The following is a column written in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution by deputy editorial page editor Jay Bookman. We’ve changed the name of the city from Atlanta to Memphis, because if it’s a priority in Atlanta to have an efficient, modern public transit system, it’s an even greater one here:

As a sprawling Sun Belt city built around the automobile, metro Memphis — like Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Jose and similar places — is ill-suited for mass transit, and Memphis commuters would never park their cars to ride rail or buses.

That’s the story, anyway, and it has taken such a hold at the state Department of Transportation and the Legislature that it threatens the major new investments in transit the region will need as it tries to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

As you look around the country, though, you see a narrative of a different sort taking hold in Memphis’s sister Sun Belt cities. While metro Memphis dawdles, other regions are aggressively remaking themselves, adapting to changing times, trends and needs. It hasn’t been easy, but they’re overcoming obstacles and betting heavily that the future will differ from the past.

Just as Memphis used to do.

The Dallas-Fort Worth area, for example, is investing heavily in light rail, buses and commuter rail, and it’s paying off. Dallas Area Rapid Transit reported a 10.5 percent increase in bus and rail ridership for the nine-month period ending in June, and ridership on a commuter rail line linking Dallas and Fort Worth increased by 14.7 percent in the first six months of 2006.

That success is breeding more interest. In the Fort Worth area, cities are scrambling for the right to host stations along a proposed Cotton Belt commuter rail line that would open in 2011; in fact, suburban cities that have reached the state’s 8.25 percent sales tax cap are asking Texas legislators to lift that cap so that they too can raise the money to host a Cotton Belt station.

In 2003, voters in Houston — yes, Houston, the petroleum capital of the country — approved a $7.5 billion investment in light rail, bus rapid transit and commuter rail, and there too it’s paying dividends. Ridership on Houston’s MetroRail system has exceeded projections, and not by just a little bit — the system is already hitting ridership levels that had been projected for 2025, suggesting an enormous latent demand.

Houston is also counting on three new bus rapid transit lines — buses that travel on dedicated right of way. Those lines are being built with rail tracks embedded along the route, in preparation for the day when ridership levels justify converting those lines to light rail.

Nationwide, light-rail ridership rose 11.2 percent in the first six months of 2006, according to the American Public Transportation Association. That’s an astounding jump considering how hard it can be to alter commuting patterns. In San Jose, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and San Diego, light-rail ridership rose by at least 17 percent.

In the Orlando area, the Florida Department of Transportation is designing a 61-mile, 16-station commuter rail line, and is encouraging cities along the route to maximize development potential by rezoning property surrounding those stations. Other projects are also in the works in Florida: FDOT is proposing an 85-mile commuter rail line from Jupiter to Miami, and local leaders are trying to organize a regional effort to finance their share of that project.

In those and other places, leaders understand that mass transit must be a part of any long-term transportation solution. They also understand that denser development patterns are necessary to make it work.

In many ways, in fact, the question of mass transit’s viability is a chicken-and-egg question. Mass transit requires, well, a mass of people to be moved. It needs a certain amount of population density to be effective.

But as Dallas, Houston, Denver and other cities are discovering, transit can also create the density it needs to thrive.

According to a 2005 study by two University of North Texas researchers, more than $3.3 billion in new construction has been announced along Dallas light-rail lines since 1999.

A previous UNT study had documented that the value of residential properties near DART light-rail stations was rising considerably faster than similar properties elsewhere.

“For office buildings, the increase [in valuation] was 24.7 percent for the DART properties vs. 11.5 percent for the non-DART properties,” the study determined. Metro Memphis may look back on these days at the dawn of the century as the era in which opportunity was missed.