MARTA’s bunker-busting plans for developing air rights over rail stations

The top image above is of MARTA’s current bunker-like Midtown Station. Atlanta has a few stations like this, where the area above the underground platforms is occupied by a layer of concrete walls and little else. They’re not the most attractive things, and they certainly aren’t the most efficient way to use land above a rail stop that was built for high-capacity service.

That bottom image shows a brighter future that could be in store for four bunker stations — Creative Loafing has the story:

Some MARTA rail stations in the middle of Atlanta’s most dense areas might finally see developments built on top of them. Transit officials today officially announced that MARTA was gauging interest in developing above the Arts Center, Lenox, Midtown, and North Avenue stations

I can’t help but think of Thomas Wheatley’s call for a city design director given all the recent proposals for TODs at MARTA stations — we do need to make sure we champion excellence in the built environment and best practices for livability in the face of all this new construction that could be coming our way.

But in the meantime, I’m super excited about the possibilities of seeing greater density around Atlanta’s rail stations. Consider: this city was built on freight rail and has significant history of passenger rail and streetcars as well. Building the city up around rail lines is part of our heritage. After a decades-long break with development being centered around cars, even intown, it’s nice to see history repeating itself in a good way.

Biking on paths & mixed streets in Atlanta: a culture shock

I took a nice 8-mile bike ride through the city this weekend. That’s not terribly far for hardcore cyclists, I know. But for an out-of-shape guy on a small-wheeled folding bike with only one speed, it’s a haul — particularly on hilly terrain and in the heat and humidity of summer weather that’s overstaying its welcome

I got a chance to experience various degrees of bike infrastructure during the ride. There were streets with wide sharrow lanes, ones with proper bike lanes, ones with no bike lanes but quiet enough to travel safely, and ones without any level of cycling safety — where I cowardly rode on the sidewalk (as long as no pedestrians were on it) to avoid a pedaling panic attack. 

And then there were the ped/bike paths: the Atlanta Beltline and the PATH trail. With no cars in the mix, these are safe places to ride and walk. And though a I appreciate them greatly, particularly in the way that they allow new cyclists to practice riding in a danger-free zone, there’s a significant culture-shock type of experience that comes from shifting between these paths and mixed-traffic streets. 

The path experience is a calm, peaceful ride (slightly less so during the weekend-afternoon crush) that lets you take in the view. Above, notice the serene setting of the Northeast Beltline, top, and the tree-lined entrance to the PATH at Boulevard, bottom left. The other pic shows a new access point between Edgewood Avenue and an in-construction extension of the Beltline below. 

As soon as you exit a path and hit the street, though, your brain is on high alert, watching for fast cars and always thinking of the next move a few yards ahead. Dangers present themselves constantly in the form of cars entering the road from driveways and parking lots, and from doors opening on parallel-parked cars. And with the regular presence of cars illegally parked in the new bike lanes on Auburn & Edgewood Avenues, high alert mode pays off. 

Could it be possible to correct the disadvantaged status of bikes on Atlanta’s streets a bit? Perhaps by removing some of the advantages given to cars?

In an excellent piece on the relationship between cheap automobile parking and alternative transit use, Matthew Garbett recently wrote: “parking lots and the built environment they create…will not simply disappear because the BeltLine is completed and transit in the city is expanded.”

This is true. Cycling activity is working its way into intown streets that are often dominated by cars, even when the neighborhoods have all the hallmarks of a walkable urban place. Most of those cars zooming by are on their way to easy parking, making the mobility choice an easy one for drivers.

Think about the proposed transit-oriented, mixed-use developments that will be adjacent to MARTA stations. The developers of these TODs are mandated by law to construct (at great expense) the same number of automobile parking spaces necessary for similar projects in transit-lacking neighborhoods on the fringes — significantly undercutting the potential for these to be havens of transit and cycling mobility.

This is the world we’re cycling into. And though those safe paths make for a smooth ride part of the way, eventually we’ll need to make the connecting, mixed-traffic streets significantly more inviting for cyclists, and that will require making it harder to provide those easy parking spots for the cars that are blocking progress.

The rail transit infrastructure of Metro Atlanta: stunted by sprawl
This is a 1990 comparison of Barcelona and multi-county Metro Atlanta, showing the difference between a sprawling land use and a compact one. I posted a previous version of this image a couple of years ago, but Streetsblog has an updated version this week that includes rail transit lines in red.
From Streetsblog:

Urban densities are not trivial, they severely limit the transport mode choice and change only very slowly. Because of the large differences in densities between Atlanta and Barcelona about the same length of metro line is accessible to 60% of the population in Barcelona but only 4% in Atlanta.

When I look at this image, what I see is two things:
1.) a mass of 2.8 million people (Barcelona) in an area compact and walkable enough to be served well by transit
2.) a mass of 2.5 million people (Metro Atlanta) in an area so sprawled out and unwalkable — due to its largely car-centric form — that most of it can’t be served well by transit.
The relatively minor amount of rail transit in Metro Atlanta is, in my opinion, entirely justified. I differ with many people on this point. Without a concurrent plan for building greater densities of population in a format that accommodates safe pedestrian and cycling mobility, I don’t think that there should be an extension of rail transit in the metro. 
Rail infrastructure is incredibly expensive to build. Stretching it out into the car-centric nether regions of Metro Atlanta, where rail stations would be built into an urban fabric dominated by suburban sprawl and that offers safe travel to cars alone, would be a bad move. We’d end up with park-and-ride stations of the type that MARTA is finally getting around to undoing, via new transit-oriented-development plans to convert parking lots into housing.
And worst of all, we’d be spending public money on a transportation system that supports a sprawling, unwalkable environment. We’d be subsidizing the problem instead of offering a solution — and that would be a lateral move for the metro’s built environment when compared interstate infrastructure. We’ve already subsidized sprawl enough with our public money and I’m not eager to donate more to that cause. 
When there is a metro-wide initiative to retrofit suburban sprawl into more walkable forms via infill and rezoning — reversing the car-sprawl damage of the past — then I think it will be time for talking about rail expansion. The key is getting to a place where a significant number of people can safely walk or cycle to rail stations instead of driving to them.
[I’ll add a caveat that there are a couple of nodes of walkable density within the current radius of MARTA’s rail service area that could sensibly be served by rail stations, like Emory University; but without other nearby nodes that could be served by the same new rail line, that would be an overly-expensive expansion to make.]

The rail transit infrastructure of Metro Atlanta: stunted by sprawl

This is a 1990 comparison of Barcelona and multi-county Metro Atlanta, showing the difference between a sprawling land use and a compact one. I posted a previous version of this image a couple of years ago, but Streetsblog has an updated version this week that includes rail transit lines in red.

From Streetsblog:

Urban densities are not trivial, they severely limit the transport mode choice and change only very slowly. Because of the large differences in densities between Atlanta and Barcelona about the same length of metro line is accessible to 60% of the population in Barcelona but only 4% in Atlanta.

When I look at this image, what I see is two things:

1.) a mass of 2.8 million people (Barcelona) in an area compact and walkable enough to be served well by transit

2.) a mass of 2.5 million people (Metro Atlanta) in an area so sprawled out and unwalkable — due to its largely car-centric form — that most of it can’t be served well by transit.

The relatively minor amount of rail transit in Metro Atlanta is, in my opinion, entirely justified. I differ with many people on this point. Without a concurrent plan for building greater densities of population in a format that accommodates safe pedestrian and cycling mobility, I don’t think that there should be an extension of rail transit in the metro. 

Rail infrastructure is incredibly expensive to build. Stretching it out into the car-centric nether regions of Metro Atlanta, where rail stations would be built into an urban fabric dominated by suburban sprawl and that offers safe travel to cars alone, would be a bad move. We’d end up with park-and-ride stations of the type that MARTA is finally getting around to undoing, via new transit-oriented-development plans to convert parking lots into housing.

And worst of all, we’d be spending public money on a transportation system that supports a sprawling, unwalkable environment. We’d be subsidizing the problem instead of offering a solution — and that would be a lateral move for the metro’s built environment when compared interstate infrastructure. We’ve already subsidized sprawl enough with our public money and I’m not eager to donate more to that cause. 

When there is a metro-wide initiative to retrofit suburban sprawl into more walkable forms via infill and rezoning — reversing the car-sprawl damage of the past — then I think it will be time for talking about rail expansion. The key is getting to a place where a significant number of people can safely walk or cycle to rail stations instead of driving to them.

[I’ll add a caveat that there are a couple of nodes of walkable density within the current radius of MARTA’s rail service area that could sensibly be served by rail stations, like Emory University; but without other nearby nodes that could be served by the same new rail line, that would be an overly-expensive expansion to make.]

The Portman Zone, Downtown Atlanta: great for looking up, not so much when looking down

Along the Peachtree Street corridor in the historic center of Atlanta, there’s a large block of prominent buildings from architect John Portman. Built during the late 1960s through the 1980s, the collection includes iconic towers that help to define the downtown skyline. His work is credited by some as having revitalized a struggling district after the disinvestment that followed the suburban-flight frenzy in the 1960s-70s.

When you’re in the midst of the Portman Zone, you can look up and see some great building-top views — and they make for a nice skyline. But at the street level, many of them are dead. Blank walls, loading docks, and a lack of retail spaces make the experience of walking past some of these building bottoms a bore and leave the streets lacking in good urban activity.

To add insult to injury, the network of Portman buildings is connected with pedestrian bridges — aka ‘gerbil tubes’ — that further reduce activity by removing people from the ground. These tubes were popular in many cities during the 1970s-80s urban-renewal era, allowing office workers to bypass the sidewalks. They might be convenient in rainy weather, but they make for lifeless streetscapes, lifting people away from view and giving street level activity almost completely, in some spots, over to cars (see above, bottom pic).

You’d think that as a society we’d have learned a lesson in good urban place-making and moved on past this era. You’d be wrong: there’s a proposal to build a new gerbil tube between two Portman buildings on West Peachtree. The dream of the 1970s is alive in 2014.

Housing and transportation costs — as a percentage of income — are higher in sprawling metros like Atlanta
As a companion to my recent post “The affordability swindle: why living in sunbelt sprawl actually costs more" — here’s a great graphic from a post on Reuters’ Data Dive blog titled "The expense of sprawl.”
It shows the percentage of household income (that’s the horizontal metric) that’s spent on average, within each of these metro areas, on a combo of housing and transportation costs. And yes, it says “cities” but it means metros — pet peeve of mine. The blue part is housing and the green part is transpo.
Take a look at where sprawling places like Atlanta and Phoenix fall on the chart. On average, people in Metro Atlanta spend a higher percentage of wages on housing/transpo costs than people in more compact, walkable places like NYC.
Of course, you have to take into account that average wages in NYC are higher. But is it possible that those high wages are possible as a result of some innate benefit to local economies brought on by that compact, walkable environment? Could be.

Housing and transportation costs — as a percentage of income — are higher in sprawling metros like Atlanta

As a companion to my recent post “The affordability swindle: why living in sunbelt sprawl actually costs more" — here’s a great graphic from a post on Reuters’ Data Dive blog titled "The expense of sprawl.

It shows the percentage of household income (that’s the horizontal metric) that’s spent on average, within each of these metro areas, on a combo of housing and transportation costs. And yes, it says “cities” but it means metros — pet peeve of mine. The blue part is housing and the green part is transpo.

Take a look at where sprawling places like Atlanta and Phoenix fall on the chart. On average, people in Metro Atlanta spend a higher percentage of wages on housing/transpo costs than people in more compact, walkable places like NYC.

Of course, you have to take into account that average wages in NYC are higher. But is it possible that those high wages are possible as a result of some innate benefit to local economies brought on by that compact, walkable environment? Could be.

"About 300 kids are hurt daily in car accidents; an average of three are killed that way every day. Yet I don’t see police pulling parents over and locking them up whenever they see someone in a car seat. But playing on the monkey bars without Mommy nearby? Book ’em!"

Why I let my children walk to the corner store — and why other parents should, too | Washington Post, 8/25/14

The affordability swindle: why living in sunbelt sprawl actually costs more

image

Sprawl apologists like Joel Kotkin like to trumpet the continuing population shift to sunbelt metros of the southern US as proof that people prefer to live in these car-centric places that are spread out far and wide — as opposed to compact, walkable cities.

Others believe that there’s a draw to sunbelt states because of pro-business, low-regulation policies that allow for better wages. New York Time columnist Paul Krugman recently wrote an excellent piece that counters that argument, pointing out that, though the population shift is undeniable:

[From 2000-2012] greater Atlanta’s population grew almost 27 percent, and greater Houston’s grew almost 30 percent. America’s center of gravity is shifting south and west.

…this shift to the sunbelt isn’t due to wages:

The average job in greater Houston pays 12 percent less than the average job in greater New York; the average job in greater Atlanta pays 22 percent less.

In other words, what the facts really suggest is that Americans are being pushed out of the Northeast (and, more recently, California) by high housing costs rather than pulled out by superior economic performance in the Sunbelt.

The other draw that sunbelt metros are assumed to have is lower costs of living due to more affordable housing. And though the houses themselves may be lower in price, a new study shows that overall living costs are actually higher in these sprawling, car-centric areas due to transportation spending. Kaid Benfield has the info here: How Transit, Walkability Help Make Cities More Affordable.

A quote from Benfield:

The least affordable cities when housing and transportation costs are combined and compared to typical household income turn out to be sprawling, Sun Belt cities:  Riverside, California; Miami; and Jacksonville.  Those three cities also have the study’s highest transportation costs for a typical household, because of high rates of driving and relatively low use of mass transit.

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So even though lower home prices are an obvious draw to sunbelt metros — and appear to be the sole reason behind the population shift — these prices aren’t low enough to truly provide a cost-of-living advantage over more walkable cities when we factor in the big costs of car-centric living.

Places that are more compact and walkable offer more transportation choices, rather than tying all residents to expensive car mobility. Additionally, they provide a built environment that gives multiple generations of residents the ability to get around without a car.

As I’ve written before, 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. It’s better to pass along walkable environments to future inhabitants of our places than saddling yet another generation with car dependency.

The answer to a more sustainable pattern of housing affordability is not to accept car-centric sprawl as inevitable — it’s to find ways to create lower housing costs inside walkable environments and encourage a population shift within that format.

Top photo of Atlanta suburbs by Flickr user Maik

Bottom photo of Atlanta traffic by Flickr user Craig Allen