We have heard much recently about “making Atlanta a great city” and “moving forward not backward” and “keeping up with other cities” by giving politicians and developers a massive amount of tax money to spend on their favorite projects.
Atlanta is already a great city and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Our suburban lifestyle is the best in the nation by far. IBM and other corporations discovered long ago that once they moved executives into Atlanta, they would give up further promotions to stay here. As a region we have been in the top 10 in growth for years and are very likely to continue that growth.
We have a congestion problem because our transportation planning has been dysfunctional for years. We have planned (and spent) as if Atlanta is still the hub-and-spoke city that it was in the 1960’s. We have ignored the suburban growth pattern and failed to create a grid of arteries.
In his excellent study on this subject (“Getting Georgia Going”) Baruch Feigenbaum notes:
“The arterial network that should serve as the backbone for transportation is underdeveloped. Atlanta has quite possibly the worst arterial network of any of the 10 largest metro areas in the country. A great deal of attention is focused on the shortcomings of the region's transit network, but the region's highway network is not much better. Creating a grid network would improve Atlanta's traffic flow.”
The Atlanta region has grown into a network of clusters. From a growth viewpoint, this is a very strong structure and one that we should encourage and promote. That requires very different thinking on the part of the state as well as local government officials. Regional governance structures that attempt to cement in place a dominant “urban core” are misguided and in the end will prevent rather than encourage the region’s growth.
We should begin by focusing on the origin of the problem – a dysfunctional GDOT. The GDOT board should be elected, similar to the Public Service Commission, and minimal professional standards for its top management established.
Our transportation planners should begin by identifying roads that should serve as major arteries in the regional grid, and developing innovative, continuous-flow roadway designs for these arteries. This can be done without building full-scale expressways. Other cities have done it with flyovers, roundabouts and cross-unders, yet preserved the ability for local access to stores when desired. Roadways designated as arteries should have minimal standards for such design, preventing local officials from putting stoplights every ¼ mile to slow them down.
Companies don’t move to Atlanta because of our urban core or transit system. They come because of the airport, the suburban lifestyle and great housing values. Companies that avoid Atlanta do so because of our state income tax, our dysfunctional governments at state, county and city levels and our abysmal school systems. If we want to compete effectively we should focus on those problems.
The competitive regions in the next century will be strong networks of suburban clusters with great arterial grids, not central cities. This does not mean that in-town lifestyles will deteriorate. Quite the opposite. There will always be a segment of the population that desires high-rise apartment living close to the city center. Developers can and will meet that need as the market demand dictates.
As witnessed by the Avalon complex in Alpharetta, there is even demand for that lifestyle in the suburbs, and Avalon’s developers are constructing a product to meet that demand without grossly distorting our transportation planning or requiring massive tax subsidies. What is interesting to note is that the Avalon market study makes clear that its success will be dependent on the surrounding suburban neighborhoods.