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The Land of Spaghetti Junctions

Original illustrations by Ashley Castaneda ’23, an Illustration major at RISD

It was only a few months ago that I first braved Spaghetti Junction, a rite of passage for all Georgia drivers. Officially named the Tom Moreland Interchange, the five-level intersection conjoins I-85, I-285, and other roads that lead into metro Atlanta—an area through which hundreds of thousands of cars pass each day. I white-knuckled the wheel down the rightmost lane while cars swerved in between unpredictably.
No regular bus or train line runs from my hometown into the city. While there is an active culture of using public transit in the North, few public rail or bus lines even exist in the South, and they lag far behind the rest of the country. Most are underfunded, regarded as “unsafe,” and disproportionately serve people of color. This is no coincidence, but rather the direct result of systemic racism and the symbolic historic entwinement of the car with traditionalist American freedom.
Twenty-five percent of adults in the Northeast United States say that they take public transportation on a daily, almost daily, or weekly basis in contrast to only 7 percent of adults in the South. In cities in New England, easy access to walkable areas, public buses, subway systems, and active rideshare companies negates the need for a car: Why would you even want one if there is a cheaper, safer, and cleaner option? By contrast, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) is the only public bus and rail transit system serving the Atlanta metro area—and it is rife with foundational problems.
When MARTA was created by the Georgia General Assembly in 1965, the state initially made no real effort to fund its operations. A constitutional amendment allowed the state to fund 10 percent of MARTA’s total costs in the expectation that the remainder would be covered by county-level property taxes. However, several wealthy counties in the Atlanta suburbs, which had grown in size and influence amid mass white flight from the city proper, rejected the plan. As a result, MARTA never fully expanded into the suburbs and is, to this day, funded by a sales tax in the city of Atlanta and only three of the surrounding counties: DeKalb, Fulton, and Clayton.
MARTA was born into Georgia as an ostracized transit system for a select few counties in need rather than a normalized statewide asset. In the past, it has been predominantly used by the Black residents of Atlanta, a city highly segregated by race and class. The wealthy Atlanta suburbs’ rejection of MARTA has laid a larger cost burden on citizens in majority-Black counties by forcing only them to pay for the system. Unlike transportation systems in other states, MARTA did not receive funding from the Georgia state coffers until 2022, when it was awarded $6 million to renovate a rail station near Microsoft’s new Atlanta campus. The state and county governments’ reluctance to fund MARTA has left it functioning infamously poorly, with a reputation for lateness and inconvenience.
It is evident that other Southeastern cities face similar hurdles. In South Carolina, Greenlink Transit, the city of Greenville’s public bus system, is among the least-funded city public transit systems in the Southeast. As a result, Greenlink operates on short hours with few buses and a lack of routes to essential locations like schools and grocery stores. Many service workers in Greenville have no other option but to use Greenlink buses to get to and from work because parking in the city is extremely expensive. Additionally, infrequent, often late Greenlink buses consistently result in customers having to block out large portions of time to walk to, wait for, and ride the bus on the way to work. For low-income Greenville residents, this detracts from the quality of life and obstructs potential opportunities like jobs with hourly shifts that do not align with the sparse bus schedule.
Greenville’s Greenlink and Atlanta’s MARTA face a severe lack of state funding. These crucial public transport systems are forced to draw from rare federal government grants, ride fares, and contractual relationships that leave the service painfully out-of-date. Thus, even in an era of booming development in the South’s increasingly progressive cities, progress on public transportation continues to be pulled down by past state- and county-level resistance. Rather than being seen as a public good that all should share in, public transit in Southern cities continues to be seen as a government-subsidized project benefiting only the working class.
On average, owning a car costs about $8,849 a year, while using public transit costs $1,140 annually. In Greenville, a third of households live on less than $25,000 a year. The car has long been an American symbol of individualism and freedom, but owning a car is not feasible for many. Access to efficient, reliable transportation should not be a privilege reserved for those with the financial means. The idea of owning an automobile and maintaining the freedom to travel anywhere in the country plays directly into the American dream and the individualism, frontier exploration, and personal liberty it values—an ideology that continues to be held close in the South.
The American dream promises that with hard work, anyone can succeed. And yet, a lack of public transit infrastructure prevents people from even getting to their place of work. When these stranded people are disproportionately people of color, this obstruction becomes strategic, which causes the American dream to crumble. The “land of opportunity” is reduced to a mere obstacle course with a finish line that keeps moving further away.

Historical precedent and the sprawling layout of Southern cities ensure that it is highly unlikely that public transit infrastructure will ever reach the same level of functionality and normalcy as it has in the North. However, efforts to rewrite the narrative of public transit have found success in methods such as coalition building, incentives, and modern public rideshare programs. In Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Wake Forest’s School of Medicine partnered with organizations and community members, 23 percent of whom live in poverty, to reframe the need for public transit as a public health issue. The initiative successfully secured an $800,000 budget increase for public transit in cooperation with the city council. Alexandria, Virginia, offers residents discounted Metro rail line and shuttle bus tickets as part of a local initiative to reduce the number of cars on the road. Publicly funded rideshare programs are popping up across the country, and Atlanta recently tested “MARTA Reach” in cooperation with Microsoft: Citizens can call a MARTA Reach bus to their destination at the same fare price as a traditional MARTA bus or train. This program will enable all Atlanta area residents to have quick access to public transit even if they do not have a designated MARTA stop near their homes.