By Guest Columnist MIKE DOBBINS: a Georgia Tech professor of architecture and planning who also served as the city of Atlanta’s commissioner of planning, development and neighborhood conservation from 1996 to 2002. Dobbins also is author of a new book: ‘Urban Design and People.
Then it ought to focus on where people do their most traveling – in and around cities and towns, where more and more of the state’s population lives; where congestion is highest and air quality lowest; in centers large and small, most of which have some kind of a transit system; places where a growing majority of the people – and thus votes – are concentrated, even in rural counties.
Markets are changing, and many of the state’s towns have historic and cultural charms that haven’t yet been destroyed, the kinds of bones that can attract the flesh of growing markets for closer in living, working, and shopping. These are features that most all of the state’s towns and cities share.
Finding these commonalities and their potential for widespread, town-centered grassroots support, though it might seem like the long way around, could actually put the state on the fast road to transportation sanity. And such a strategy could hold the key to stabilizing and growing the latent markets for town and city living, thus revitalization that benefits not just the towns and cities and their counties but the whole state.
While most of the roadway miles are in rural areas, most of the trips are concentrated in and around the town and city centers. The transportation strategy should treat these as two sets of problems, one to meet low volume but necessary distance travel needs and the other to support growth of high volume travel centers and corridors Where people travel the most should look and function the best, not the worst like so many of our abysmal endless commercial strips.
Take the Governor’s Road Improvement or GRIP program. It builds four lane roads for little traffic from the outskirts of one town to the outskirts of the next, maybe luring an occasional Wal-Mart or small industry.
What if, though, towns could take the same money and rebuild mainstreets as really high quality, tree-lined boulevard, maybe with some planted medians, maybe as transit corridors, with wide, well-lit sidewalks. Aside from the life, work, and travel choice that such an approach offers, of course, vehicle miles traveled, thus costs and air pollution generators, start coming down, preparing the state for the kinds of shifts that will be inevitable as fossil fuels become scarcer and costlier.
Correspondingly, not just metro Atlanta, but all metros and most of their towns provide some level of transit service. Improving transit is the necessary adjunct for a transportation system to create and support centers, corridors, and towns that can capitalize on the market potential that their old centers provide.
Atlanta and other centers have seen a steady rise of “choice” riders to supplement systems’ transit dependent riders. The new demographics are showing a support base for choice in how to get there to go with choice in where and how to live and work.
Improving transit, making things better for the whole population, is a strategy that in the end will likely propel towns and cities faster down the track toward stabilization and reinvestment. People want to live in places where inevitable frictions are not magnified and exacerbated by visible and entrenched inequities.
Transportation investment generates private investment, and the more such investment is focused where most people are living, the greater the investment multiplier. Public infrastructure that responds to higher density travel needs is already attracting increasing private reinvestment both in Georgia and around the country, a trend most expect to accelerate coming out of the current development hiatus. With concerted advocacy, funding for such public investment could flow out of the national transportation reauthorization legislation that is taking form right now.
Shifting emphasis from rural roads to city and town travel needs, though, would require a systematic and insistently state-wide approach to multimodal travel. It would obviously take time and a lot of collaborative, mutually supportive hard work among the towns and metro organizations throughout the state.
But the time to start is now, since it is unlikely that current state leadership is up to doing anything useful to advance a sound transportation planning, management, and finance program until after the 2010 gubernatorial election, if then. And the third time is not likely to be a charm for the twice-failed Atlanta-centric, business community-driven pile driver approach to transportation reform.
So why not prepare, deliberately, inclusively, and in a technically sound way a program that will be ready for the 2011 legislative session? We need a program that clearly responds to statewide, town-based transportation needs, based on realizing the greatest potential private investment return on the public infrastructure investment. A program that could be coming into being even as the development recovery must have begun.