton and DeKalb residents voted to join MARTA and pay the one-cent sales tax. Atlanta city residents pay eight cents on a dollar in sales tax: four cents for the state, three cents for Fulton and DeKalb, and one cent for the City of Atlanta's water treatment fund.

MARTA is the ninth largest transit system in the country and the only large system that does not receive any significant financial support from the state. Since 1998, MARTA has had to dip into its reserves almost every year to make up budget shortfalls. In 2007, MARTA received no state funding for its $455.9 million operating funds and only $2.7 million (2 percent) of the agency's $195.2 million total capital funds. MARTA is required to use 50 percent of these funds on capital projects and 50 percent on operations. As a result, $65 million in MARTA revenues the agency desperately needs to operate the system sits in reserve accounts.

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Robert D. Bullard is Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. His most recent book is entitled "The Wrong Complexion (more...)

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