Atlanta Is Finally Choosing Smart Growth over Sprawl

Infrastructure woes and marathon commutes plague Hotlanta. But as Georgia’s capital city grows, Atlantans are getting smarter (and out of their cars).

Credit: JRC, Inc./Alamy

Shortly after the Civil War, Atlanta hit a growth spurt. Its roads followed the area’s railroad system, and the city grew outward from the center in hubs and spokes. This, unfortunately, was a blueprint for nightmarish traffic problems in the future.

In about two decades, the city’s current population of 5.5 million residents could balloon to 8 million. That’s as if the whole citizenry of Charlotte, North Carolina, suddenly descended upon Hotlanta. And the city’s roads are in no shape to handle it.

A roadway buckled along the I-20 in Decatur, Georgia, in April.
Credit: Erik S. Lesser/EPA/Newscom

Atlanta’s streets are buckling and caving in. Its bridges are even burning—no, really. An illegally lit fire destroyed an Interstate 85 overpass in March. “Welcome to Atlanta where the playas play and the highways collapse like every day,” said one perfect tweet. “Bless Atlanta’s heart,” another tweeter chimed in.

Jokes aside, traffic along the city’s main arteries has slowed to a maddening crawl. And many Atlantans, whose patience has hit its limit, are starting to think outside the car. For instance, 20 percent more passengers climbed onto Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) trains the day after the bridge collapse. These commuters are, perhaps unwittingly, illustrating the solution to their city’s congestion woes: Atlanta needs to unlock its one-person-per-car culture, and thereby its gridlock, with diversified transportation options.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, Georgia gets a D-minus when it comes to transport. Besides the system’s inefficiencies and the long, slow rides, the report blames MARTA’s lack of operating funds. In fact, it’s the country’s largest transit agency without state financial backing.

“We’re extremely dependent on our interstate system,” says Catherine Ross, director of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development. And when unexpected disruptions happen—from simple road closures to bridge collapses—that dependency grinds the city’s commuters to a halt. Ross says a more extensive transit system would help keep things flowing.

Smarter growth is starting to catch on in Atlanta, albeit slowly. First came the Atlanta BeltLine, a project almost 20 years in the making that will eventually be a 33-mile multiuse trail, most of it along an old railway corridor. Since 2012, Atlantans have been able to navigate the first 11 miles of finished trail by foot, bike, or Rollerblade.

“It has opened up everyone’s eyes,” says Paul Morris, president of Atlanta Beltline Inc. “Historically, Atlanta has not been a walking and biking city and didn’t have the infrastructure to support it. The BeltLine cracked that opportunity open.”

Then in 2014 came another BeltLine project, the first streetcar to cruise the city since 1949. That lone streetcar currently loops the downtown area, but the plan is to add another that circles the BeltLine trail, with four more crisscrossing inside its loop. And just last year, the city passed a groundbreaking half-penny sales tax that could provide MARTA $2.5 billion over the next 40 years. It could also fund the first significant expansion of bus and rail services in nearly two decades.

Credit: Shutterstock

Over the next 25 years, MARTA plans to work on four regional expansion projects to improve service in areas that are either excessively busy or difficult to connect to. One such place is Clayton County, a working-class suburb near the world’s busiest airport that fell on hard times after the 2008 recession. From 2010 to 2015 even the local bus line stopped serving this mostly African-American community, limiting access to jobs and other services.

Public transportation can be a great equalizer and a measure of environmental justice.

It can also be a lure for young workers. Large corporations, like hardware company NCR, have chosen to relocate near existing rail stations within Atlanta’s perimeter, which divides the more sprawling outer suburbs from condensed city living. As John Orr, the transportation access manager for the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), explains, these corporate locations allow employees to enjoy all the city has to offer without getting into a car.

Chris Leinberger, a professor at the George Washington University School of Business, pioneered the concept of WalkUPs, or walkable urban places, and believes Atlanta could be a forerunner in creating such neighborhoods. According to his 2013 report for the ARC, about 13 percent of the region’s real estate investment went toward WalkUPs between 1999 and 2000. By 2009 it had reached 60 percent.

And for trips beyond these tight, walkable communities, Atlantans might soon have the means for a quick getaway. A high-speed rail line from Atlanta to Charlotte is currently under consideration, and if developed, it would connect to a rail corridor that reaches all the way up to Washington, D.C.

“I think Atlanta is the American city,” says Ross, explaining that most U.S. cities are grappling with some of the same growth issues. “What we need to beat them on is an integrated transit system with different price points and different lifestyles that respects the environment,” she continues. “If we don't, I think we risk our continuing to be a place people want to come to.”

That would be a place where you climb onto a streetcar or hop on a light-rail train and watch the city whirr by; where commutes are swift and all communities are on the move. That is the future.

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