Type to search

Design Thought Leader

To Move Forward with Transportation Issues, We Must Do Two Things

In part five of this series on urban design, Perkins+Will principal David Green discusses what our region needs to do to move forward, based on research, common sense and a Supreme Court Ruling.

In the 1922 City Planning Commission Annual Report for Atlanta we were asking ourselves the same questions we are asking today with the pending transportation referendum. Transportation, congestion, growth and economic development are the significant concerns of both. We made good decisions then, as well as bad decisions. Today we have the opportunity to learn from those decisions, and try to make better decisions.

While the city of Atlanta was grappling with planning for growth, the rest of the country was in much the same position. It was never a foregone conclusion that the process of planning and zoning (methodically organizing the future growth of cities) would be acceptable to the general population, or more importantly, the Supreme Court.

A view looking North to the 5th Street Bridge from 1950. Photo courtesy of the Georgia Department of Transportation, Department of Environmental Services

Contrast the previous photo with this one of the same view, looking North toward the 5th Street Bridge. Although there is no evidence to support it, the prevailing strategy became to create transportation systems that were increasingly wider and more separated. Photo courtesy of Google Streetview.

Ultimately, the question of the constitutionality of regulating for growth was decided in the 1926 case Euclid v. Ambler. It pitted a small village, Euclid, Ohio, against a real estate company, the Ambler Realty Co. The fundamental question was whether or not it was constitutional for the village to dictate what the developer could or could not put on its property.

The case was fascinating in many ways, and covered a number of issues, but there are two parts of the ruling that have significant bearing on how we answer the questions before us today. The first is how Justice Sutherland addressed the relationship between municipalities:

It is not meant by this, however, to exclude the possibility of cases where the general public interest would so far outweigh the interest of the municipality that the municipality would not be allowed to stand in the way.

Looking South toward Downtown from the North Avenue Bridge in 1955. Photo Courtesy of Special Collections Department, Pullen Library, Georgia State University.

That same view, looking toward Downtown from the North Avenue Bridge, in 2004. Photo Courtesy of Atlanta Time Machine

Here Sutherland is simply saying that if there are compelling reasons for larger, regional decisions to be made, individual jurisdictions should not be allowed to keep that from happening. In this case he was referring to the relationship between the small village, Euclid, and the major city just to the north, Cleveland, whose goals happened to be different at the time.

The second part that has direct bearing on our situation today is how he outlines the constitutional role of planning:

And in this there is no inconsistency, for, while the meaning of constitutional guaranties never varies, the scope of their application must expand or contract to meet the new and different conditions which are constantly coming within the field of their operation. In a changing world it is impossible that it should be otherwise.

Here Sutherland is saying that certain decisions were understood to be in the best interest of the community’s health, safety and welfare—the fundamental justification for planning as a legal process. But he is further asserting that the specific decisions made in 1926 should not simply be replicated, but that future planners should analyze options to ensure that policies continue to support healthy, safe and productive communities. This is not simply an ideal, but a constitutional mandate.

In 1926, the Supreme Court said we should work together as a region when regional issues demanded, and we should make our communities healthier, safer and economically viable. Who could argue with that? Yet since then we have moved far afield of the sound decision of the Court.

What did we do wrong?

In 1922 a number of assumptions were made, backed by technical knowledge and years of professional experience and observation. However, at the time, the impact of the automobile and traffic was little understood. Yet many of those decisions are with us today, and continue in the face of much more robust research and analysis.

Those decisions have been proven at best, to be burdened with unintended consequences and at worst, the very reason we find ourselves in this seemingly dire situation. For example, the assumption, stated with great authority, that widening streets will produce higher capacity and greater speed was never really tested. As widened streets clogged, they were simply widened more, because that was supposedly the best way to address the situation. The same can be said for the authoritative statement:

There should be a separation of grades for through traffic at the intersection of two heavy traffic routes. The traffic efficiency of both streets is enormously increased by such separation of grades. And further, they attract more traffic which naturally makes for an increase in business values along them.

What emerges from these assumptions is a strategy of creating transportation systems that get increasingly wider and more separated. At the time, there was no evidence that demonstrated the truth of these ideas, nor has any research ever proved them to be true. Quite the contrary, research now shows that these early suppositions got us much further from healthy, safe and economically viable communities, cities and regions. This is, of course, in direct conflict with our constitutional obligation.

For a number of reasons, none based on research, the use of a street plan like the one shown for New York City in 1807, fell out of favor. Even today street plans are not used and the result is disorganized development.

But it wasn’t only those misguided remnants that caused problems, there were also elements of the original planning movement that were lost over time, with unintended and dismaying consequences. The best example of this is the street plan.

The 1922 Commission Report, along with the Hoover Commission’s City Planning Enabling Act of 1928, both recommended preparing a street plan to guide the future expansion of cities. They did this because for millennia planned cities grew in this manner. Savannah, Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and most other cities shared this common foundation. It was, at the time, the basis upon which all other elements of cities and communities were built.

But for a number of reasons, none of which are founded on research or statistical evidence, the street plan fell out of favor. It suffered such a dramatic reversal of fortune that today, in almost every jurisdiction in the country, the placing of a new public right-of-way, either on a planning document, or in the city, has become the most difficult part of the planning process. Without a street plan, we end up with disorganized, un-walkable, unhealthy, inflexible and unsustainable development. This isn’t, unlike the Report in 1922, the projection of a possible future, but the clear result of the past century.

So we made mistakes, and in many cases we have let these mistakes continue to such an extent that they have become standard operating procedure. But today, if we look back to the constitutional justification for these policies, we would understand that moving forward we need to do two things—work together regionally, and do everything we can to ensure our policies are actually leading to healthier, safer and more economically productive communities. The Supreme Court, rigorous research, and common sense all tell us this. We just need to listen.

And we have to pay for this.

The great benefit of the referendum is that it will provide, for the first time, a platform for us to work regionally. After that, as citizens of the region, we have to demand that those planning the transportation projects do so in such a way that fulfills our constitutional obligations.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.