Next-Century Suburban Design

Next-century urban regions will be strong networks of clusters, not hub-and-spoke urban cores.

We have heard much recently about “making Atlanta a great city” and “moving forward not backward” and “keeping up with other cities” by giving politicians and developers a massive amount of tax money to spend on their favorite projects.

Atlanta is already a great city and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Our suburban lifestyle is the best in the nation by far. IBM and other corporations discovered long ago that once they moved executives into Atlanta, they would give up further promotions to stay here. As a region we have been in the top 10 in growth for years and are very likely to continue that growth. 

We have a congestion problem because our transportation planning has been dysfunctional for years. We have planned (and spent) as if Atlanta is still the hub-and-spoke city that it was in the 1960’s. We have ignored the suburban growth pattern and failed to create a grid of arteries. 

In his excellent study on this subject (“Getting Georgia Going”) Baruch Feigenbaum notes:

“The arterial network that should serve as the backbone for transportation is underdeveloped. Atlanta has quite possibly the worst arterial network of any of the 10 largest metro areas in the country. A great deal of attention is focused on the shortcomings of the region's transit network, but the region's highway network is not much better. Creating a grid network would improve Atlanta's traffic flow.”

The Atlanta region has grown into a network of clusters. From a growth viewpoint, this is a very strong structure and one that we should encourage and promote.  That requires very different thinking on the part of the state as well as local government officials.  Regional governance structures that attempt to cement in place a dominant “urban core” are misguided and in the end will prevent rather than encourage the region’s growth. 

We should begin by focusing on the origin of the problem – a dysfunctional GDOT. The GDOT board should be elected, similar to the Public Service Commission, and minimal professional standards for its top management established. 

Our transportation planners should begin by identifying roads that should serve as major arteries in the regional grid, and developing innovative, continuous-flow roadway designs for these arteries.  This can be done without building full-scale expressways.  Other cities have done it with flyovers, roundabouts and cross-unders, yet preserved the ability for local access to stores when desired.  Roadways designated as arteries should have minimal standards for such design, preventing local officials from putting stoplights every ¼ mile to slow them down. 

Companies don’t move to Atlanta because of our urban core or transit system.  They come because of the airport, the suburban lifestyle and great housing values.  Companies that avoid Atlanta do so because of our state income tax, our dysfunctional governments at state, county and city levels and our abysmal school systems.  If we want to compete effectively we should focus on those problems. 

The competitive regions in the next century will be strong networks of suburban clusters with great arterial grids, not central cities.  This does not mean that in-town lifestyles will deteriorate.  Quite the opposite.  There will always be a segment of the population that desires high-rise apartment living close to the city center.  Developers can and will meet that need as the market demand dictates. 

As witnessed by the Avalon complex in Alpharetta, there is even demand for that lifestyle in the suburbs, and Avalon’s developers are constructing a product to meet that demand without grossly distorting our transportation planning or requiring massive tax subsidies.  What is interesting to note is that the Avalon market study makes clear that its success will be dependent on the surrounding suburban neighborhoods.

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RamblinWreckDave July 02, 2012 at 01:02 PM
"Companies don’t move to Atlanta because of our urban core or transit system. They come because of the airport, the suburban lifestyle and great housing values. Companies that avoid Atlanta do so because of our state income tax, our dysfunctional governments at state, county and city levels and our abysmal school systems. If we want to compete effectively we should focus on those problems." You've forgotten one of the most important reasons why a company would locate here: people, specifically an educated work force. The Atlanta metro area is home to several large universities, including one of the top engineering schools in the nation. I can't speak for the other schools, but I know with Tech a very large percentage of graduates accept jobs out of state. It's true that many student are also from out of state, but if this "great suburban lifestyle" were so appealing, then why do so many leave? It's not like companies are lining up to move to GA; if they were, we wouldn't have below average growth. While you personally may like this suburban sprawl, er, lifestyle, it is a fading trend. Look at where young people want to move; less people want (or even can afford any more) the huge McMansion in the burbs which requires a legion of caretakers and effort. Young people are attracted to urban cores which are more lively and personal. Companies are attracted to young people. If you don't believe me, just look at Austin, TX as a model.
Dianne July 02, 2012 at 03:09 PM
While young people may want to live in the city, generally once they marry and begin a family, they don't want their children having to grow up with a balcony as their backyard, which results in moving to the suburbs where their children have yards in which to play, organized sports, parks, churches nearer to homes and better schools than are found within the city.
RamblinWreckDave July 02, 2012 at 05:21 PM
That's true, and I should know because I have 2 young kids of my own. But keep in mind that demographics are changing. People are delaying marriage and delaying having kids, for a variety of reasons, not only economic ones. Also, whats considered "city" living and "suburbs" living has many gray area. Living in an exurb like Canton or Woodstock is very different from living closer in, say Dunwoody or Sandy Springs, which is very different from living in Inman Park or Morningside (where there are plenty of houses with yards and young kids btw), and that's very different from living in a high rise in midtown. My point is just that in general, more people are desiring smaller living spaces so that less of their income has to go to housing and upkeep of housing, and people are desiring walkable/bikeable communities close to where they work and play. This doesnt mean everyone wants to live in midtown, but even as the Perimeter area develops it is becoming like more of it's own city (downtown Decatur is another great example). Maybe that eventually will happen to Marietta, Roswell, or other larger, outer suburban cities, but at the moment there are probably only a handful of "core" areas like this. And once they develop, guess what...parking will become tougher, traffic to these areas will worsen, and the need for public transit will increase. I would drive to hangout in downtown Decatur...but I wouldnt drive the same distance to hang out at a strip mall in Cherokee county
Mike Lowry July 02, 2012 at 05:28 PM
You are reinforcing my point. Different people have different lifestyles, and should be able to live and work where they choose. We should not be forced to support someone else's lifestyle with our taxes. Transportation planning should monitor the trends and plan for the most cost-effective solution possible to meet the real demand, not attempt to impose behavior modification to make us do things we don't want.
RamblinWreckDave July 02, 2012 at 07:55 PM
"We should not be forced to support someone else's lifestyle with our taxes." I think this would only be feasible if you lived in your own town, population 1. You seem to be using this argument to say "Why should I pay for a mass transit system that I never use and think is terrible?"....when plenty of people such as myself would never use a bunch of these new roads you propose and feel the same way about funding neverending road projects. It's because there are significant groups of people with both opinions that both need to be funded if we're going to use public funding which is collected from everyone's taxes. The only way around this that I can see if by implementing a fee for service system, similar to the HOT lanes on I-85. If you eliminate all public services and make users pay for the miles they drive, or the distance they commute on public transit, then it would be fair as far as no one subsidizing someone elses lifestyle. But the costs would likely skyrocket so high as to create a huge public outcry. Not to mention that a system like this would be unsustainable for lower income folks. And yes, I believe your gardener and trash man who both work deserve the same basic societal benefits as everyone else. The problem with your second statement is the chicken and egg argument. If you build a world class mass transit system, you will likely see population and economic growth along the new mass transit routes, and same for new roads.
patrick July 02, 2012 at 09:41 PM
Really, Mike, electing DOT management would solve our congestion woes? So, more government, less professionals. I believe that the DOT is the largest government department in the State because we have a huge State, but it is underfunded and the many good professionals that work there are beholden to lawmakers, their pet projects and earmarks already - it's no wonder that a comprehensive plan can't be made.
Mike Lowry July 02, 2012 at 09:51 PM
Patrick, I believe we don't have professionals in GDOT because the board is NOT elected. It's an appointed group, chosen by other politicians, who serve 5 years in an unpaid position. Gov. Deal just appointed a political aide, Toby Carr, to be the Governor's representative at GDOT. What I am calling for is an elected, properly compensated board just as we currently have for the PSC. Nothing is going to take all the politics out of it, but we can at least have representation that we can get rid of when there is malfeasance or incompetence.
patrick July 02, 2012 at 09:57 PM
We have now a cluster of hub and spokes, but, like a heartbeat, check on any morning and afternoon and you'll see the inflow and outflow to Atlanta is where the heaviest congestion occurs. There is also a flood of condos and apartments going up in Atlanta like never before, so there appears to be an some anti-sprawl taking place and we are going to need to start connecting hubs as you state or we're all stuck. And, Mike, if you're so concerned about paying for other people lifestyles, there are other countries where sharing is not a virtue. And there are other places that don't share their wireless infrastructure so a Tea Patriot such as yourself has a place to express their ideas.
patrick July 02, 2012 at 10:02 PM
"We should begin by focusing on the origin of the problem – a dysfunctional GDOT. The GDOT board should be elected, similar to the Public Service Commission, and minimal professional standards for its top management established." - No one on the Public Service Commission has any experience with Energy decision-making. They are all political party hacks who've gotten on the job training from the energy lobbyists. At least the leadership in the DOT has professional experience, management and engineering experience - a requirement for true public service that you don't get in a politician.
Mike Lowry July 02, 2012 at 10:09 PM
It's very apparent that you haven't ever talked with any of the PSC members, nor with any of the DOT board members. Nor have you read any of the DOT audit reports or the Senate research papers. If you had you wouldn't post such ridiculous statements.
ACC-SEC Booster July 02, 2012 at 10:19 PM
Mr. Lowry, you are very correct, but you must keep-in-mind that the Atlanta Region is an area in which transportation "planning" is not necessarily driven by demand as much as it is driven exceptionally heavily (even moreso than other sprawling auto-oriented regions) by land spectulation and a "build-it-and-they-will-come" mentality when it comes to real estate development. For the past 67 years in the post World War II-era of increasingly suburban growth and sprawl, that land speculation and real estate development in (mostly-suburban) Atlanta and other urban regions was driven by the automobile and the close proximity to major road junctions (Town Center Mall near I-75 & I-575 & Barrett Pkwy in Cobb; Gwinnett Place Mall near I-85 & GA 316 in Gwinnett; the Mall of Georgia near I-85 & I-985 & GA 20 in Buford), but we seem to have now entered an era in the 21st Century where land spectulation and the resulting spectulative real estate development will be increasingly driven by proximity to rail transit lines, both inside and outside I-285. This behavior modification is not being imposed on transit-averse suburbanites by the government so much as it is being imposed on the motoring public by the deep-pocketed, well-heeled and well-connected land spectulators and real estate developers who are the unimaginably large financial contributors of the politicians that get into office in North Georgia at the local, state and even federal levels.
patrick July 02, 2012 at 10:25 PM
I know all of the PSC members and none of them comes from an energy background yet they set policy and rates and they've been there forever. I understand now you're talking about a DOT Board and not the DOT employees. What do you envision a DOT Board, as elected officials, would do for citizens? Agree with you that the handpicked Boards aren't a good way to staff one, but what's the purpose in a govt Board on top of govt workers? We seem to have the same issue at the local level as there are handpicked boards everywhere...
ACC-SEC Booster July 02, 2012 at 10:35 PM
Example: Georgia State Senator Jeff Mullis (R-Chickamauga in Northwest Georgia near Chattanooga), who is the Chairman of the State Transportation Board, is a major state legislative force behind both the not-so-popular HOT Lane concept (like the ones placed into action in the former HOV-2 lanes on I-85 Northeast and the ones proposed to be built on Interstates 75 & 575 in Cobb and Cherokee and, eventually Bartow counties) and proposed future high-speed rail lines on the existing CSX-W&A freight rail line that parallels I-75 through Northwest Georgia between Atlanta and Chattanooga and the existing Amtrak/Norfolk Southern line that parallels I-85 through Northeast Georgia and the South Carolina Upcountry between Atlanta and Charlotte. The HOT Lanes are not necessarily designed to relieve traffic so much as they are to set the table for a massive rail-anchored transit expansion in the Atlanta Region and North Georgia with the use of congestion pricing as the thinking is that motorists who will pay up to what eventually may be $15 one-way or more to use HOT Lanes to get out of traffic will be more receptive to paying the same amount to ride rail transit lines that parallel those busy spoke freeway corridors between the job centers in the urban core and the suburbs/exurbs.
ACC-SEC Booster July 02, 2012 at 10:58 PM
In other words, with mega-big corporate money in the form of land spectulators and developers now suddenly enamored and obsessed with the concept of rail transit-anchored development and driving increasingly dense residential and commercial development in both the urban core and the suburbs and the distant exurbs, don't expect to see a flurry of massive new Texas-style roadbuilding anytime soon, if ever. In fact, the irony is that the pending public rejection of this highly-flawed and increasingly unpopular T-SPLOST referendum may push this region ever closer to the land spectulator and real estate developer-driven vision of Metro Atlanta being a much more densely-developed transit-oriented community along the lines of a Washington DC, Toronto, Chicago (which, btw, are three cities with much better road networks than auto-dominated but severely road infrastructure Atlanta), New York or Boston. Basically, one who is really cynical could say that there is a method to the madness at the Georgia Department of Transportation as the powers-that-be don't have any real intention of letting Metro Atlantans escape from those increasingly severe traffic jams until their planned network of high-density (and higher-profit) development-anchoring rail lines are in the process of being built-out.
ACC-SEC Booster July 02, 2012 at 11:04 PM
Here are a couple of links to minor examples of the type of transit-dependent future that the powers-that-be have planned for this region: http://www.dot.state.ga.us/travelingingeorgia/rail/Documents/CommuterRailMap.pdf http://www.dot.state.ga.us/maps/Documents/railroad/nga_passenger.pdf Another example of the mega-corporate money and influence that looks to take advantage of the Atlanta Region's increasing political and social aversion to road expansion is the family trip that House Speaker David Ralston took to Europe to "research trains" in late 2010, a trip in which the expenses were fully paid by a German trainmaker to the tune of $17,000.
ACC-SEC Booster July 02, 2012 at 11:41 PM
{{"Companies don’t move to Atlanta because of our urban core or transit system. They come because of the airport, the suburban lifestyle and great housing values."}} Mr. Lowry, you are very correct that companies and people move to Metro Atlanta because of the airport (which because it is located inside of I-285, is in the urban core), the great suburban lifestyle and great housing values. But, in a way, while some people may not move here to live directly in urban neighborhoods, many companies and individuals do move here for our urban core as there are many activities that just are not necessarily in the suburbs, like football games at the Georgia Dome, Hawks games at Philips Arena, Braves games at Turner Field, etc. And despite the challenges of living in the city, there are still many people who move here to live in popular and trendy Intown neighborhoods like Inman Park, Virginia-Highland, Little Five Points, East Atlanta, Decatur and, of course, high-end Buckhead, which despite being a very high-income and upscale area that is very suburban in nature, is a key and indispensible part of the Metro Atlanta Intown/Inside-the-Perimeter urban core.
ACC-SEC Booster July 02, 2012 at 11:50 PM
Also, despite the mounting and ongoing challenges of MARTA, people and companies do indeed move here for our transit system, especially if they move into an Intown neighborhood as Atlanta is unique in that it is still one of a handful of cities that has direct rail service between its airport and its major business districts/job centers as the MARTA Red and Yellow Lines (formerly North-South and Northeast-South Lines, respectfully) connect the world's busiest passenger airport at Hartsfield directly with major business, employment, lodging and neighborhood centers in Downtown, Midtown, Buckhead and Perimeter Center.
ACC-SEC Booster July 02, 2012 at 11:57 PM
Though it should noted that, despite the transportation and congestion challenges, Atlanta's suburban lifestyle is a bit more unique than most cities with the preponderance and overabundance of lush greenery, lakes, hills and even small mountains. Heck, there are other major cities, especially say in mostly-flat and vegetation-challenged Texas and other western locales and even a few eastern ones that would love to have the scenic suburban and exurban assets that the Atlanta Region has.
ACC-SEC Booster July 03, 2012 at 12:11 AM
{{"I would drive to hangout in downtown Decatur...but I wouldnt drive the same distance to hang out at a strip mall in Cherokee county"}} I agree that aged urban neighborhoods with an abundance of streetlife, charm and character are big draws for those around the region, even from surrounding suburban and exurban areas. But, on the other hand there are some really nice dining jewels in the form of great restaurants to be found in what seemingly may be a nondescript suburban shopping center. I've personally dined at many a high-quality eating establishment tucked into strip malls all over OTP suburban Metro Atlanta. Just like in the city, the burbs have got some really nice dining establishments, too.
ACC-SEC Booster July 03, 2012 at 12:17 AM
Great points, as those well-respected institutions of higher-learning (Georgia Tech, Atlanta University Center, Agnes Scott College, the up-and-coming Georgia State University which looks to be Atlanta's urban answer to a New York University and Emory University which is frequently mentioned as a candidate for future Ivy League expansion) are located in the urban core of ITP Atlanta.
Maggie July 12, 2012 at 04:50 PM
As the Mom of a Tech (honors') grad, who is a product of middle and HS in Georgia,.....he left this sorry State for a much better job, with more pay (salary), and a much much better quality of life!!! Thank you HOPE scholarship but, beyond that.....nadda to the head-in-the sand/good 'ole boy politics of Georgia!!
Maggie July 12, 2012 at 04:55 PM
spot on Mr. Lowry!!! If you live in mid-Cherokee country and wish to dine in Decatur, pack snacks and water, as you have no earthly idea (with traffic, etc) how long it will take you to get there +++ the gas $$$ it'll cost you!! This hold true for any 'distance' in this sorry regional sprawl!!


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