Is that me? Talking about sprawl? Well I’ll be…

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The nice people at WABE asked me to appear in a short segment for their City Cafe radio series recently. It aired this week and you can stream it online here:

Clearing Up Where Atlanta Stands on Sprawl. No, Really.

The talk is based on a post I wrote about the confusing reports we’ve seen regarding Atlanta’s sprawl this year. In a nutshell: though metro Atlanta is the king of existing low-density sprawl among large US metros due to past expansion, it is no longer sprawling like it did. It is, in fact, doing quite a good job at urban infill these days, thanks very much.

The post on WABE’s site contains an interesting graphic that they found. It shows how metro Atlanta’s land mass, which contains 5.5 million people, could easily house eight world cities with a combined population of well over 100 million.

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This is not to say that metro Atlanta needs to shoot for that level of density, but it’s interesting to note what an inefficient use we’re making of this sprawled-out area — and to think about how this low density figures into our public transportation struggles. More on that in an upcoming post.

"Public transit is far from the only thing that makes for a shorter commute. As those economists found, it’s also a question of sprawl. City design and transit go hand in hand: it’s easier to design a public transit system that efficiently connects people in a more compact city than in a big one."

Suburban sprawl and bad transit can crush opportunity for the poor | Vox, 7/23/14

"The appeal of autonomous cars carries the risk of adding to urban sprawl and pollution as they may encourage commuters to travel farther to work…“U.S. history shows that anytime you make driving easier, there seems to be this inexhaustible desire to live further from things” [says Ken Laberteaux, senior principal scientist for Toyota North America]"

Automated Cars May Boost Fuel Use, Toyota Scientist Says | Bloomberg.com, Jul 16, 2014

"Sprawl" — it’s a noun! It’s a verb! It’s a problem.

A recent post in the Atlanta Business Chronicle claims that Atlanta is “no longer the King of Sprawl" — basing this on a report from Georgetown University. Awesome! So, we’re done with it, right? We can all take a metro-wide walk outside to a pocket park and forget the “s” word every existed.

But wait, didn’t we also read just a couple of months ago that a different study found Atlanta to be “the most sprawling big metro in the U.S.?” Why, yes we did. And both are correct. Which makes your brain hurt for a second, but here’s the way to untangle the mess: “sprawl” can be both a noun and a verb. 

In it’s verb form, “sprawl” means 1.) the action of a development that is in the process of sprawling across the land. But in it’s noun form, “sprawl” is  2.) the end result — the finished product of low-density, land hogging development.

WHAT WE’VE GOT: A SPRAWLING MESS

That #2 definition, the end product, is what Atlanta has in spades. As that Smart Growth American report from this year shows, Metro Atlanta is still a leader when it comes to having a low-density, far-reaching built environment, following decades of outward growth in a format that’s focused on cars.

WHAT WE’RE BUILDING: DEVELOPMENT IN WALKABLE PLACES

But we’re doing well on #1 — that verb form. Because, according to a report las year from Christopher B. Leinberger, over half of our new development is in walkable places. As the report shows:

…In the real estate cycle begun in 2009, “60 percent of all development delivered to the market by square footage has gone to walkable urban places,” representing less than one percent of metro Atlanta’s land.

So we are no longer in the act of sprawling like we once were. And, as the aforementioned Georgetown University report shows, even greater amounts of development in walkable places are predicted for Metro Atlanta’s future.

There’s still plenty of leftover low-density sprawl (noun form) from previous decades. So trumpeting that there’s an end to sprawl (verb form) here makes sense and it’s a cool thing to see happening, but it’s a bittersweet victory.

I’ll be more excited when, in conjunction with our new-found interest in infill type development, we’ve also got regional leaders on board with the idea of retrofitting suburban sprawl to have a form that’s more compact and walkable.

For now, let this little graphic I’ve made be your guide in clearing up the confusion on where the metro stands with sprawl:

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Putting cars in their place

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Thanks to Angie Schmitt for tweeting part of this quote this week. It comes from an excellent, must-read post on the Notes from the Underground blog:

"We should resist the false choices offered to us by the ideologues who tell us that our only two options are either abolishing cars altogether, or a continued spending spree on highway construction and urban sprawl.    

An important point established here: the choice between continuing the status quo and getting rid of all cars is a false one.

This is a particularly important to consider one when it comes to having productive public conversations about reducing car use. Many times I’ve read apologists for suburban sprawl write dismissively about smart growth-ers, new urbanists, etc. as being people who hate cars and who are unrealistically promoting car-free cities.

But no reasonable urbanist that I know of wants to ban car use or establish car-free cities. I certainly don’t. Cars have a place in a multi-modal transportation system, even in a dense urban environment, alongside pedestrians, buses, trains, bicycles, and more. As the Underground blog post notes, “it’s all about balance.”

The problem arises when urban environments are unbalanced — when they are built to exclusively suit personally-owned cars at the expense of all other options, hindering public-transit implementation and making pedestrian and cycling mobility either difficult or dangerous (check out the Dangerous by Design report for more info on that).

When car-centric places make it almost (or entirely) impossible to move around without ownership of or access to a car, communities are being ruled by transportation — not served by it. Another quote from the post:

We should think long and hard about the reality of the fact that we’ve reordered our entire society; our built environment; even our very way of life, to serve this machine that we were told would serve us.  

Our generation’s challenge is to create a balanced transportation system that works for all of our citizens - rich and poor; young and old; urban, suburban, and rural.

Photo: Automobiles traveling by freight train, on tracks over the Downtown Connector, Atlanta, Georgia, December 10, 1963. From the GSU digital collection.


We’re still wasting money & land on highway-widening projects

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The image above compares Florence Italy with Metro Atlanta’s Interstate I-75/I-285 interchange. It’s a few years old, but it’s making the rounds on the web again thanks to some recent exposure. The line usually accompanying it claims that “entire city of Florence could fit inside Atlanta interchange” or similar.

It’s instructive in that it shows how much land space we waste on car infrastructure and how it could be better used (don’t get fooled by the lush green spot on the west corner of the interchange image — that’s about to become the new Cobb County Braves stadium). But it’s also a bit of a lie. It’s even in scale, but the Florence image shows only a portion of the historic center of that city. 

Contrasting these two places has merit as a kind of fun exercise in land use. But when it comes to Atlanta’s land and the amount we devote to cars, I’m more interested in two specific, very real things.

1.) The land within our neighborhoods wasted on car infrastructure

There are many Atlanta neighborhoods I could use for this comparison of properties developed for humans versus those for cars, but to be gallant I’ll allow my own home — the Fairlie-Poplar district — to take the heat.

Below is an image I’ve made that shows, in blue, the amount of land in Fairlie-Poplar that’s devoted entirely to car storage in the form of either surface lots or parking decks (in fairness, I just realized I missed one, so it’s even worse than it looks here). The headline I’d give this is “entire human-inhabited portion of FP could fit inside the land devoted to parking.” Basically, if you developed all the parking structures, you could build a second neighborhood inside itself.

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Because of the parking built for people visiting the large event facilities in Downtown, this is a more dramatic example than you’ll find elsewhere, but most every neighborhood has its unfair share of car-centric land use — space that is sitting empty much of the time and not offering the value it should to a potentially more livable neighborhoods.

2.) We’re still building these interchanges in Metro Atlanta and elsewhere

This week the Atlanta newspaper published a piece titled Big plans for Ga. 400/I-285 interchange just got bigger, about another interchange that’s only a few miles east of the I-75/I-285 one that was compared to Florence.

The State of Georgia is planning to add miles of lanes to those highways in an attempt to relieve congestion for car commuters. This, despite the overwhelming evidence that adding lanes on a congested highway can create more traffic via induced demand.

According to the news piece:

At an estimated cost of $950 million, it would be the most expensive road project in state history, paid for by going at least $130 million into debt, not counting interest costs. It would take three years of heavy construction to build. 

This is exactly the kind of project that a growing metro, already struggling with sprawl damage, needs to avoid. Instead of affordable infill housing in a format that encourages alternative transportation options, this highway-building project is the sort of thing that enables further sprawl and car dependency. 

Now is the time to learn from our mistakes in road building, not repeat them. We should build better neighborhoods, not bigger highways.

"With sprawl development, much public money would go into major connecting thoroughfares instead of rapid transit. The thoroughfares themselves would disperse population so evenly that rapid transit lines could not be efficiently constructed and operated…Sprawl development implies a heavy — almost exclusive — reliance on private autos instead of public transit, particularly rapid transit."

— Quote from a 1957 report by the Atlanta Metropolitan Planning Commission. How sad that planners knew so long ago the dangers of car-centric sprawl, but that metro Atlanta’s local governments were too short-sighted to listen. 

Tags: atlanta sprawl