Race, Activism, and Localism in the Metropolis: Metropolitan Planning Organizations in Atlanta and Chicago

By Margaret Weir (Brown University)

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of the STATE OF THE FIELD – American Regionalism and the Constellation of Mechanisms for Cross-Boundary Cooperation colloquium.

Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) are one of the most recognizable forms of regional governance in America. Because they are federally mandated for all large communities and require the collective development of transportation plans, they are often regarded as the de facto regional public sector organizations. Recent research has shown that MPOs actually have formal relationships with and are connected to other types of regional organizations, such as RIGOs. In this contribution, Margaret Weir (Brown University) explores the potential and limitations of MPOs in using transportation policy to tackle metropolitan inequalities. She finds that MPOs that are part of RIGOs in both Atlanta and Chicago have encountered barriers to enacting equity agendas and notes the limitations inherent in regional organizations to overcome entrenched interests. Weir suggests that the federal government may play a role in incentivizing greater attention to equity in transportation planning processes, a move that might also have knock-on effects for regional planning in other areas for the RIGOs of which they are part. 

Generations of research by political scientists and historians paint a consistent – and deeply disturbing — picture of the American metropolis.  From different directions, their work depicts a political patchwork designed to facilitate resource hoarding and enforce segregation by race and income. Long entrenched local government powers over land use have made racial and spatial inequality the defining feature of the American metropolis. Special districts, the most numerous boundary-spanning organizations, help the patchwork metropolis function but they are not known for challenging the economic and racial inequalities it protects (Savitch and Adhikari 2017). Are Metropolitan Planning Organizations, responsible for transportation planning and a variety of other regional responsibilities, any different? Have MPOs pushed against metropolitan inequalities and do they have the potential to do more?

I argue that MPOs become vehicles for promoting equity only when they shake up existing power relations and forge an institutional role for new voices. Given new powers in 1991 by the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), MPOs operated in a policy domain long dominated by state highway departments and the development interests connected with them. The federal architects of ISTEA hoped that centering decision-making in a regional entity would reduce the power of roadbuilders and push infrastructure investments inward. ISTEA aimed to give MPOs the power to build connectivity in the region, promote alternative transportation modes, and ensure that transportation decisions considered environmental and equity goals (Weir, Rongerude, and Ansell 2009). In an effort to open transportation decision making to a wider range of voices, the law established new participation requirements. 

Yet, ISTEA changed much less than advocates had hoped. As Scaria’s (2017) analysis of shows, MPOs trace their origins to the 1960s when the federal legislation and regulations began to require regional planning. With the completion of the federal highway system, advocates had hoped that the new requirements in ISTEA would transform transportation policymaking. But in most metropolitan areas the preexisting planning organizations — already embedded in specific networks — were designated as MPOs. After the passage of ISTEA, equity proponents found themselves involved in multi-venue conflicts in which MPO and participation requirements offered them little leverage. Pro-highway development interests continued to dominate states and even controlled some MPOs. Local interests – often animated by entrenched racialized opposition to transit – limited the reach of MPOs by refusing to support taxes needed to fund new projects.  As a result, what actions MPOs coordinate, what political boundaries they cross, and how they coordinate can only be understood in the context of broader conflicts over power, resources, and race.  

In my contribution to the colloquium, I draw on the experiences of Chicago and Atlanta over the past thirty years to examine how conflicts that take places across levels of government shape the activities of MPOs. I show that in Atlanta, the creation of the MPO did not disrupt the existing organization of power because the long established regional planning organization, controlled by suburban-based development interests, became the designated MPO. With no institutionalized influence in the MPO, equity advocates had to search for other strategies, including legal challenges and local organizing, to promote their goals. In Chicago, by contrast, power relations shifted when a coalition of city-based business, political, and equity interests championed state legislation that created a new regional entity. The new agency made the MPO part of a broader planning organization, which included a Working Committee on Human and Community Development that allowed equity advocates to establish a sustained institutional role. Together, the two cases suggest that what MPOs do to promote equity depends on the configuration of interests in state and local politics and the socio-economic network in which they operate (Nelles 2012).   

The Dominance of Suburban Networks in Atlanta’s MPO 

Like many Sunbelt metros, the Atlanta region began an epoch of booming growth in the 1970s.  But, similar to northern and midwestern regions, the early waves of suburban development meant that white residents left the city behind. Atlanta city boundaries did not grow to capture the new development. The overwhelming power of suburban development interests dominated transportation policies. Their support for highways, combined with racially-driven local opposition to transit, left equity-oriented advocates on the sidelines politically. The regional MPO did little to alter these dynamics. Only after advocates deployed federal regulations regarding equity and environmental justice to challenge MPO policies, did they achieve influence. But change that relies on legal levers is often difficult to sustain without strong political support. Advocates in the Atlanta region have found political engagement outside the MPO the most productive strategy. 

For most of its existence the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) did little to promote the cause of transit in the suburbs. Created in 1971 as a regional planning agency, the ARC was dominated by suburban interests that backed extensive land development and highways to promote mobility. This organization is the regional intergovernmental organization (RIGO) for the Atlanta region (Miller and Nelles 2018). Its governing board included the leaders of the member counties, one mayor from each county, the mayor of Atlanta, an alderman from Atlanta, and eleven citizens. For much of the 1990s, ARC was controlled by what some called “the Gwinnett mafia,” a group that staunchly opposed transit. Using its local sales tax revenue as a match, the County was able capture the lion’s share of the region’s federal funding for new highways into suburban Gwinnett county (Henderson 2004). Not only did these suburban interests oppose making it easier for Black Atlantans to reach Gwinnett, they had no intention of joining a transit system where their tax dollars might subsidize transit in other counties. The Gwinnett County Commission chairman, who headed the ARC Board of Directors in late 1990s put it bluntly: “I don’t want to take money out of Gwinnett County to solve other people’s problems.” (McCosh and Shelton 1999) The ARC’s image of how the region should develop had little to do with the ideals of inward development and transit connectivity promoted in the ISTEA legislation (Basmajian 2013).

Decisions to opt out of transit are often highly racially charged and many MPOs prefer to stay out of these issues. Atlanta offers a paradigmatic case. When MARTA, its rapid transit system was created in 1971, the white suburbs wanted nothing to do with the Black city. As the editor of the suburban Clayton Daily News told his readers “If we have rails and busses connecting us to Atlanta, we become part of Atlanta and its problems. The poor and slums and ghettos follow the buses. Isn’t that what most of us moved to Clayton County to get away from? (quoted in Hatfield 2006, 1-2). MARTA became branded as a “Black service,” and has long been derided by Whites. Repeated efforts to expand MARTA beyond the two counties where it initially gained a foothold failed until very recently. In Gwinnett County, a job-rich suburb that grew with the white flight of the 1970s, voters repeatedly rejected initiatives to join MARTA.  Opponents, especially in the early elections, voiced unconcealed racism when the topic of MARTA arose (Henderson 2006). 

Resource constraints have also limited what MPOs can do to advance connectivity and the Atlanta region faced major constraints on funding transit. The Georgia, state constitution reserves the proceeds from the gas tax for highways and bridges. Transit has historically been funded through federal grants, local sales tax, and fare revenue. Only in 2021 did the state establish a dedicated state trust fund – financed from a charge on for hire ground transportation companies such as Uber — to support transit.  

The Atlanta Regional Commission was shocked out of its pro-highway stance in the late 1990s, when a coalition of environmental and equity advocates challenged its transportation plans. Relying on provisions of the 1990 Clean Air Act as well as ISTEA provisions, these groups initiated a series of law suits charging that the agency was out of conformity with the requirements of the Clean Air Act.  After failing to respond adequately to the charges, the Environmental Protection Agency put ARC under a warning and ultimately did the unthinkable in 1998 by cutting off the state’s transportation funds. In the settlement that followed, the ARC had to eliminate some of the roads it had approved. In addition, the US DOT promised to produce a study of the social equity consequences of Atlanta’s transportation system (Bullard, 2000, 55). At first, the episode appeared to represent a moment of truth that would reorient the ARC or replace it altogether. Indeed, the state created a new agency Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA) in 1999, with considerable powers over transportation, including the ability to float bonds and exercise control over land use. 

But Atlanta’s regional equity coalition did not have the power to entrench its goals in either GRTA or ARC. As the federal government backed off after the election of George W. Bush in 2000 and the region’s suburban development interests took charge of GRTA, the expansive potential of the new agency evaporated. Over the next decades, ARC, in fact, did became more supportive of transit but largely in response to suburban residents who began to oppose roads and in response to new support for transit from the business community. Equity advocates did not leave the episode empty-handed: GRTA created the first regional bus system. It also provided suburban Clayton county, a majority Black county with a significant population that relied on transit, funds to create its own bus system. But in the absence of an institutionalized role for equity advocates, ARC did little to prioritize equity considerations.

The MPO had nothing to do with the biggest recent success in promoting transportation equity in 2014, when voters endorsed MARTA’s expansion into Clayton County. The area had had no public transit since 2009, when the fiscally-stressed county suspended its bus service. Because Clayton had been majority Black county for decades, racial politics did not present the obstacle it had in in other parts of the region. But local support for transit still had to be mobilized. In this case, a state representative from the County, together with local and translocal advocacy organizations, launched a major organizing campaign. Voters approved a one cent sales tax that allowed the county to join MARTA (Karner 2019). Local organizing, unconnected to regional planning, made this step forward possible.

Entrenching Equity in Chicago’s City-centered MPO 

In Chicago, the state’s control over the region’s MPO posed a major barrier for equity activists. Close ties between the Illinois Department of Transportation and development interests frustrated Chicago’s business community as well as equity activists. In the 2000s, a city-centered campaign to create a new independent regional agency to house the MPO set the stage for new regional networks. The process of creating a new organization allowed equity interests to become embedded within the organization and meant that the agency could serve as a resource in efforts to build transit connectivity and promote equity. Despite these successes, ongoing pressure from the state and inadequate financing continue to limit the achievements of equity advocates.

Illinois had long resisted pressure to cede authority over the MPO governing the Chicago metropolitan area. The Chicago Area Transportation Study, the designated MPO, operated as an arm of the Illinois Department of Transportation. Only after a concerted campaign in which Chicago’s business community and the Metropolitan Mayor’s Caucus played prominent roles, did the legislature approve a new regional entity, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) in 2007 (Weir, Rongerude, and Ansell 2009) – and this is the RIGO for the Chicago area. Even after the creation of the new agency, skirmishes with the state continued. The state pushed for approval of outlying highways that did not conform to CMAP’s planning documents, going so far as to withhold funds from CMAP to get its way (Vance 2013).  

Despite state efforts to encroach on the organization’s autonomy, CMAP has established itself as a regional agenda setter, one in which Chicago’s equity activists now have a sustained presence. CMAP’s Working Committee on Human and Community Development explicitly defines its mission as supporting “CMAP in promoting racial equity and economic inclusion throughout the Chicago region” (CMAP website). The committee’s members include long time equity advocates with ties throughout the region. Through the committee, they have promoted research that highlights the concerns of low-income communities, including the causes of disinvestment in communities of color and the unequal impact of transportation fees, fines, and fares on low-income communities. 

CMAP put equity front and center in its 2050 regional plan and has become a venue for analyses and data that support more equitable allocation of regional resources. With financial assistance of local foundations, the agency has conducted outreach and provided planning assistance to poorer communities. It has also pledged to assist poorer communities by helping them finance the local match needed for federal projects. CMAP has prioritized the expansion of El to far south side Black communities that have long been transit deserts.  In an effort to increase public resources for its projects, CMAP has lobbied to expand the state income tax base. CMAP’s 2050 regional plan joins the efforts of other regional entities in the Chicago area, such as the Metropolitan Planning Council, to challenge zero-sum thinking about the region. Throughout, the plan emphasizes that assisting minority communities helps the whole region.  

CMAP has become a partner to Cook County’s recent efforts to support the growing number of poor minority suburbs in the region.  The agency helped the county create an equitable funding formula to distribute federal emergency funds related to the pandemic, taking into account the community’s median income and public health statistics. It has also worked with the county to devise a pilot program that lowers fares and improves service on alternative train transit for residents of the lower-income south suburbs who had been waiting for three decades for an extension of the El line.  

Funding remains a huge problem. Efforts to expand the size of the transportation pie face an uphill political battle. Transit proponents in Chicago routinely confront obstacles when they seek to expand transportation spending in Springfield. In 2002, an effort backed by the Amalgamated Transit Union, Build Illinois Transit, sought to rally support throughout the state for a major transportation infrastructure package. Despite some success in attracting allies across the state, it was not able to make headway in the legislature. In 2014, CMAP unsuccessfully sought legislative support for a regional sales tax increase to fund projects in its 2040 plan (Vance 2014). An alliance of activists and political leaders backed another strategy modelled after Los Angeles’s Measure R, which allowed that city to boost local funding significantly and leverage federal dollars for major transportation initiatives. Proponents hoped to create a dedicated stream of funding through a Cook County sales tax (Greenfield 2014). But the heavy demands on the county budget from its responsibility for health and criminal justice have put transportation on the back burner. 


Both Atlanta and Chicago’s MPOs are embedded in different ways into multipurpose regional intergovernmental organizations (RIGOs). That is, these organizations have broad mandates to coordinate regional actors for collective problem solving and policy at the metropolitan scale. Others have theorized that MPOs that have strong connections with RIGOs might be more likely to engage with questions of equity and to use transportation policies for social development (Nelles 2012). The supposition is that MPOs in these contexts are governed by representatives that can see a bigger picture through their engagement with broader regional topics in the RIGO and that they might be more willing to see transportation policy as a crucial lever to addressing regional problems, of which inequality might be one. The cases presented here, at least, suggest that is not necessarily the case. The Chicago MPO has emphasized equity in its regional planning more consistently than has the Atlanta MPO. As these cases show, the organization of interests within a metropolitan area matters greatly for whether these organizations embrace equity goals. Even when they do, their ability to make changes are limited. The racial and spatial inequalities that characterize metropolitan America are deeply entrenched and the powers of MPOs, and it appears RIGOs, remain limited. What they can do is agenda setting, partnering, convening, and enabling. Limited though they are, these powers allow concerns about regional equity and related policy proposals to achieve a prominence that would be otherwise absent. They offer an additional resource for other actors that do have the power to address regional inequality. 

Reliably embedding equity concerns within Metropolitan Planning Organizations and empowering equity advocates within them requires a much stronger federal hand. Federal policy needs to constrain and incentivize equity from above and build new capacity from below. Transportation dollars – including highways – should require states to eliminate local opt outs from transit districts. Federal policies should also include more specific equity criteria in grants for mass transit capital proposals and in MPO plans themselves (Pendall et al. 2012).  Incentives for cross-agency initiatives as in Obama’s Partnership for Sustainable Communities would prod MPOs to broaden the equity focus by connecting transportation plans with affordable housing. Incentives that directly fund equity-oriented groups are needed, with special attention to engaging communities of color in the MPO planning process. Such incentives can help build enduring organizational capacity dedicated to equity goals. But as Karner and Marcantonio (2018) argue, engagement needs to be followed up with near-term funding streams and the development of metrics and monitoring to assess progress. This kind of federal direction may have important consequences for RIGOs with MPOs as well. Even if they are only formally required to adopt these standards in transportation planning, it might provide the impetus to overcome internal inertia and empower the adoption of an equity lens in other areas of regional policy making.


Basmajian, C.W.  2013. Atlanta Unbound: Enabling Sprawl through Policy and Planning. Temple University Press.

Bullard, R.D., G.S. Johnson, and A.O. Torres. 2000.  Dismantling Transportation Apartheid: The Quest for Equity. In Sprawl City: Race, Politics, and Planning in Atlanta. Edited by R.D. Bullard, G.S. Johnson, and A.O. Torres. Island Press.

Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, Human and Community Development Committee. https://www.cmap.illinois.gov/committees/working/human-community/

Greenfield, J.  2014. CNT and Active Trans launch “Transit Future’ funding campaign. Streetsblog Chicago. April 4. https://chi.streetsblog.org/2014/04/04/cnt-and-active-trans-launch-transit-future-funding-campaign/

Hatfield, E. A.  2006.MARTA and the Making of Suburban Conservatism. (MA Thesis) University of Georgia.

Henderson, J. 2004. “The Politics of Mobility and Business Elites in Atlanta, Georgia.” Urban Geography 25 (3): 193–216.

Karner, A. and R, A. Marcantonio. 2018. Achieving Transportation Equity: Meaningful Public Involvement to Meet the Needs of Underserved Communities. Public Works Management & Policy. 23(2) 105–126. 

Karner, A., and R. Duckworth. 2019.“‘Pray for Transit’: Seeking transportation justice in metropolitan Atlanta.” Urban Studies 56 (9): 1882–1900.

Henderson, J. 2006.  “Secessionist Automobility: Racism, Anti-Urbanism, and the Politics of Automobility in Atlanta, Georgia.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 30 (2): 293–307.

McCosh J. and S. Shelton. 1999. Sometimes regional, local goals clash – A profile: Wayne Hill. Atlanta Journal Constitution. Dec. 20.

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Pendall, R., J. Gainsborough, K. Lowe, and M. Nguyen. 2012. “Bringing Equity to Transit Oriented Development. In Building Resilient Regions; vol. 4 of Urban and Regional Policy and its Effects. Edited by N. Pindus, H. Wial, and H. Wolman. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 148-192. 

Savitch, H.V., and S. Adhikari.2017. “Fragmented Regionalism: Why Metropolitan America Continues to Splinter.” Urban Affairs Review 53 (2): 381–402.

Sciara, G. 2017. “Metropolitan Transportation Planning: Lessons from the Past, Institutions for the Future.” Journal of the American Planning Association. 83(3): 262–76.

Vance, S. 2013. CMAP Board, voting down Illiana, tells how IDOT is withholding funds. Streetsblog Chicago. October 10. https://chi.streetsblog.org/2013/10/10/cmap-board-voting-down-illiana-tells-how-idot-is-witholding-funds/

Vance, S. 2014. CMAP Seeks Its Own Dedicated Fund for Transit, Green infrastructure. Streetsblog Chicago, Nov.19. https://chi.streetsblog.org/2014/11/19/cmap-seeks-its-own-dedicated-tax-for-transit-green-infrastructure/

Weir, M., J. Rongerude, and C. K. Ansell. 2009. Collaboration Is Not Enough: Virtuous Cycles of Reform in Transportation Policy.” Urban Affairs Review 44, (4): 455–89.

For more information about how we are using language in this colloquium, see this link:

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