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Atlanta Leaders Considered Similar Transportation Issues in 1922

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In part three of this series on urban design, Perkins+Will principal David Green discusses the transportation projects Atlanta city leaders considered in 1922 and how we are living with these decisions today. 

On July 31, 2012 the residents of Atlanta, along with others across the region and throughout the state, will vote on a referendum to fund transportation projects. Two primary goals of this referendum are to reduce congestion and to incentivize economic development through the construction of transportation projects. This is exactly what the city was trying to do in 1922.

David Green is a principal at Perkins+Will and a professor at Georgia Tech in the College of Architecture

On April 10, 1922, an ordinance for regulating growth in the city was approved by the Council, based on the Annual Report, City Planning Commission, 1922. This happened to be the first such report issued by the newly constituted Commission. Much of the report centers on growth in the city, and how this expected growth would be accommodated.

Regardless of one’s position on the upcoming referendum, it is important to understand the initial decisions made regarding these issues and how they ultimately impacted the city. This is important because we are living with the decisions made by those in 1922 (and 1929 – the first true zoning ordinance, 1954 – an expanded zoning ordinance that greatly impacted the city, and 1957 – the first separate subdivision ordinance). Ninety years from now the citizens of Atlanta, and the region, will be living with the decisions we make this summer. Looking at this fascinating story through the lens of history allows us to have a clearer understanding of the potential consequences, both intended and unintended, that have emerged to give us the city and region we have today.

In 1922 city leaders were concerned about traffic through the central business district. Here is a view of Peachtree Street in front of the Henry Grady Hotel in 1922, located at the corner of Peachtree and Cain streets. The Westin Peachtree Plaza now stands on the site.

In 1922, two major issues addressed in the Annual Report, among others that will be discussed, were road widenings and adding central thorofares [sic]. From the Report,

In Atlanta the traffic difficulties are in a large measure due to the reliance on a few narrow thorofares [sic] leading through the central business district. The remedy lies in the provision of more thorofares [sic] of adequate width coming from the outskirts of the city into and through the central business section and out to the city boundaries on the opposite side,” and further,

The 80-foot street with the 56-foot roadway will take care of approximately twice the traffic at twice the speed as compared with the 40-foot roadway.”

It is clear that even in this early planning era, the automobile, and its efficient movement, were first and foremost in the minds of city planners. At the time, the population in the city was approximately 200,000, and the average percentage of automobile ownership in the U.S. was less than 90 owners per 1000 people; or less than 10% of the population (both Atlanta and Georgia were ranked in the lowest quartile of vehicle ownership per capita, coming in below 5% in 1919). This was also the decade in which public transportation ridership in Atlanta was at its highest, peaking in 1926 with over 250,000 electric trolley trips per day. To have equaled this in auto trips would have required that every car in the city make well over ten trips per day, on average.

This Buick is typical of a car owned by an American family in 1922. Even though less than 10% of the American public owned a car then and Atlanta's population was just 200,000, city leaders were concerned about traffic. We are still living with decisions they made 90 years ago.

Many believe that planning for the automobile began in earnest in the post-WWII decades, but in fact the planning for reduced congestion, efficiency of automobile travel, and the associated economic development that paralleled road construction began in the second decade of the twentieth century. Numerous decisions were made during this era that have had lasting impact, and in this short series we will look at some of these issues in more detail, including the role of private development in road building, the constitutional justification for land-use regulation, and the options for financing the systems that we need for these infrastructure improvements, among others. Ultimately, the citizens of Atlanta and the region were asking the same questions almost 100 years ago that we are asking ourselves today. Maybe we can learn something from their experiences.

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