Social Engineering and Transit-Oriented Development: The Rhetoric That Keeps Atlanta From Progressing

Atlanta Streetcar Near Woodruff Park

Atlanta Streetcar Near Woodruff Park

As the Atlanta streetcar officially opened on Tuesday, it seems like a good time to address thoughts and ideas being expressed in the mainstream local media concerning transit and development in between posts about the Water Wars. It is immensely important and celebratory that “solving” the transportation problem in this region has once again come to the forefront in both the political and media spheres. It appears that the Georgia legislature will attempt to address the situation during it’s coming 2015 session and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution continues to play host to opinion pieces on the fundamental issues of transportation and development.

As this site and many others have mentioned time and time again, the Atlanta metro region is woefully behind almost every other major region in terms of transportation and sustainable development planning. After the Georgia Legislature approved funding (read: allowed local counties to raise taxes to help themselves) for MARTA decades ago, the region has been painfully idle in adequately addressing transportation. We’ve simply seen decade after decade of massive road building. Subsequently we’ve seen decade after decade of progressively worse traffic. It’s not an honor to sometimes be ranked ahead of Los Angeles in traffic delays when we have roughly a quarter of the population.

Charlotte Light Rail

Charlotte Light Rail

We’re not just falling behind traditionally progressive cities such as Seattle, Boston, or DC; we’re falling behind cities like Phoenix, Houston, Charlotte, and Dallas. Those aren’t just cities Atlanta directly competes with for businesses and residents, those are cities more politically-aligned with Atlanta. The ideological divide between road-building and transit-building, often drawn on political lines based on the general notion that conservatives prefer more rural areas and liberals prefer more urban areas, at one time could at least explain why the Atlanta region continued to favor roads over transit. As more “conservative” or “50-50” cities adopt progressive transportation and land use policies to much success, those still pushing for more roads and sprawl in our region seem confusingly out-of-touch with reality.

The good news is that more and more people seem to be realizing that a “roads-only” approach to transportation and development simply isn’t working. Not only is it not solving any traffic problems, but it’s doing nothing to attract businesses and residents. Particularly those businesses that employ younger professionals who have excess money to inject into the economy. Increasingly, businesses in the Atlanta region are choosing to relocate from suburban areas to more urban areas to accommodate the desires of younger workers. As the economy continues to steadily move forward, regional and national competition for skilled workers is only going to increase.

While the realization that more transportation choices and denser development may actually be necessary and desirable, it still appears that many of those warming to change aren’t ready to fully embrace the needed changes.  Allowing this increasingly smaller group of people to dictate how the region functions will do little to help grow the economy in a sustainable way.

Brookaven MARTA Redevelopment Plan

Brookaven MARTA Redevelopment Plan

Take an opinion piece in the AJC several days ago by Kyle Wingfield. It mainly focuses on two solutions: 1.) Building alternative transportation choices in areas where people already want to go instead of building development along existing transportation routes; and 2.) Adopting transportation that isn’t rail because rail is expensive. Both statements are great and show that many in Atlanta are realizing the need for more transportation choices. However, the piece highlights the fact that some pundits and politicians are fundamentally failing to grasp what we actually need. Mr. Wingfield offers a pragmatic solution to dealing with many who simply won’t put up with emphasizing transit over roads or transit-oriented development over sprawl.  While his solutions are great and should be incorporated into future plans, it’s becoming unacceptable to pander and cater to those people who are stuck in old ways and will not embrace the changes we need and want.

Mr. Wingfield is right, we do need more transportation choices in places people already want to go. We do need some bus rapid transit or streetcars in places such as 14th and 17th Streets that connect with MARTA rail to provide better service to the Atlantic Station and Georgia Tech areas. In fact, there is a bus lane marked “Bus Only” all along 17th Street. Unfortunately, no one enforces the rule, so there may as well not even be a bus lane. Like Mr. Wingfield states, a Bus Rapid Transit System (BRT) is much cheaper than heavy rail and does a good job of moving many people. Many cities attempt to form of transportation this along freeways, but it certainly can also be done on surface streets. BRT would have been a great alternative to the $1 Billion HOT Lane project ready for construction along I-75.

BRT System in Bogota

BRT System in Bogota

Unfortunately, a true BRT system requires a dedicated lane for buses only. This allows the buses to move at uninterrupted high speeds just like light or heavy rail. It is a good alternative to rail if you can guarantee that the lane will be dedicated to buses only and then you fund an adequate bus system. Mr. Wingfield’s suggestion that instead of investing in a system that will actually work, we should just run a bus in a toll lane because it will be cheaper is pragmatic, but probably irresponsible. A toll-lane bus system certainly will be cheaper, but it doesn’t provide any fundamental change since the buses will still be subject to general traffic delays. You only get the advantage of BRT if you give buses their own dedicated lanes so they can freely move along roadways without being subjected to general traffic delays. We consistently learn from huge transportation projects that you only get what you pay for. The heavier infrastructure needed for a true BRT system also provides reliability in transportation choices, which has been shown time and time again to attract private economic investment.

This idea is touched upon in an AJC article by Jim Galloway posted yesterday about how the streetcar is aiming to attract millennials. The article speaks to how the city must react to those who see the streetcar as a waste of money (generally older generations) since it won’t be moving people at rapid speeds. It hints at the idea that streetcars are different than light and heavy rail, as well as buses and BRT, and our expectations should be different. Unfortunately, the article doesn’t delve into this. First, streetcars are not designed to move people quickly. They operate just like traditional buses in that they share lanes with cars and stop at lights. However, they move about twice as many people as buses, last longer than buses, provide a much smoother ride than either cars are buses, and spur economic development. They’re grander, more luxurious buses that generate economic development and increase the tax base.

Tucson's New Streetcar

Tucson’s New Streetcar

That last point is critical. People and businesses need stability. Rail provides stability because it’s expensive and difficult to destroy and change. Unlike bus routes, which can be changed or cancelled at a moments notice, rail routes (and BRT!) cannot easily be changed. A business can rely on the fact that this infrastructure is here to stay for a while and the government is going to support it. Cities across the country have seen this. Portland’s use of streetcars to completely revitalize its Pearl District is the most cited example, but the effect has been reproduced in many other places. Tucson recently opened a streetcar in its downtown corridor and its already seen hundreds of millions of dollars in investment along the route. Ultimately, the $200 million project is expected to generate 4 times the amount in investment. This can be said for light rail in Charlotte, Virginia Beach, and many other cities.

This goes to a point Mr. Wingfield makes in his piece about why we think an expensive streetcar will be able to successfully turn around an area when buses have done little. Well, to all those who recite that question, please take a look at what others are doing outside of Atlanta. Sure, spending $100 million on a streetcar project is expensive, but we’re spending billions of dollars on HOT Lanes for I-85 and I-75 and those aren’t designed to produce any money in economic investment.

While the above issues are passing statements made in Mr. Wingfield’s article, the predominate issue he tries to address is how to deal with those people who simply will not accept transit-oriented development (TOD).  As many “roads-first” advocates routinely state, TOD is so called “social engineering.” This is because the government is funding transportation and then concentrating development around such transportation, thereby forcing people to live there and only there. It’s always been an ironic statement, since the government heavily influenced the growth of the automobile and suburb through subsidies and direct investment back when people were still warming to automobiles.

Regardless of the irony, the idea of TOD constituting social engineering requires TOD to be highly undesirable. This is where those reciting the social engineering mantra show themselves to be completely out-of-touch with reality. Stat after stat and poll after polls show that more and more people want to live in transit-oriented developments, i.e. places where they can easily get around without a car if they so desire. Even more and more young conservatives want to live in cities. When we need this type of development, we need to convince those around us we need this and not just settle for the desire of an increasingly smaller pool of people.

Simply using transit-oriented development in key areas around the region doesn’t force anyone to live anywhere. The government isn’t going to come and take anyone from his or her home and make them live in a denser environment. What it will do is allow those who do want to live in a denser environments (a steadily growing pool of people) to do so without adding more cars to the roads and highways, so those who are still driving are not dealing with even more traffic. Arlington, Virginia is the best example of this style of development. Their promotion of development around train stations allowed the county to more than double in population between the 1970’s and today, but their road traffic remained at 1970’s levels. Oh yeah, and Arlington is one of the most desirable places to live in the DC region.

Mr. Wingfield’s idea that if we just concentrate transit in places people already desire, thereby negating the “social engineering” activists, misses the point. People go to places because the things they want are at those places. We could put them near transit or we could put them far from transit. We’ve been putting them far from transit and subsequently people want to go to places that aren’t served by transit. We could simply allow developers to use their own money to create desirable spaces around already existing transportation hubs (aka TOD) or we could spend public money to create transit in those areas people already frequent. We obviously need both, but a suggestion that we shouldn’t concentrate on TOD seems fiscally irresponsible.

We need pragmatic approaches to dealing with development and transportation issues. We need cooperation and all sides need to concede ideological projects so we can start making progress and move along with everyone else in this country. However, we can’t continue to chip away at projects and settle for less than what is actually needed because some people don’t want to pay any money for anything or won’t allow money to be used for things that other people want and need. The hardliner sprawl-first, roads-first advocates have been at the helm for far too long and they’re destroying our ability to attract economic investment now and in the future. We need to come to our senses and allow the reasonable minds of this region to create the dynamic urban system that every other region seems capable of producing.

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