Between 2000 and 2010, Atlanta was the 3rd fastest growing city in the country (behind Houston and Dallas). Attracted to a cheaper cost of living and temperate climate, Atlanta added over 1M people to a population of 4M. However, the rapid increase has worked to tax an already strained city transportation infrastructure.
This suburban-centric view has started to change in the last few years with the ambitious Atlanta BeltLine project. The project, based on a Georgia Tech graduate student’s 1999 thesis, will be, by many accounts, the “most expensive rails-to-trails project”[i] in the country. Advocates of the new emphasis on walkable cities, led by Charles Leinberger of the Brookings Institute, highlight the numerous advantages of investing in the infrastructures at the center of cities around the country – mainly lower transportation costs [and] higher transit access.” Atlanta’s BeltLine project will connect 45 neighborhoods, increase parkland by 40%, and add 22 miles of transit lines to a geographic expanse that covers 22% of the city’s population and 19% of its landmass.
While the project has been received with relatively open arms, there are still a number of challenges to be overcome and issues still on the horizon. First, and most important, would be funding. A July 2012 referendum proposing to use an estimated $600M in revenue from a penny sales tax to primarily fund streetcar investments in the downtown area was rejected. As of last month, only ~$350M had been raised for an estimated $2.8B project. These funding challenges will continue to shape and possibly scale back many of the most ambitious elements of the proposal (e.g., streetcar connections).
The second challenge concerns what to do with residents who may be priced out of their neighborhoods. Charles Leinberger describes a five-step ladder of walkability – each step up the ladder, on average, adds “more than $300 per month to apartment rents and nearly $82 per square foot to home values.” These increases, though certainly positive in many regards, could drastically change the makeup of neighborhoods as more educated and more highly paid individuals flood into areas that have been historically overlooked.
Despite these challenges, the promise of the BeltLine presents a bright and optimistic future for the city of Atlanta. Building on the investments that accompanied the 1996 Summer Olympics and the $2B+ in investments in Atlantic Station (a mixed use redevelopment in the heart of the city) that began in 2001, the core of Atlanta is undergoing massive changes that will continue attracting new residents in search of better lifestyles and comforts from around the country.
 Carnathan, Mike, “Employment and Socioeconomic Trends along the Atlanta BeltLine”.
 Brown, Robbie, “Now Atlanta is Turning Old Tracks Green,” New York Times, Feb. 14, 2013.
 Brookings Institute, “Walk this Way: The Economic Promise of Walkable Places in Metropolitan, Washington, D.C.” May 25, 2012.
 Leinberger, Christopher B., “Now Coveted: A Walkable, Convenient Place,” New York Times, May 25, 2012.
[i] Rails-to-trails refers to the conversion of unused railroad tracks into usable spaces (e.g., parks and trails)