Atlanta’s Transformative Opportunity
The upcoming transportation referendum vote is a major inflection point for metro Atlanta businesses and residents. If passed, the projects the referendum would authorize promise to help transform Atlanta’s economy, creating jobs in the short-run and expanding access to opportunity in the long-run.
But as the metro area awakes on August 1, irrespective of whether the vote passes or not, Atlanta will be left with the same core issue: How do you address the costs of growth?
Atlanta hasn’t been a sleepy town for a long time, but the Atlanta of 1970 bears only a passing resemblance to the sprawling metropolis of today. Back then, metropolitan Atlanta had a population of just over one million spread over five counties. Today, the metro area is home to 5.3 million people and covers 28 counties.
In just four decades, that’s an increase of 4.1 million people and an eye-popping 6,749 square miles. That’s larger than the state of Connecticut.
Such rapid expansion also brought rampant decentralization. Atlanta’s jobs are no longer concentrated in the central business district; instead, Brookings research shows that 63 percent of jobs are more than 10 miles from downtown. Over four in five low income households live in the suburbs, often seeking more affordable housing.
Such decentralization has real costs on the local transportation network. Driving is no bargain, as Atlanta consistently ranks as one of the most congested metro areas in the country. Across the region, nearly half of commuters live and work in different counties—proving Atlanta is truly a metropolitan economy.
Yet while Atlanta’s metropolitan borders continued to expand, transit service did not. MARTA may include the word “metropolitan,” but its service area is anything but. Clayton, Gwinnett and Cobb counties famously passed on original membership, instead opting to run their own services. For the 23 counties on the suburban fringe, they’ve decided to omit local transit service entirely.
The lack of regional thinking and uncoordinated transit investments have limited transit’s potential impact. Using Brookings transit research, we found Atlanta ranks in the lowest tier nationally when it comes to transit’s ability to reach people or jobs. It ranks equally low when it comes to connecting the two. For example, the average employer in suburban Atlanta can be reached by only 10 percent of the metropolitan workforce via transit. When looking at just the country’s 10 largest metropolitan areas, Atlanta is the worst across each measure. Atlanta’s transit performance also trails comparable metro areas making large-scale transit investments, like Denver and Salt Lake City.
This environment is becoming untenable. Congested roads are a headache for people and businesses and provide a disincentive to attract new businesses. An inadequate transit network forces people to own a car and swallow ever-rising gas prices. And for Generation Y and retiring baby boomers looking for denser neighborhoods with multiple transportation options, Atlanta has little to offer.
To grow for the future, Atlanta needs to reconnect its economic base, and TIA is a step in the right direction.
Major transit investments, like rail to Emory University and the CDC, promise to enhance connections between major employers and their workers. Initiating the Belt Line will provide transportation alternatives and meet the denser housing demands of the next generation. And roadway investments, like the I-285 interchange improvements, will smooth traffic in some of the metro’s most congested stretches.
Atlanta’s regional leaders also need to pay attention to other developmental factors. There are no silver bullets, and it will take more than just roads or rail to solve Atlanta’s quagmire. Local land use planners and elected officials need to start questioning whether the region can continue expanding by over 1,000 square miles a decade. Economic development agencies and their private sector partners need to start promoting locations closer to multimodal transportation infrastructure. In the end, this vote is really just the beginning.
July 31 is a big day in Atlanta. For us onlookers across the country, we will ask a different question that next morning: Is Atlanta stuck in neutral?
Adie Tomer is a senior research associate at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program