Serving sprawl: when transit systems deserve sympathy, not scorn

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Not long ago, Atlanta Magazine’s website featured a good post on a new online service called ATLtransit (atltransit.org) that provides an interactive trip planner for getting around the metro using its array of disconnected transit systems. From that post:

We tested the ATLtransit trip planning service. It was not exactly a success. The unification tool is a great concept, but the pilot program underscores the disjointed nature of Atlanta’s regional transit providers

…I have traveled for six and a half hours, an estimated three and a half of those on buses and trains. According to Google Maps, taking a car would have saved me two and a half of those hours…The website is a good concept with horrible execution (not unlike metro Atlanta’s transit as a whole).

I have a significant complaint about one little phrase here: “horrible execution (not unlike metro Atlanta’s transit as a whole).”

This is a sentiment that shows up often when people write and talk about transit service in Metro Atlanta — that it needs to be expanded to reach all the places where people live and thus compete more fully with car transportation. To which I say: tough luck, Charlie. The many places in the metro that are dominated by unwalkable carsprawl set their low-transit destiny in motion long ago, and nothing short of a massive effort to retrofit suburbia for walkable infill and to repair its road disconnectivity will change that.

High quality transit is not going to be possible all throughout an urban environment that is built so specifically for the movement and storage of cars. Particularly within one that is as low in population density as metro Atlanta.

Population density: how low can you go?

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Metro Atlanta is the least densely populated large metro in the US. This status is not the result of population loss, it’s the result of incredible population gains (and as recent data shows, we’re still gaining) that happened within a sprawling, land-hogging, car-centric pattern. In fact, the horizontal spread of the metro’s housing and commercial developments has pushed its boundaries out so far that it may end up becoming part of a sprawling mega region that stretches all the way to Raleigh.

This is not the way human populations grew prior to modern cars, when we had to make our places easy to get around on foot, on bicycle, within rail stops and through various slower transportation options. Buildings needed to be closer together. Car-centric development allows you to build homes miles from grocery stores, and grocery stores miles in yet another direction from offices. What it *doesn’t* allow you to do is walk between those places, or even to a bus stop, easily and safely.

Transit in a tough spot

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It’s quite unfair to claim that routes for mass transit systems are executed poorly when you don’t make note of the fact that the development pattern around them is centered on single-passenger cars. With wide lanes and wide shoulders designed to move as many cars through as fast as possible, and with large surface parking lots fronting buildings, the roads of our sprawlvilles are very clearly intended for one use.

Any sidewalks or bus stops that find their way inside this development style are destined, by no fault of their own, to be an afterthought when it comes to serious mobility.

The mass transit systems of Metro Atlanta are working in what I personally would call a transit-hostile environment due to low population density and bad street connectivity (think dead end cul-de-sacs of subdivisions). They’re doing the best they can in a tough spot.

None of this is to say that our transit systems are perfect — certainly, improvements in routing can be made and metro-wide cooperation on fare systems would be an enormous change for the better. But the next time you’re wondering why a bus doesn’t come to the door of your subdivision, think about maybe moving your door to a place that’s more easily served by transit.

EDITED TO ADD: there are many people who are trapped in suburban sprawl and who have no access to a car, so for them my snarky “move to where the transit is” suggestion is of no help. Real solutions are needed for the growing number of people who make up suburban poverty — how incredibly frustrating it is that transit options that could serve their needs are rendered unfeasible by these car-centric environments.

Building new stories in a 1913 one-story, Downtown Atlanta

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With the photos that I post, I try to focus mostly on aesthetically pleasing views of my Downtown Atlanta home — and there are many. But I also see on my daily walks the side that’s less photogenic: neglected buildings, overabundance of parking, trash, panhandling, drug sales.

One of the things that allows me to happily live in a place that has so many visible challenges is my multi-layered view of the city. I have a long history of walking these streets (since the late 1980s), I’ve read a lot about Atlanta history and, importantly, I dream a lot about it’s future, with those dreams informed heavily by the trends in good urbanism happening in cities across the nation.

So when I see a block or a building Downtown that’s in bad repair, I see it not just as it is but also as it once was and how it could be in the future.

Take, for instance, the 1913 one-story commercial building at 80 Forsyth St SW, pictured above. It’s currently the new home of the Eyedrum Art & Music Gallery (disclosure: I’m on the board) and we’re working to turn a set of storefronts, some long-abandoned, into a multifaceted arts venue.

There is nothing architecturally significant about the structure. That much is plain to see. But the history is significant. Below is a 1955 photo of Ideal Music store, which operated in two of these storefronts for several decades.

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It was a successful venture, drawing in famous touring musicians and catering to the changing musical needs of Atlanta during a tumultuous time, all the while weathering the onset of blight brought along by suburban flight and Downtown disinvestment.

Now look at two photos (credit: Caroline Oelkers, also the top exterior shot) of the former music store as it looked last week. When Ideal went out of business a few years ago, they left behind an incredible amount of stuff that had accumulated over the years, turning a once thriving business into an example of urban decay.

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This weekend (August 15-17) you can come visit Eyedrum and see what a group of local artists has done to activate this neglected space, during the Existing Conditions show.

It’s an event that is very much in keeping with my own viewpoint of old buildings and street blocks Downtown — seeing a place for what it was, what it is, and imagining new and interesting things it could be. We’re preserving a structure that has a great history and getting geared up for building upon it with our own story.

Much thanks to Kyle Kessler for the historic photo; other photos by Caroline Oelkers

"Surface parking lots are the lowest common denominator in a city – a visual eyesore that suggests there are no signs of life and activity in an area…We as a city should be getting rid of all our surface parking lots and replacing them with vibrant activities – places where people live, work, shop, eat, play and enjoy nature."

Castleberry Hill opposes ‘park-for-hire’ surface parking lots around stadium | Saporta Report, 8/11/14

Is a walkable built environment a civil right?

As we see often in Atlanta’s real estate market, the newest examples of what I call “good urbanism” are often beyond the affordability range for low-income people. It’s a conundrum: compact, walkable developments near transit and other amenities tend to have high housing costs.

At least as first…

Think about this: the old “drive until you qualify” idea usually entails going away from the more walkable places and into car-centric, sprawling suburbs to find the most affordable housing; which is convenient for those who have cars. But as Rebecca Burns found out in a report this year on the growing level of low-income people in Metro Atlanta’s suburbs, an increasing number of residents there can’t afford a car; they instead depend on what little transit and pedestrian infrastructure exists.

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A recent article in Time also covered the issue:

Poverty in the U.S. has worsened in neighborhoods already considered to be poor, but it’s now becoming more prevalent in the nation’s suburbs, according to the Brookings report.

Is it time to think of walkability as a civil right? As a kind of social justice issue regarding mobility options for those who can’t drive?

When we build car-sprawl for the middle-class car owners of today, we’re also building environments that will be eventually devalued by the common trends of the real estate market and that will likely be housing the low-income populations of the future.

A new article in Governing, on the way poor neighborhoods in the US  are experiencing the greatest rate of pedestrian deaths, mentions Metro Atlanta’s Buford highway as an example:

Brookhaven, Ga., is a well-to-do suburb on the northeast perimeter of Atlanta….Many of Brookhaven’s residents are educated and well-off, but parts of the city have undergone a demographic transformation in recent years. Over the past two decades, the city’s southernmost neighborhood saw an influx of lower-income residents, particularly Hispanics. Many live in apartment complexes along Buford Highway, a thoroughfare that ranks among the nation’s deadliest…With seven lanes of traffic and a 45 mph speed limit, motorists don’t slow down. Much of the highway is dimly lit and doesn’t have sidewalks.

The birth of car-centric suburban subdivisions was tied closely to the concept of exclusion — using zoning laws to establish enclaves for middle-class and wealthy home owner (read this excerpt from Ben Ross’ “Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism” for a good exploration of that subject).

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Exclusionary zoning was a tactic that worked well (for a while, anyway), keeping low-income people separated from many suburban subdivisions. But generations later, poor populations — often the ones most in need of pedestrian infrastructure — have shifted into now-devalued suburban homes that were not built for pedestrian and mass-transit mobility. And  long-time residents who are aging in place are now experiencing these car-dependent environments in a very different way as they begin to lose the ability to drive themselves.

It may be time to turn the tables on the exclusionary zoning ideas of the 20th century. Instead of the old practice of preventing pedestrian-focused, low-income housing and mixed-use developments from being built within car-sprawl, it might be time now to exclude car-centric forms from our development patterns. 

"The transportation dinosaurs of the 20th century love to substantiate their insatiable thirst for new highway capacity for two primary reasons: congestion relief and economic growth. However, highway capacity does neither. In fact…new highway capacity very well might actually hinder these things."

What exactly do you do here? | Walkable DFW

sigitkusumawijaya:

The existence of kids in public space is important. They are the indicator of great public space of a city.
‪#‎urbanism‬ ‪#‎publicspace‬


I’m biased as a Downtown dad of course, but this is very true in our experience.
I generally don’t care for the phrase “urban pioneer” because I think it gets used too often in a pro-gentrification or affluence-biased kind of way. But I think it fits fairly well in our situation in Downtown Atlanta, since we’re pretty unique in having a school aged child here. 

The spot where we live, Fairlie-Poplar went for many decades during the 20th century without having a significant residential population (if any at all). But as a commercial district it was built in an era before automobile dominance to be accommodating to pedestrians and public transportation. It’s resulted in a walkable street grid with good sidewalks. A perfect set of amenities for a family on their way to the park or anywhere else.

sigitkusumawijaya:

The existence of kids in public space is important. They are the indicator of great public space of a city.

‪#‎urbanism‬ ‪#‎publicspace‬

I’m biased as a Downtown dad of course, but this is very true in our experience.

I generally don’t care for the phrase “urban pioneer” because I think it gets used too often in a pro-gentrification or affluence-biased kind of way. But I think it fits fairly well in our situation in Downtown Atlanta, since we’re pretty unique in having a school aged child here.

The spot where we live, Fairlie-Poplar went for many decades during the 20th century without having a significant residential population (if any at all). But as a commercial district it was built in an era before automobile dominance to be accommodating to pedestrians and public transportation. It’s resulted in a walkable street grid with good sidewalks. A perfect set of amenities for a family on their way to the park or anywhere else.

(via humanscalecities)

A parking apocalypse on Ellis Street, Downtown Atlanta

Thanks much to Janet for sending these great and thoroughly depressing photos. I posted a while ago about the plan to demolish two buildings on Ellis Street in Downtown Atlanta to make way for new surface parking spaces for the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. 

The demolition has started and now we can see that the new surface lot will have a central location inside a ring of — parking decks.

Here’s a side photo showing the demolition with two enormous decks in the background (in light blue).

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And here’s the jaw-dropping view from above. I’ve shaded the Legal Aid Society building in pink but I didn’t bother to shade the parking infrastructure because, from this view, that’s all you can see.

To be clear: in the photo below, everything but the Legal Aid Society building is either a parking deck, surface parking or car lanes. Auto parkalypse 2014 in Atlanta.

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Normally, new parking lots aren’t allowed here, but the city granted a variance to allow this one by request, for the use of employees of the Legal Aid Society. Even though, as can clearly be seen in the above photo taken in the middle of a weekday afternoon, there is plenty of unused parking capacity all around. And two MARTA station entrances are a stone’s throw away.

There are some truly good ideas in the recently-released report on public parking Downtown, with recommendations for reducing single-car use and making good use of existing public lots. But when it comes to private parking lots like this, Atlanta is in need of clear goals moving forward — ones that fall in line with best practices in good urban design, with pedestrian, transit and cycling mobility given a more prominent place.

Non-profit organizations, bloggers, advocates — we can only do so much by ourselves. We need the decision makers in office to be on our side. From where I stand, it looks like city government needs better leadership when it comes to creating sustainable, livable urban places. This is a shameful situation.