March 27, 2002

Atlanta has been known as a city too busy to hate.  Unfortunately, it also is a metro area too busy to plan. 

I remember many cities in the west where street signs appear well before the cattle pastures end.  Economic planners tend to explain that exuberance as the active mind of land developers.  Who can forget the cities that were supposed to blossom in the deserts beyond the mountains from the Los Angeles basin. 

Some cities did grow out of the desert.  But more planned space remained desert than became the source of developer wealth. 

Nevertheless, most of the freeway system in Los Angeles was planned twenty years before it was completed.  While the Atlanta Regional Commission will argue that planning is active in Atlanta , most of the time spent by county commissioners is on land use issues where changes to those plans are being argued. 

The Northern Arc, which originally was planned as the outer loop and then changed to the dome and now the halo, has been on the books for decades.  City planners did not need much study to realize that I-285,  designed as a reliever road to downtown, was even busier than the roads it was designed to relieve. 

As Atlanta developed, opposition to surface transportation led to expansion of historical cow paths and ferry crossings rather than any systemic method to handle inter-county travel.  As a result, many residents outside the perimeter used the perimeter as its transfer between counties.

Of course, some people believe that if roads are not built, we will have no sprawl.  What many people do not know is that we tried that experiment in the last decade.  The last major road to be built has been 400, opened early in the decade. 

That road reached rush hour capacity by mid-decade.  No effective relief for surface transportation has been built since then in North Fulton or East Cobb.  Yet, population and community development continued.  The result of building few roads (construction of surface roads grew less than a fifth as fast as employment in the decade) was a dramatic increase in congestion. 

I have written before that failure to build highways eventually will stop sprawl, but only after it stops growth. 

Again, some people hope that if alternatives to roads are built, they will be used.  In a state that chose to increase sales taxes by $600 million in Governor Harris’ tenure in order to avoid a $300 million increase in gasoline taxes, we cannot hope that many people will park the car to take alternative transportation. 

Indeed, the rapid transit system has been losing passengers for more than a decade.  The system is in a downward spiral that might only be interrupted by additional government funds.  Apparently, with few exceptions, the transit passenger does not have adequate car transportation (the car is in the shop, one car is available for two workers, or the household has no car).  As the nation prospers, the number of households filling the typical rapid transit profile continues to diminish. 

This is not to say that better marketing will have minimal results in shifting people to rapid transit.  What if Phillips Arena, Turner field and Georgia Dome tickets could be used all day on Marta for each event, as occurred with Olympics tickets?  Would that not increase ridership?

Subsidized tickets by employers also provide opportunities for those traveling from home to work.  However, the 75 percent of trips that are not in that category (soccer fields, social events, church activities, etc) will not be easily handled by such activity. 

Certainly, more stick in higher gasoline prices along with more carrot in the form of subsidized transit service and  employer benefits will alter driving behavior.  But the reality is that we need to plan rather than react to more transportation needs. 

This is not an argument for the ARC, but it does suggest that more than opposition is needed to answer the question of what will relieve I-285.  Do we need suburban boulevards?  Must we widen further existing streets and handle turn lanes and signal co-ordination more effectively?  Saying no does not answer an obvious transportation need. 

We cannot continue to build jobs five times faster than roads.  If the roads are not built, the jobs eventually will not come.  Then Atlanta no longer will be too busy.  And I’m not sure that is good. 


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