In the era of metro Atlanta’s population boom, it’s a magic number behind virtually every transportation plan and housing policy: another 2.9 million people packing into the region by 2050. But the pandemic could slow that growth and change many plans, says the head of the agency that made the estimate.

“It’ll take about three or four years to know whether pre-pandemic migration patterns are going to pick up… or have slowed permanently,” said Doug Hooker, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission, at a March 8 Rotary Club of Buckhead luncheon. Historically, pandemics have halted or reduced such large-scale relocations, he said.

Even if the population crunch continues, the long-term future of teleworking is a huge question that could affect everything from local street-widenings to state toll lanes to MARTA routes. So is how such changes fit into long-term trends like a decline in bus ridership. 

The ARC had just completed a four-year regional transportation plan in February 2020, only to see it become virtually obsolete in lockdowns. The plan included a kind of disaster scenario, dubbed “Fierce Headwinds,” but it was about an economic recession, not a pandemic. Now work is starting on an update, but it may need to account for new ways of thinking about notions like “rush hour.”

“As professional planners this is our job to try and anticipate things like this, and in a lot of ways we got blindsided by the pandemic just like every person did.”

David Haynes, Atlanta Regional Commission

“As professional planners this is our job to try and anticipate things like this, and in a lot of ways we got blindsided by the pandemic just like every person did,” says David Haynes, a senior planner at ARC. “We know the questions to be asking. We just don’t know answers to them yet.”

Metro Atlanta’s traffic volumes are returning to a near normal, Haynes said, but in funny ways. Instead of just the traditional a.m. and p.m. rush hours, there’s congestion at midday and on the weekends. That spreading-out of the traffic volume suggests a significant teleworking shift. ARC will have to “totally revisit our assumptions” on things like traffic demand and volume-counting practices, he said.

Georgia’s about to spend $1.2 billion to add toll lanes along the Perimeter and Ga. 400, including in Sandy Springs. And those Ga. 400 lanes might also carry a new  “rapid” bus service, though whether and when that happens will depend on the will of Fulton mayors to ask voters to open their wallets.

The folks who run toll roads and MARTA say the need for their infrastructure isn’t going anywhere, even if the pandemic means some changes. But there are also long-term trends they’re watching.

Regular bus use has been on a gentle decline for years on key northeast metro Atlanta routes. 

That’s happening everywhere, even as the population rises.  Nationwide, bus ridership is at its lowest point since at least 1973, according to a new study by Georgia Tech researchers

Transit planners know some of what’s behind the nationwide bus and rail decline, even if they’re still figuring out how much each factor is to blame. They know that when driving and parking are easy and cheap, people will choose cars. And if buses are infrequent and get stuck in the same traffic as everybody else, they’re less popular. 

But what’s still a bit of a mystery is how much of the change is due to ride-hailing apps, e-scooters, bike-sharing, telecommuting and even gentrification. Even before COVID-19, those things were taking some bite out of transit demand. Wealthy, white-collar professionals who can telecommute don’t tend to be dependent on buses or trains, whereas the folks they priced out of town might have been. 

Metro Atlanta’s toll lanes, on the other hand, get popular quickly and stay that way, according to Peach Pass data. The numbers plunged early in the pandemic and are climbing back.

The use of toll lanes and transit hasn’t recovered since the pandemic plunge began about a year ago, though transit planners expect it to, just maybe in different ways. 

If some critical mass of people continue to telecommute or remain unemployed, maybe that’s the future of rush hour. And online shopping is driving freight traffic higher. Tractor-trailers bring the cargo part of the way, then the fleets of Amazon vans roll out. 

Meanwhile, there’s probably not anything that could stop the new toll lanes project on Ga. 400, though the Georgia Department of Transportation hasn’t finished all its necessary reviews.

Chris Tomlinson is head of SRTA, the state agency that administers toll roads — and of the one that coordinates metro counties’ transit plans.

He argues the metro still needs all kinds of alternatives to the single person driving one car during rush hour, including transit, telecommuting and yes, toll lanes.

“We’re doing all these [Peach Pass lane] projects because our roads were already oversubscribed,” Tomlinson said. “If traffic was to get back to just 85% of what it was, we would still have congestion.”

MARTA’s leader, CEO and General Manager Jeff Parker, thinks talk of the death of the office is exaggerated and he remains bullish on cities in general.

He pointed to Microsoft moving in at Bankhead, at Portman working with MARTA itself for a big development at North Avenue station, at metro Atlanta’s growing population

“Nobody’s talking about the demise of the Midtown market,” Parker said.

And besides that, not everybody even works in an office or got a COVID-19 break from it.  Thousands of people continued to rely on MARTA even during the worst of the pandemic.

The agency is working on a bus route redesign with the aim of better matching routes to riders and the places they need to go. That should take about a year. 

In the meantime, MARTA is planning to reopen all its suspended bus routes by April 24.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.

Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a journalist based in metro Atlanta.