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