Metro Atlanta loses major ground on attracting young & educated, but there’s a silver lining

A New York Times piece titled “Where Young College Graduates Are Choosing to Live" is getting a lot of attention in Atlanta this week. It covers a new report that shows Metro Atlanta to be losing major ground in its ability to attract the young and educated — specifically, college-educated people age 25 to 34.

In the graph below of “percent change in the number of college graduates aged 25 to 34, from 2000 to 2012,” you can see Atlanta near the bottom, alongside Cleveland, Detroit and Providence.image

The reason this is so surprising is that, in the 1990s, Atlanta was near the top of this chart. This is a distinct turnaround for the region. A quote from the NYT:

"Atlanta, one of the biggest net gainers of young graduates in the 1990s, has taken a sharp turn. Its young, educated population has increased just 2.8 percent since 2000, significantly less than its overall population. It is suffering the consequences of overenthusiasm for new houses and new jobs before the crash, economists say."

Atlanta boomed in the 1990s, big time. According to this NYT article from 2006, it was a leader in young-population growth due to a rise in both jobs and affordable housing throughout the metro.

But the bigger they come, the harder they fall — and the fallout from the bursting of the housing bubble and the economic recession was harsh. Along with the hundreds of thousands of jobs that were lost in the region, a mortgage crisis made Atlanta a poster child for sprawling growth gone bad. The attraction for young, educated people proved to be unsustainable. 

This all sounds fairly grim, but there’s a silver lining in the numbers, I promise. 

The 3-mile radius story: a loss for the metro, but a gain intown

The raw data from the report that the NYT piece is writing about shows something very interesting: the loss in ground in the region was offset by a significant 39% rise in the young-and-educated population in what the report calls “close-in neighborhoods” — places that are within a 3-mile radius of downtown Atlanta.

In a post on ajc.com, Jay Bookman points out these nuances to the story:

Those familiar with the housing growth and changing demographics of intown Atlanta — an explosion of bars and apartments and restaurants and condos, with young professionals driving the change — may find those Census-derived numbers hard to believe.

…Almost all of metro Atlanta’s increase in young, college-educated professionals has been concentrated within a three-mile radius of downtown. Outside of that inner core, there was no growth whatsoever in the number of college-educated young people, even as the overall population grew substantially.

And while some might be tempted to read this as failure (“look at what a small portion of the region this is that’s attracting educated young people”), I’ll optimistically say that there’s a great opportunity for change in the region by adopting the growth practices that have been successful intown.

Atlanta Beltline: a new pattern for success

The Atlanta Beltline has been a powerful tool for changing the way people think about developing land and living intown. The BeltLine’s series of paths and parks stitch together (or at least will someday when fully completed) 45 close-in neighborhoods, all within a two- to four-mile radius of Downtown.

image

See how nicely that fits in with the growth in the young-and-educated we’re seeing within that 3-mile radius of Downtown?

Look at the birds-eye rendering above of the Beltline. This pattern for growth hits all the right notes, and the educated young people of today know it. It has pedestrian/cycling infrastructure, transit access, walkable density and all the amenities needed for urban life.

For good urbanism, it’s important to make sure that amenities like parks, restaurants, grocery stores and more are all reachable by multiple transportation modes. But it’s also important for attracting young people; as you’ve probably seen in the many news reports on the issue, Millennials are particularly keen on transit access and are, in general, not embracing the car-centric culture and environments of the past. 

A movement toward good urbanism and alternative transportation in the core of the City of Atlanta has coincided with and encouraged a rise in the population of educated young people. The rest of the region can take cues from this success by viewing car-centric sprawl as a thing of the past and moving toward a better future. 

"We went way too far in our love affair with cars, allowing them to take over both our rural landscape and the city streets that once were built to serve pedestrians and transit. We tragically disinvested our older neighborhoods and towns. And we simply forgot about nature, taking it for granted until there was nothing left in many places – suburbs and downtowns alike – but pavement and haphazard buildings. It’s now in all of our interests to fix the damage."

Do greener, healthier cities need an ‘elevator speech’? | Kaid Benfield, 9/22/2014

"The report [on the consequences of rapid population growth in 10 major North American cities] notes that the majority of new commercial development, as well as residential development, in metro areas today is transit oriented…
In
 Atlanta, $61 billion is earmarked for transit oriented projects."

GlobeSt.com | Oct. 3, 2014

Improvements for pedestrians: good models for cities exist, but what about sprawling suburbs?

image

This graphic by Dhiru Thadani is so good. Many pro-pedestrian groups refer to crosswalk buttons disparagingly as “beg buttons,” and this shows the tables being turned: here pedestrians have the right of way by default and a car driver has to “beg” to move forward. It actually doesn’t look too ridiculous in the setting of urban density, where pedestrian improvements are constantly happening, It would be even funnier if the image was of a car driver in the sprawling suburbs, where change is happening more slowly, if at all.

When it comes to making cities like Atlanta more pedestrian friendly, transit-focused and bikeable, there are plenty of good ideas that can be implemented fairly quickly. All over the US, cities of a similar age as Atlanta, that boomed during the car era, have established patterns for success that we can follow. And with the Atlanta Beltline (among other great urban developments here), Atlanta has the best kind of pattern: examples of good urbanism in our own city that we can use as guidelines for creating better places.

But what about the suburban, car-dominated landscapes — particularly the older ones that have lost their luster — that are no experiencing the same amount of growth? When in comes to smart growth and good urban development, you have a hard time implementing best practices in a place that isn’t growing. In those places, given the lack of new investment to qualify infrastructure expenditures, the car-centric environment stagnates and has little chance for seeing positive change in the short term.

Kaid Benfield has an excellent, in-depth post about this that I highly recommend:
Americans Don’t Walk Much, and I Don’t Blame Them

He includes suburban Cobb County in the discussion, famous for its walkability challenges due to the tragic case of Raquel Nelson. Benfield points out that great ideas for improving the pedestrian experience and reducing car-dependency in cities, such as raising the price of parking, don’t translate to sprawling suburbs where people like Nelson continue to struggle in a pedestrian-hostile environment:

What the heck can putting a price on downtown parking do for people like Nelson in residential Cobb County or anyone in Woodbridge?  Can we have a walkable city where we don’t have a city in the first place?…as the economy allows new businesses and homes to be built in and around the bad stuff, we can gradually make the newer land uses better and more “walk-ready” over time, so that the place can function better for pedestrians when the good stuff reaches critical mass.

Developing better land use in suburban sprawl is a great goal and one that I wholeheartedly support. Ellen Dunham-Jones at Georgia Tech has some excellent thoughts on the matter in her Retrofitting Suburbia book.

But those are long-term goals that will be reached slowly unless there’s a boom of investment in affordable new development in the metro, where good urban places can be built in a new pedestrian-focused context. Could the affordable-housing component in the long-term plans for the Atlanta Beltline, if they come to fruition,  serve as a template for the region? Or will the county and city governments of the suburbs end up creating their own bold new plans that help create better places?

Like Benfield, I’m hopeful that positive change in pedestrian mobility will eventually come to Cobb County and other car-centric places in metro Atlanta. But time is a big variable. I can imagine struggling pedestrians hitting a beg button that requests good urbanism, and waiting and waiting.

What should be the purpose of streetcars?

This is a divisive issue for many: should we put public money into building streetcars that are going to primarily serve as development tools, versus being transportation lines only?

Particularly with streetcars that flow in mixed traffic with cars and have to suffer through that same congestion, this is a hot-button topic. In the article linked above, it appears that Seattle is planning to move away from development-focused streetcars with a line that is built for speed by having its own exclusive lane of travel.

The Atlanta Streetcar’s 2.7 mile downtown loop will travel in mixed-traffic lanes with a low operating speed. Because of that, it’s much more of a development tool at this point for places like the long-struggling Auburn Avenue corridor, as well as a means of transporting tourists to major sites. It is, to a lesser degree, a source of effective everyday transportation (though it can certainly serve that purpose for some workers, as well as GSU students, residents and visitors).

In a way, pitting these two streetcar functions — development vs. transportation — against each other is a false argument because nothing stays the same in cities. The development-tool streetcar line of today, if successful in building walkable density around it, could end up becoming an exclusive-lane route of tomorrow, with a focus on transportation.

Atlanta Streetcar

Tweaking transit lines to serve changing cities

The use of fixed mass transportation lines always changes along with development around those lines, as well as societal shifts. Just consider the park-and-ride MARTA stations. Once thought to be the most logical use of land around the stations, the surface parking lots for many are now slated for conversion to mixed-use, transit-oriented developments that will serve a population that is increasingly interested in living less car-centric lives.

With the Atlanta Streetcar, parts of the route, like the Peachtree Street segment, could obviously be converted to exclusive lanes at some point. I’d like to see that happen. But I say let it serve as a development tool first, building up a greater density on the route (a recent rezoning project for the Auburn Avenue corridor of the route will help facilitate that).

By the time that phase is passed, we’ll be ready to extend the line — hopefully to the Atlanta Beltline and its destined transit element — and use it primarily as a transportation tool that works as part of an interconnected, multi-modal system. And perhaps by then we’ll be able to convert the entire route to exclusive lanes. I don’t know the actual hurdles that would need to be overcome technically to make that conversion happen, but it’s pretty easy to imagine it taking place. 

Metro Atlanta: poster child for carbon emissions
This marks at least the third time I’ve posted a variation of this Metro Atlanta vs Barcelona graphic. It’s getting annoying to see it so often in the media, but it looks like this is the new normal for Atlanta. We used to be the “poster child for sprawl,” which was a more general condemnation of our metro’s sprawling, car-centric development pattern.
But now writers are getting more specific and cutting us to the core with the details: sprawling Metro Atlanta is now the poster child for carbon emissions per capita (among other things such as suburban poverty and low transit mobility for seniors), due entirely to our inefficient, low-density built environment.
The Washington Post has a new story on our carbon problem, focusing on the tons of emissions from transportation:

As you can see in the graphic from the World Resources Institute…the literal footprint of a city and the carbon footprint of its transportation — are intimately linked. The more spread-out an urban area, the more likely its residents are to run even the most routine errands by car, producing vehicle emissions. The more compact it is, the less distance residents need to travel every day, and the easier — and cheaper — it is to build public transit.

This is big news currently because of studies from the Global Carbon Project which show that, worldwide, emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide jumped more than ever in 2013. And just this week, about 300,000 people convened to protest climate change and carbon emissions in New York City, where a UN summit on climate change is taking place.
The world is eager to point out and shame the worst offenders of carbon pollution — a  situation that puts car-crazy Metro Atlanta , apparently, in the spotlight.

Metro Atlanta: poster child for carbon emissions

This marks at least the third time I’ve posted a variation of this Metro Atlanta vs Barcelona graphic. It’s getting annoying to see it so often in the media, but it looks like this is the new normal for Atlanta. We used to be the “poster child for sprawl,” which was a more general condemnation of our metro’s sprawling, car-centric development pattern.

But now writers are getting more specific and cutting us to the core with the details: sprawling Metro Atlanta is now the poster child for carbon emissions per capita (among other things such as suburban poverty and low transit mobility for seniors), due entirely to our inefficient, low-density built environment.

The Washington Post has a new story on our carbon problem, focusing on the tons of emissions from transportation:

As you can see in the graphic from the World Resources Institute…the literal footprint of a city and the carbon footprint of its transportation — are intimately linked.

The more spread-out an urban area, the more likely its residents are to run even the most routine errands by car, producing vehicle emissions. The more compact it is, the less distance residents need to travel every day, and the easier — and cheaper — it is to build public transit.

This is big news currently because of studies from the Global Carbon Project which show that, worldwide, emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide jumped more than ever in 2013. And just this week, about 300,000 people convened to protest climate change and carbon emissions in New York City, where a UN summit on climate change is taking place.

The world is eager to point out and shame the worst offenders of carbon pollution — a  situation that puts car-crazy Metro Atlanta , apparently, in the spotlight.

"Truly supporting transit requires more than just voting to support transit. To make a real dent in mobility trends, cities will need to make driving more expensive at the same time that they make transit more appealing."

If So Many People Support Mass Transit, Why Do So Few Ride? Closing the support-usage gap will be key to a strong public transportation future | Citylab.com, 9/2014