By Maria Saporta
How can Atlanta be both a “poster child of sprawl” and a burgeoning example of “walkable urban places” – creating a metro area with compact town centers?
That was the question Chris Leinberger, a real estate executive and urbanist who specializes in market trends, decided to ask himself during a “Creative Changemakers” talk at Serenbe on April 11.
It was an appropriate topic for Leinberger because he, as much as anyone, is responsible for labeling Atlanta a poster child of sprawl. Now Leinberger is leading the back-pedaling movement — armed with facts and figures — letting both local and national developers know that the sprawl pendulum is swinging the other way.
Or as Leinberger says, borrowing from the movie of the same name, “Back to the Future,” back to a time when downtowns were thriving places with active sidewalks and storefronts and when places were designed for people instead of cars.
The Atlanta metro area ranks 220 out of 221 of the nation’s metro areas as being a region with the most sprawl (guess Smart Growth America didn’t get Leinberger’s latest memo on Atlanta). For trivia’s sake, the most sprawling metro area, ranked at 221, is: Hickory/Lenoir/Morganton, N.C.
For the past year or two, Leinberger’s analysis of metro Atlanta has taken him in a totally different direction. He has been studying all the real estate activity in what he calls “walkable urban places” or “emerging walkable urban places” or “Walk UPs” for short.
From 1990 to 2000, only 14 percent of all real estate investment was occurring in metro Atlanta’s existing or emerging Walk UPs. From 2001 to 2008, the market share of the region’s development in Walk UPs increased to 26 percent. And since 2008, the market share of development dollars in existing and emerging walkable urban places in metro Atlanta has catapulted to 60 percent.
“You have turned the corner,” Leinberger proclaimed. “Your sprawl has peaked.”
Just to keep things in perspective, Leinberger said that 90 percent of development dollars in Washington, D.C. is being invested in walkable urban places.
So what differentiates metro Atlanta from Washington, D.C.? The answer in Leinberger’s mind is relatively simple — transit, specifically rail transit.
Leinberger said it is possible to have walkable urban places without rail transit. In Washington, D.C., he said about 20 percent of the Walk UPs there don’t have rail transit.
Sidewalks and bicycle transportation “are huge” in creating walkable urban places, but hardly any mode of transportation can have the same impact as rail transit — be it heavy rail, light rail or streetcar — “the jury is out on BRT (bus rapid transit),” Leinberger said.
So what about Atlanta? The Atlanta region built MARTA in two counties — Fulton and DeKalb, and then it virtually quit expanding to the rest of the five-county or 10-county metro area.
“The region absolutely needs rail transit,” Leinberger said. “You are going to put it in. It’s just a matter of whether you are a laggard or whether you are going to lead.”
When people start complaining about the cost of rail transit, Leinberger said one should just remind them about the cost of one highway interchange. Plus, given the lifespan of our interstate system, many of those interchanges will have to be rebuilt. By comparison, the cost of rail will seem more affordable.
The support for regional transit seems to be gaining traction throughout the metro area.
At the Atlanta Regional Commission’s annual breakfast in November, a survey of 2,100 voting-age residents from the 10-county region, was released showing surprisingly strong support for transit.
In the Metro Atlanta Speaks survey, more than 71 percent of respondents replied that improved public transportation was “very important” for the Atlanta region’s future. Another 17.1 percent said it was “somewhat important” for a total of 88.4 percent.
When asked what would be the best way to fix traffic challenges in the region, 41 percent identified improvements in public transportation and only 30 percent said it was better roads and highways.
That’s not all.
The Atlanta Regional Commission held its annual working retreat on April 3 and 4 when it spent all of one day brainstorming on how to strengthen metro Atlanta as a world-class region.
On top of its to do list: Build a world-class, transformational transportation system with stronger regional transit.
During the discussion periods with several of the breakout groups, ARC leaders said there was broad-based support for not only regional transit, but for a single regional transit governance agency. In other words, instead of each county or jurisdiction having its own transit system, ARC leaders seemed to embrace the idea of have a regional agency.
Some took even a step further by saying that those who serve on the regional transit body should be elected rather than appointed.
Ever since the 2012 regional sales tax referendum failed, there seems to have been a reluctance to talk about transit or sales taxes in the region.
Leinberger, however, said metro Atlanta should look to what has happened in other regions where the initial transportation votes (with a mix of roads of transit projects) have failed.
When regional voters are given a second chance to vote on a referendum dominated with transit projects, they almost always pass (think Denver, think Seattle).
Now it’s time for metro Atlanta to answer Leinberger’s question. When it comes to rail transit, will the Atlanta region be a laggard or is it going to lead as it once did when MARTA was first being built?