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Chris Leinberger: Atlanta region ‘absolutely needs rail transit;’ question is will you lead or be a laggard?

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 impetus for this conversation was Smart Growth America’s Measuring Sprawl 2014 report that was released in April.

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.

Chris Leinberger

Chris Leinberger “walkable urban places” or “emerging walkable urban places” — 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?

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.



  1. writes_of_weigh April 14, 2014 8:48 pm


  2. atlman April 15, 2014 2:03 pm

    This is how to fix Atlanta’s transportation problem: by turning it into a city where people who would regularly pay for it (by this I mean by choice, and not due to the inability to afford a car) would want to live. In other words, the same profile of public transportation users in other large urban areas outside the south (and even in the south in cities like Charlotte and Dallas). To do this, Atlanta needs to revamp their public schools using a combination of:
    A) magnet schools for the college bound (who can be of any race or class)
    B) career academies for those whose desire/background/inclinations make their chances of succeeding college right out of high school to be very low (again these can be of any race or class)
    C) an array of charter schools to form a middle ground between A and B (again, with students of all races and classes)
    D) a real transportation plan coordinated with MARTA and funded by the city that would get students regardless of race or class to the school that best fits their desire and profile (this will disproportionately benefit poor and minority students)
    E) an emphasis on classroom discipline and completing assignments systemwide
    Do this and within 10 years you will find it rather easy to get rail and other transportation projects in Atlanta, because the population of Atlanta will be over 750,000 people. But hey, my last comment of this sort was mysteriously deleted from Maria’s blog, so ah who knows.Report

  3. writes_of_weigh April 15, 2014 2:20 pm

    Laggard apparently. How could the long range plan to 2040 already be approved by ARC/GRTA without public input from last weeks announced, three regional meetings (Dalton, Atlanta, Valdosta) in re the long term(to 2040) state of Georgia passenger rail plan? I smell a rat, or at the very least, some “strawman” meetings, to placate those of us “in the know” but, unlikely to accept this continuing bamboozlement by the state of Georgia DOT, Intermodal Division. A critical question of Mr. Boxler, it’s director, was asked recently – if his department was ready to immediately assume operation of the passenger train services currently being operated by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources? His confused and inexplicable response to me was to curtly hang up(the phone). I’m certain we were problematically disconnected? 
    Perhaps far more telling……is that US DOT Secretary Foxx shall transit the South (Atlanta included) later this week, not via Amtrak or business train but via motorcoach, er…bus (follow his tour at (http://1.usa.gov/1hmnLfu).- See more at: https://saportareport.com/blog/2014/04/leaders-transportation-plans-show-united-leadership-lack-of-politics-in-projects/#sthash.PZ2zzqHz.dpuf – See more at: https://saportareport.com/blog/2014/04/chris-leinberger-atlanta-region-absolutely-needs-rail-transit-will-it-lead-or-be-a-laggard/#sthash.zpUHiAYG.dpufReport

  4. atlman April 15, 2014 2:54 pm

    Oh yes. Georgia State University wants to buy Turner Field and the surrounding area, and use it for athletics, classroom space and student housing. Were this to happen, it would be
    A) a massive economic boon to downtown in and of itself
    B) allow Georgia State to dramatically increase their enrollment, possibly past the 40,000 mark, which would have lots of other economic development implications, especially if the growth is primarily in graduate/research/business/STEM areas.
    Funny, but this plan was not reported in the AJC. Or here. Only on 11alive and the Atlanta Business Chronicle (which, er, is a strategic partner of Saporta Report) http://www.bizjournals.com/atlanta/morning_call/2014/04/georgia-state-university-president-eyes-turner.html. 
    Curious. The AJC and Saporta Report tried their level best to promote the idea of Georgia State taking over Underground Atlanta before Georgia State diplomatically made it clear that they were not interested at all in rehabilitating that property.
    But GSU makes their desires for the Turner Field area clear and the media ignores them. Why? Is it that the media prefers that the area be used for “affordable housing” (which is basically a nice way of saying 50%-75% Section 8 plus rental homes)? Or maybe they want horse racing! Yeah! That is what is really needed to get educated, affluent, high income banking, finance and tech workers downtown! Horse racing! You know, the AJC lobbied for legalized gambling at Underground to go with all the strip clubs, adult clubs, brothels and everything else that makes Atlanta the sex trafficking capital of North America. So that’s all that gets advocated by the media in these parts? Welfare and vice? Yeah, like that worked SO WELL for New Jersey or pre-Katrina New Orleans. You know, I am beginning to think that those right wingers are right about the Atlanta media after all, at least to a degree. What other type of mindset could think that low income housing or gambling would be better for downtown than turning Georgia State into the country’s next urban mega-university.
    As far as the need for low-income housing goes, I am not a Tea Partier, ok? It is just that there are better places to work on that than downtown. Right now the high income area is Buckhead/North Atlanta, and the goal should be to build on that, to extend that to Midtown (which is already upscaling) and on through downtown, <b>past I-20</b> , past the AU Center (which will already benefit from the Falcons stadium) etc. to just demolish this long-standing I-20 divide between rich and poor (and in some but not all cases black and white). If we do that, it makes taking care of the poor people easier, because right now the hardest part about being poor in this city is being geographically cut off by the north Atlanta/south Atlanta thing. The way to fix that isn’t section 8 housing or horse racing (with the accompanying drug dealing, alcoholism, prostitution and declining property values) but to do things to give high income people incentives to move south of Williams Street. 
    But if an affordable housing endeavor must be done at this time, here’s an idea: the Fort McPherson redevelopment. The land is plentiful and cheap and could be used to construct a ton of housing units, a far better idea than the folly of trying to shoehorn in affordable housing amongst in areas with homes and condos that run for $400,000. Not that many jobs nearby, but it is MARTA accessible, and ripe for semi-skilled economic development in areas like shipping, transportation, logistics, warehousing and even light manufacturing. 
    It is something to think about and one wonders why it hasn’t been already … but for ideology.Report

  5. Rees Cramer April 15, 2014 11:26 pm

    atlman You are a little heavy on the fix education and everything else will magically happen idea.  Yes our education system needs reform but mass transit has very little to do with getting kids to school.  You do understand that the city of Atlanta is only 10% of the metro region and only controls the schools within its boundary’s.  The change you want is from the state and our state is not capable of that kind of action.  Our legislature spent the last session arguing about legitimizing bigotry, carrying guns and rejecting Medicare money for the poor.
    The beltline will be slightly different because it will connect some of the cities best high schools.  We can’t wait ten years to test your theory.  It needs to begin now and the city and the two counties are ready. 
    I am also slightly concerned that you constantly mention “all races and classes” now I know our society is not perfect but I thought that equal opportunity had sort of been the point of the last 60 years.Report

  6. Burroughston Broch April 16, 2014 6:44 am

    Rees Cramer The City of Atlanta is 7% or less of the metro area population, and that percentage falls with every census. At its 1970 population peak of 497,000 (18% more than in 2010) the City of Atlanta was 27% of the metro area’s population.
    The “city’s best high schools” are mediocre when compared with the state’s best high schools. Please explain the educational benefit of having the Beltline near a high school.Report

  7. Bob Munger April 16, 2014 10:32 am

    Nice, timely article, Maria.  Metro Atlanta faces a challenge because of it’s sprawling, low density development. Transit is definitely needed to address the area’s lack of alternative transport, but last mile connectivity has to be solved to make the system truly viable. Berlin, Germany is doing this with low speed EV;s. Atlanta’s overuse of high speed roadways will not permit this to happen in a big way, but it can work in pockets, such as Brookhaven, where our organization recently assisted Southface in a TOD study that aims to incorporate higher usage of PTV;s and LSV;s. These two forms of LSEV’s that make a lot of sense for the area, given Georgia’s heavy manufacturing base in the industry.  Atlanta produces neither cars nor petroleum, so it currently exports millions of transport dollars from the local economy.  LSEV’s are good for walkability, excellent for last mile connectivity, and for connecting people to jobs.  The coup de gras for the maladies of conventional transport is both the environmental damage and the economic cost to the region.Report

  8. Rees Cramer April 28, 2014 8:33 pm

    Burroughston Broch Rees Cramer The city is not allowed to grow because the state will never approve it.  The population is growing and has for many years.  That is what all the development is about.  Our schools are doing well and I would rather my child went Grady, or Carver any day over one of those suburban disasters with 3000 students.  Check out Northside HS it will nock your socks off.  being close to the beltline is just a safe way to get to school and provide connections between the high schools.
    If you think they are so terrible then run for school board and do something about it.Report

  9. Rees Cramer April 28, 2014 8:40 pm

    atlman Your making things up.  Some of the things that you accuse the media of ignoring have been developing for quite some time. and GSU is growing fast enough, it is already approaching 40,000.  That plan of yours for MacPherson is already happening.  Stop calling it section 8 housing, that doesn’t exist anymore.
    You are a grandstanding fool.Report


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