Increase the population, grow the economy, and reduce commute times. Oh and meanwhile, let’s maintain housing affordability and lower taxes.
Easy enough, right? All of those things are probably not simultaneously achievable, at least at the moment, but in the meantime we can work towards that goal. If Atlanta wants to increase its population, create jobs, and improve the economy without inciting further traffic congestion then we have to also increase in density. We have to work towards allowing more people to live closer to job centers and increase access to alternative forms of transportation.
Density doesn’t have to be a bad word. Allowing more people to live in strategic and desirable areas in closer proximity to one another doesn’t necessarily mean turning all parts of the region into Manhattan. While we aren’t talking about San Francisco or New York levels of density, we are talking about raising the density levels in certain parts of the region to something a little less Mayberry and a little more DC or Seattle.
Atlanta is one of the least-dense major cities in America. This perhaps isn’t surprising since Atlanta and the metro region are synonymous with the word “sprawl.” To accommodate an estimated 2.5 million additional residents by 2040 the region must strategically become denser. More residents need to live within easy access to job centers and alternative modes of transportation. This, as many have come to know by now, is generally referred to as Transit-Oriented Development (TOD).
The charts below show the population density for Seattle, Washington, DC, and Atlanta. In Atlanta, density levels between downtown and Buckhead are fairly high, but drop off near transit stations in the east and west. Seattle’s density levels are higher and more widespread. Washington, DC’s density levels are much higher than both Seattle and Atlanta and density is concentrated around transit stops in DC and Arlington, VA. This tactic has been incredibly successful for Arlington, VA and it remains a TOD model for the country.
Most people already want this. People are sick of being stuck in traffic and paying the high cost of transportation that is car-ownership. Years ago the majority of those in favor of living a more urban lifestyle was largely confined to younger, more liberal cohorts; that’s changed significantly. Not only have those in older age cohorts decided they may like a change, but now a majority of younger, self-identified conservative people would also like to live in denser, more walkable areas and have easy access to alternative modes of transportation.
Upon adding 2.5 million new residents we have to think about several key factors regarding where these new residents will live. If more people are stating they would like to live in denser, more urban environments and we don’t offer those options, do we lose out on attracting new residents? New research already shows that Atlanta is not a top destination for “millenials,” falling behind cities like Dallas, Denver, Seattle, and DC. While many have already remarked about the desirability of appealing to this demographic, there clearly is some significant value in attracting young, educated people.
If we don’t build desired housing yet still add the projected number of new residents, do we risk fostering a lower quality of life for new and existing residents? The environmental and health hazards that come with sitting in cars for long periods of time certainly reduces the quality of life for many people.
While growing denser is going to be necessary for successful growth, the placement of that density is critical. Simply adding more people to areas under-served by transportation options isn’t always the best option. This will likely result in more localized traffic and congestion. The site Streetsblog LA has a good analysis of how increasing density in areas of Los Angeles with few alternative transportation options only leads to more traffic. This goes for walkable, mixed-use developments in urban and suburban areas as well. While such developments may decrease the amount of driving needed for shopping or entertainment, the juggernaut of traffic and congestion woes is the commute to and from work. Perhaps this isn’t too surprising.
The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) has already begun an ambitious plan to re-develop unused parcels of land adjacent to its stations. Instead of sitting on parking lots that are empty 95 percent of the time, MARTA is working with developers to create mixed-use developments adjacent to transit. This is exactly what is needed.
Redevelopments are occurring at the Candler Park/Edgewood, King Memorial, Arts Center, Avondale Estates, Chamblee, Brookhaven, and Oakland City Stations, to name a few. While residents in those areas have voiced concerns about the increased development, MARTA and the City of Atlanta have stayed strong in backing the needed density. The Oakland City project is currently on hold as MARTA didn’t feel the proposals from developers were mixed-use enough to adequately further the goals of true TOD development.
But it can’t stop there. MARTA only owns so much land that can be re-developed and it has no zoning authority, so local jurisdictions need to get in the game. Zoning codes need to be amended to support transit-oriented development and jurisdictions need to focus on the big picture. In fact, MARTA has a model TOD zoning code that local jurisdictions can adopt. Unfortunately, we have few jurisdictions in the area that are ready to do this because we have few jurisdictions that are rail-accessible. Two of the largest counties, Gwinnett and Cobb, are absent from the existing or future transit maps and communities in the northern part of Fulton County oppose an increased transit presence.
This is particularly troubling for Cobb, since many of its residents commute to Fulton and other counties for jobs. The county is also home to the new Braves stadium, which will significantly increase traffic not just in the eastern part of the county, but throughout the northern suburbs. Atlanta residents, meanwhile, will almost certainly vote to raise taxes by a half-cent in November to dramatically expand transit options in the city.
Jurisdictions with current and future transit options need to push for more density. Density for the Brookhaven TOD project was recently slashed due to concerns from area residents. Office and residential space was nearly cut in half, but additional retail was added. Areas around existing transit is exactly where dense growth needs to occur, particularly residential and office growth.
While additional localized traffic will occur with almost any increase in density, jobs and living spaces created in transit-accessible areas will guarantee at least some percentage of people will use modes of transportation other than cars. The same can’t be said for development located in areas with no transit-accessibility. While local residents may be frustrated when confronted with the threat of increased traffic congestion, we do need to think about what’s best for the region. And hopefully we can all agree that it certainly isn’t more sprawl.