Atlanta’s sprawl is the culprit behind weak transit options

Sprawl-format homes, far from jobs, in Douglas County, GA

A quote from a recent news report provides a good example of the need for urbanism advocacy in Atlanta. Local public radio station WABE covered the connection between the region’s long commutes and health factors that lead to excessive deaths:

The Atlanta area does not have the best public transportation options, so many residents face long, solitary drives to work.

I certainly don’t mean to pick on the news writer, who does good work. But this is a common misunderstanding that I find in Atlanta — that our public transit systems are poor quality, and that’s why we have so many commute problems.

Not so. There’s been a growing divide in the region between where people live and where they work. The cuplrit is sprawl and it happens on two ends:

1.) The Atlanta region sprawled outward in a car-centric way to an unprecedented extent from 1990–2010. Look at this graphic below. The land area of the Atlanta region is inefficiently used, due to our low-density, sprawling development style. That same area size, given other worldwide urban densities, could house 100 million people instead of 5 million. We’re spread out.

The land space of the Atlanta region is inefficiently used due to low density sprawl

And being spread out to this degree means that transit systems have a hard time serving the population. In Stranded by Sprawl, Paul Krugman of the NY Times wrote:

“In Atlanta poor and rich neighborhoods are far apart because, basically, everything is far apart; Atlanta is the Sultan of Sprawl, even more spread out than other major Sun Belt cities. This would make an effective public transportation system nearly impossible to operate even if politicians were willing to pay for it, which they aren’t.”

It’s our inefficient urban form that prevents transit from being able to cover the region in a comprehensive way that competes well with car commuting.

2.) Job sprawl puts jobs in locations difficult to serve with transit.

According to one study, between 2000 and 2012, the Atlanta region saw a 14.8% drop in the average number of jobs located near a typical resident. One of the greatest decreases in the US. Look at this graphic to see the relatively small section of the region where jobs are located within a typical commute distance.

Job sprawl in the Atlanta region puts jobs in locations difficult to serve with transit.

The further out people live, the harder it is for them to get to jobs. Transit lines — even buses — are very expensive. That great public investment demands a significant return, and you can only be guaranteed of it in a more compact urban fabric, something we lack in Atlanta.

Another thing we seem to lack is an understanding of the way our built environment does and does not accommodate alternatives to car commuting.

Our built environment shapes our transportation behaviors. A place that’s low in population density, with destinations sprawled across a large area, can deny us the ability to use alternate transportation options safely, while making car travel fairly efficient. Likewise, a high-density environment makes car travel inefficient while promoting pedestrian mobility and transit use. If Atlanta grows in a more compact form, undoing the decades of sprawl, transit can serve more of us.

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