Atlanta is experiencing an urban renaissance not seen since the 1940’s. Its skyline has become dominated by construction cranes; their shadows weave across streets that, once empty, are now flooded with people. After losing 100,000 residents during the great urban exodus of the latter half of the 20th Century, Atlanta gained nearly 50,000 residents in the past six years alone. While other area jurisdictions have also added residents, Atlanta has grown at faster rates and with much more excitement. While Atlanta moves forward with exciting infrastructure projects that have gained the attention and admiration of many throughout the country, the rest of the metro area risks becoming irrelevant. Should they be worried?
No longer are we fixated on the amazing growth rates of Cobb County or Forysth County. While Forsyth continues to lead in regional growth, no one seems to care anymore. Our focus has shifted from the rise of Atlanta’s suburbs to the increasing sales prices of its Edgewood and Old Fourth Ward homes. People are excited about the growth and prosperity of the city and want to be a part of it. The opportunity to walk to shops, parks, and entertainment while being surrounding by interesting architecture, history, and nature is proving to be overwhelmingly attractive.
While other metro area jurisdictions continue to balk at funding alternative modes of transportation, Atlanta is moving forward with diverse transportation options designed to enhance the user experience. Though it is currently confined to being a mere recreational device, the Beltline has garnered attention across the country and driven massive population increases as well as housing price surges in many in-town neighborhoods. And this is without the light rail line that will actually make the Beltline an effective means of transportation.
Atlanta has doubled down on securing the transportation people want while the surrounding counties have reduced their options to HOT lanes, traffic, and sprawl. The city walked away from the 2016 Georgia legislative session as the clear transportation winner. North Fulton politicians worked tirelessly to kill a bill that would have allowed citizens in the core counties to vote on implementing a tax that would support MARTA expansion. While that deal would have been great for regional transportation, it offered Atlanta limited funding. Instead of allowing rural and suburban interests to once again kill alternative transportation funding, Atlanta struck a brilliant deal allowing city residents to tax themselves to fund transportation within the city. So North Fulton, Cobb, and Gwinnett are left with nothing and, should Atlanta voters approve the tax increase in November, the city will get billions of dollars to invest in massive rail expansion. This is the type of investment that leads to the creation of walkable communities, the same types of communities that have driven the massive population and economic growth of the city.
So what happens to these outer counties when Atlanta is the only major jurisdiction seriously investing in diverse housing and transportation options?
It’s likely we’ll see a growing disparity in the quality-of-life of area residents. We know that long commutes and traffic increase stress and negatively impact health. Studies show that the health statistics related to sitting all day are equivalent to those related to smoking. Sprinkle in some road rage and an auto-dependent lifestyle becomes an even greater scourge on public health. Poorer people will increasingly find it difficult to locate housing that offers the numerous benefits of walkability when only one jurisdiction in the area is investing in it.
We’ll likely see an increase in the number of poorer suburban communities. While Cobb and North Fulton will still have enclaves of wealthier residents, they will increasingly become the destination of lower-income individuals when they are priced out of the walkable Atlanta area. While quality-of-life is an issue even for wealthier residents in auto-centric communities, it is much more of a problem for their poorer residents. Try getting to the grocery store or your job when you don’t have a car and your community doesn’t support sidewalks or alternative transportation. While sitting in traffic on the way to work is stressful, having no transportation options to safely get to that place of work is arguably more stressful.
While it’s great that Atlanta is moving forward and progressing so quickly, will still need regional transportation and zoning policies that widely distribute quality housing throughout the area. We can’t continue to rely on Atlanta to provide these progressive and sensible ideas for the entire region. People are quickly becoming priced out of newly walkable neighborhoods, leaving auto-centric communities as the only alternative. Without a wider acceptance of zoning policies that allow more people to live in closer proximity to their jobs, and transportation policies that offer more attractive options than driving, we risk exacerbating the already worrying quality-of-life disparity in our region.