Poverty rises in Metro Atlanta suburbs along with transportation needs

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An article in Atlantic Cities points out the incredible growth in suburban poverty in metropolitan Atlanta (along with other US metros). Here’s a quote:

…over the last decade, suburbs have increasingly become home to America’s poor. Between 2000 and 2011, the population living in American cities below the poverty line increased by 29 percent. During that same time, across the country in the suburbs of metropolitan areas as diverse as Atlanta and Detroit and Salt Lake City, the ranks of the poor grew by 64 percent.

The chart above, from confrontingsuburbanpoverty.org, gives some stats on the problem.

- The share of jobs accessible via transit, within 90 minutes, in low-income suburbs in Metro Atlanta is 18.1%.

- From 2000 to 2011, the number of poor people living in Metro Atlanta suburbs rose 159% (compared to 11% in the city).

There’s an obvious need for improving access to jobs in metro suburbs for poor people. Will metro counties face the challenge and find a way to provide improved transit options? In a region where the transportation TSPLOST proved unpopular, and where suburban counties are struggling with tight budgets, the prospects are not bright.

While the region works on a plan for funding an expansion of transit, it may be worthwhile to think about suburban zoning laws that create car-dependent places — ones that make jobs difficult to access for poor people. As these places continue to diversify economically (among other ways), the unsustainable nature of car dependency becomes clearer.

A good mix of people helps neighborhoods and cities

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As a downtowner with a kid, I liked reading this call for family-friendly urban places from writer Kaid Benfield in a post about building a smarter smart growth:

Make urbanism more family-friendly, too.  We are building better cities with smart growth, but for whom?  Do we really want to keep turning a blind eye to such a major segment of our population? …I believe we need to change that and, for planners, that means better schools, better parks and playgrounds, and at least some moderate- (rather than high-) density housing with a little yard space.

Walkable, compact urban places are not the exclusive domain of young creative people. They’re great for everyone; singles, couples, families with children, retirees — and all income levels. It’s important to have a good mix of residents from all these groups in a neighborhood because they each bring strengths that benefit not only individual neighborhoods, but overall cities.

Sometimes those strengths and benefits might not be obvious. For example: what strength do you lose when low- and medium-income residents are pushed out due to gentrification and rising home prices? You lose an important, opposing voice to NIMBYism.

As was recently reported by Reuters’ Felix Salmon in a piece titled “Why America’s population density is falling:”

As urban areas become increasingly affluent, filled with wealthy politicians and their wealthier donors, it becomes harder and harder for developers to procure the zoning changes and construction permits they need in order to keep on producing new residential inventory.

When new developments can’t be built, prices skyrocket and low-income people get priced out (and end up in car-centric suburbs, an issue for another post). The problem snowballs as both rising property values and the NIMBYism of affluent residents work together to prohibit anything but more affluence, depleting a neighborhood of diversity and the strengths that come with it.

And obviously, you see a converse and equally stifling effect when a neighborhood has only low-income people.

Good urbanism requires a good mix of residents: renters who allow new developments nearby without shouting “Not in My Back Yard”; owners who keep an eye on long-term livability; singles who are happy to see the new nightlife spots; and families with kids who push for a new park with a playground.

With that kind of diversity, you end up with a healthy neighborhood and a healthy city.

Photo of Streets Alive from Flickr user Atlanta BeltLine

"As development (and employment opportunities) sprawl out geographically, people who live in segregated communities without good access to jobs are more isolated than ever."

Why Segregation Is Bad For Everyone | Atlantic Cities

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Low-density development away from city centers can be a drag on growth for several reasons…

For poorer people without access to a car, it can make it harder to physically get to a job. For those with a car, it can lead to longer commute times and more money spent on gas.

It’s also more expensive for taxpayers. Infrastructure costs can be 40% higher in low-density areas than higher ones…

"

America’s jobs are moving to the suburbs | 4/18/2013 CNNMoney

EDIT:

Oddly, other reports have looked at data and titled it with variations on “Recession slows job sprawl.” Yet trends still show that job sprawl will likely continue. Here’s a quote from an Atlanta Business Chronicle article today:

as the economy picks up speed, the outward shift of employment will also likely resume within most major metro areas…However, efforts to encourage denser forms of suburban development and to attract jobs to the urban core have accelerated in recent year…

The point: despite some gains in acceptance of smart growth ideas in recent years, there’s a lot of work to do to stop the sprawl madness and turn the ship around to development that’s in a less car-dependent, land-hogging format that allows for transit access to a greater percentage of jobs.

"Of the more than 4,000 new apartment units announced in Charlotte this year, 60 percent are within a 15-minute walk of the light-rail line"

Charlotte’s light rail creates boom in apartments | Charlotte Observer, Dec. 07, 2012

Getting transit to the people who need it

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A recent Atlantic Cities post, How and Why American Cities Are Coming Back, contains a quote that I thought was particularly relevant to the current discussions about transportation funding and sprawl in the Atlanta region.  

Alan Ehrenhalt, author of The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City, had this to say about the power in metropolitan areas shifting away from suburbs and back to the cities, specifically in Atlanta:

"In Atlanta, virtually no newcomers from foreign countries settle within the city limits anymore; they all go to suburbs like Gwinnett and Cobb counties. Meanwhile, neighborhoods in the center are gaining population and becoming more expensive to live in. I believe that the problem for central cities in the coming years won’t be creating a demand to live there; it will be creating a supply of housing adequate to meet the demand."

The transit lines on the Atlanta region’s TSPLOST project list, while very useful for the urban ‘haves’, are going to be of little use to suburban ‘have nots’ who can’t afford to own a car. particularly if intown home values continue creeping ever more out of reach of middle and lower income families.

Pedestrian

Ehrenhalt also says this:

"…we are living at a moment in which the massive outward migration that characterized the second half of the twentieth century is coming to an end…we need to adjust our perceptions of cities, suburbs, and urban mobility as a result."

The old Atlanta model of low-income people in the city center and middle/upper income people in the suburbs has become muddled and more complex and will likely continue to do so.

For this reason (and more), leaders should focus on a retrofit of the suburban environment to make it more walkable and thus more accommodating to non-car transportation choices. And also maintain and build affordable housing choices intown near existing and future metro Atlanta transit lines.

Photo of MARTA station by Flickr user jamc70076 | Photo of Cobb County pedestrian by Transportation for America

Using the Land in Atlanta (part 1)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the upcoming vote on a regional transportation tax. This is the first post of a three-part series on my thoughts about land use and transportation in Atlanta.

The project list of the Atlanta regional transportation tax includes many things I want to see, such as new transit lines and additional funding for MARTA. But it lacks something important: the impetus for correcting our sprawling development pattern — the very thing that has caused so much transportation pain.

Tying land use and transportation together

An excellent 2009 post from the Saporta Report, Time to Focus on Transportation and Land Use, shows the connection between our sprawl and the transportation problems that have resulted from it.

The bottom line is that metro Atlanta will not improve its congestion problem unless transportation investments are done in tandem with land-use decisions.

David Allman, chairman of the Regent Partners development company and chairman of the Livable Community Coalition has this to say in the post:

“The biggest bang for the buck is land use,” Allman said. “If we don’t change the way we develop and the way we grow, we can’t solve our transportation problems. We have to drive the link between land-use and transportation funding.”

For me, the big issue that is looming behind all the transportation-funding talk is land use. Engaging in good urban placemaking and increasing the efficiency of our land use will help us move in a direction that creates fewer transportation problems.

Transit for some, but not for all

The transit lines that are planned will provide mobility alternatives for those who live nearby, and I welcome that improvement. Nonetheless, the project list will still result in most of the region being served by no transit type other than cars due to low transit access, especially for the seniors who are aging in place in the sprawl.

The harm done to seniors and low-income people in the sprawl-burbs will continue. This is particularly of note given the well-documented movement of people with low incomes to the suburbs.

With or without the new tax, we need a way of encouraging a sea change that provides a real, long-term solution: retrofitting the sprawl to build walkable neighborhoods that can be served efficiently by alternative transportation.

Sprawl harms people and the environment

In addition to the social-justice issue of providing transportation alternatives to those most in need, there’s an equally important environmental-justice issue to be addressed by land use.

From the New Georgia Encyclopedia, a look at the harmful effects of our sprawl on the environment:

Metropolitan Atlanta is the least densely populated metropolitan area in the United States, with only 1,370 persons per square mile…

Since 1987 the Atlanta region has lost an average of fifty acres of tree cover per day. Much of this loss is a direct result of encroachment by low-density sprawl development into forested and agricultural areas. This deforestation and loss of vegetation, coupled with increased pavement and rooftops, creates a “heat island” effect (temperatures can be up to twelve degrees higher in heavily paved areas of Atlanta) and contributes to the region’s air pollution problems as well.

Just this week, the EPA designated 15 Georgia counties as having sub-standard air quality. All of them are in metro Atlanta.

Anderson Farms

Below is a 1915 photo of Anderson Farms in Cobb County, near Marietta (found at Georgia’s Virtual Vault). The farm was one of the largest in the county and, according to the photo’s description, practiced “extensive experimentation with crop diversification.”

Farms that looked like this occupied much of the landscape of our metro for a long time and I count myself lucky that, in my youth, I was able to see some beautiful ones that still existed — that hadn’t been turned into subdivisions and parking lots yet.

Anderson Farm

Here’s the Google Maps satellite view of what exists in the land just east of where this farm stood. It’s a mess of car-centric development, covering the ground in asphalt for parking lots and arterial roads.

At the bottom, right of the image you get a peak of the subdivision homes that continue endlessly throughout the metro and dominate most satellite views of it.

Anderson Farm

Moving just west of this, we can see the land where the actual farm once stood, now occupied by enormous, white containers. These belong to the Colonial Pipeline Company and hold petroleum fuel. Fuel that is used by the cars that currently play too dominant a role in the use of our land.

Next week: Plans that make sense