Every day, the owner of Ponce City Market, the 2.1-million-square-foot redevelopment of the city’s former Sears building overlooking the Atlanta Beltline Eastside Trail, provides 400 of the project’s residents and workers a 1-mile shuttle ride.
Jamestown, a private developer, takes the passengers directly to the North Avenue MARTA station, connecting them to Atlanta’s public transit network, which stretches from the urban core to the suburbs. It’s a relatively small but meaningful contribution to the city’s reduction in vehicle miles traveled, a key to limiting traffic congestion.
The Eastside Trail, however, has seen so much development since it first opened almost eight years ago that Jamestown is getting requests to use the shuttle from all the people now living and working along the pathway.
Close to $3 billion in new investment has been funneled into projects on the Eastside Trail. It is used by more than 2 million pedestrians a year, lined with several thousand apartment units and seeing an influx of new office jobs from the likes of BlackRock Inc. and Chick-fil-A.
But, when Jamestown is asked to expand the shuttle to serve all the new jobs and housing, it has to decline. It isn’t a public transit agency.
Instead, it wants to partner with MARTA.
Doing so, it says, could offer up to three times the current number of passengers using the shuttle — over 8,000 a week — a direct link to the North Avenue station.
For now, both Jamestown and MARTA are talking.
While the Beltline has helped put an end to Atlanta’s reputation as a poster child of sprawl, commercial density on the Eastside Trail is exposing holes within the city’s mobility fabric.
It’s what happens when new apartments and jobs begin to concentrate in an area just beyond the reach of the MARTA rail network and transit stations on Peachtree Street, the spine of the city.
There is growing demand to fill in these gaps with better transportation alternatives. Consider how visitors to Ponce City Market — a mile from the North Avenue Station, two miles from the Inman Park station — use last-mile solutions. Ponce City is second only to the Atlanta airport as the top destination for Uber. It is also ground zero for every scooter operator left in the city. The vehicles are strewn across the property.
Conversations between Jamestown and MARTA go back five years. Earlier this month, Jamestown met for the first time with MARTA Assistant General Manager of Planning Heather Alhadeff.
“Both sides are eager to continue the conversation,” said MARTA spokesperson Stephany Fisher.
MARTA recognizes new development along the Eastside Trail is creating a need for alternatives to the car. It also counters that Ponce City Market and other projects are already served by two bus routes, #2 and #102. They both connect to the North Avenue station, albeit not directly like the shuttle.
“They are circuitous routes,” Fisher said.
Other parts of the city use shuttles for last-mile connectivity between clusters of jobs and housing and the MARTA stations.
Buckhead operates its own version of the service. So do projects such as Atlantic Station.
And New City LLC, the developer of the newest office tower on the Eastside Trail, is also running a shuttle to the North Avenue station.
While the MARTA bus routes serving Ponce City Market and surrounding areas of the Eastside Trail help, they may not be designed to meet demand from the growing number of workers moving into new Beltline office space, or the swarm of pedestrians and cyclists using the pathway.
MARTA also points to its plans for a Bus Rapid Transit route, part of its $2.7 billion expansion approved in 2018.
Phase one is approximately 2 miles connecting the Eastside Trail and surrounding areas to the Midtown and North Avenue Stations. It is scheduled to be operational by 2025.
However, Jamestown is seeking the more immediate solution of bolstering the shuttle service.
Other ideas for greater connectivity with Ponce City Market have stalled.
One option would have included using the autonomous shuttle that was once planned to serve North Avenue, part of the Renew Atlanta program.
Known as the “Smart Corridor,” the autonomous shuttle had the support of Georgia Tech, which was a research partner on the technology. In fact, the Smart City Expo World Congress awarded the idea its Mobility Award.
Jamestown continues to ask the city about resurrecting the autonomous shuttle, Councilman Andre Dickens, chairman of the transportation committee, said in an email. But, he added, no money is budgeted or available for the project in the current Renew Atlanta program.
It will be interesting to watch how last-mile connectivity issues like those involving the Eastside Trail are resolved.
Tim Keane, commissioner of planning and community development for the City of Atlanta, has been a powerful advocate for transit, multi-use trails such as the Beltline, and cyclists.
Keane, along with the original architect of the Beltline, Ryan Gravel, and Ed McBrayer, executive director of the PATH Foundation, have emerged as important voices in moving Atlanta away from its autocentric past.
By Douglas Sams Commercial Real Estate Editor, Atlanta Business Chronicle