"Atlanta is perhaps the purest specimen of a vexed commuter town, a big-fridge paradise. . . [It] sprawls without impediment in all directions, and an inordinate number of the commutes range from one edge of the sprawl to the opposite side. People live and work on the outskirts. For them, the city itself is little more than an obstacle and an idea."
- From "There and Back Again, The Soul of the Commuter," by Nick Paumgarten, The New Yorker, April 16, 2007
That may be true for most people, but it's not true for me now. I once lived near the Perimeter (the unsellable condo in Vinings is out there), but I now live nearer to the center of the city. But this is still Atlanta, and there's no escaping the sprawl, so every day I have to commute almost 20 miles each way to my office, which is located way out beyond the Perimeter in the outer suburbs. But at least it's a reverse commute - while the roads are gridlocked in the morning with incoming commuters, I'm travelling outbound, and in the afternoon, the situation is reversed. So I can speed along, alone in my car, feeling guilty about the squandering of gasoline, and the environmental impact of commuting 400 miles each week.
According to Paumgarten, Los Angeles, the country’s most sprawling megalopolis, has a dizzying array of horrible commutes, but many of them are the result of a difficult landscape — ocean restricting growth on one side, mountains on another. Chicago, Washington, D.C., and the Bay Area owe a degree of their commuter complications to bodies of water as well.
Atlanta, however, is a highway town — as Greensmile learned on his recent visit, the City is defined by the Perimeter Highway that encircles it. It has a notoriously paltry system of public transportation. The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, or MARTA, operates two rail lines, which form a cross whose ends extend, at most, only a few stops past the Perimeter. Most communities have no access to it, and there are prejudices against it (you don’t have to be in Atlanta long before someone relates, ruefully or conspiratorially, an alternative source of the acronym—“Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta”). Decades ago, residents of two counties surrounding the city voted down an extension of the MARTA system.
Ninety-four per cent of Atlantans commute by car, and the city has the highest annual per-capita gasoline costs in the country. According to the last census, the travel time in Atlanta grew faster in the nineties than in any other American city, and it’s getting worse. Travelling ten miles can take forty-five minutes.
Road-building doesn’t much help. Atlanta is a showcase for a phenomenon called “induced traffic:” the more highway lanes you build, the more traffic you get. People find it agreeable to move farther away, and, as others join them, they find it less agreeable (or affordable), and so they move farther still. The lanes fill up.
The antidote, in vogue in planning circles, if not in state houses, is mixed-use zoning and mixed-income dwelling, so that people don’t have to travel so far to go to work or to buy what they need. Smaller triangles, in other words.
Michael Dobbins, a planner and architect at Georgia Tech, whom I've met at several of my frequent Beltline meetings, told Paumgarten that to substantially reduce congestion all you’d need to do is cut the average daily driving miles from thirty-five to thirty-one. He noted that Atlanta was in the midst of a reurbanizing boom, with people moving downtown again and condominium towers sprouting up, amid increasingly vigorous agitations for more public transportation. Still, the centrifugal force of exurban growth is overpowering.
The highways in Atlanta follow what are known as dendritic patterns: as you near the city, the routes converge, and alternatives disappear, so that an accident on a main highway creates bottlenecks all the way up the line.
It's little wonder, then, that I'm so committed to working on the Beltline. Not only is it the first serious mass transportation proposal in Atlanta in 25 years, all aspects of civic planning seem to converge in this one plan - greenspace, density, traffic planning, affordable housing, public art, and so on. I've been attending three to five public hearings, committee meetings, subcommittee meetings, grass roots get togethers, etc. a week for a while now, and the imminent demise of this blog (8 more postings to go!) may be one of the victims of my involvement.
At least it's, as they say, for a good cause.