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Subways and Light Rail Are a Poor Fit for Sprawling Atlanta

City's low density means buses are better form of transit

April 25, 2007

Los Angeles (April 25, 2007) – Atlanta has tried to reduce its traffic congestion by getting people out of their cars and onto commuter rail trains. But a policy brief by the Reason Foundation shows that Atlanta's sprawling population is ill-suited for this type of transit.

To illustrate this point, Reason compares Atlanta to a European city that heavily relies on rail transit, Barcelona. Atlanta and Barcelona have both hosted the summer Olympics and in 1990 both had populations of around 2.8 million people (Atlanta has since swelled to over 5.1 million people according to Census Bureau estimates). The built-out portion of metro Atlanta was already over 1,650 square miles in 1990. In contrast, the built-out portion of the Barcelona metro area covered just 62.5 square miles (see map here for visual comparison of the two cities)

Barcelona's metro rail network has approximately 60 miles of track, nearly all of it underground, and around 120 stations. In order for Atlanta to provide its commuters with Barcelona’s level of rail transit accessibility, Atlanta would need to build more than 2,100 miles of rail tracks and 2,800 rail stations.

The Reason policy brief compares the densities of over 40 major cities, including Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Paris, London, Berlin, and Singapore – and Atlanta has the lowest density of all (see chart here).

"The lower a city's density, the harder it is for rail transit to be successful. And you won't find many major metro areas that are more spread out than Atlanta," said Robert Poole, co-author of the policy brief and director of transportation studies at Reason Foundation. "Places with well-developed, highly-used rail transit systems – places like London, Paris, and Hong Kong – have radically higher densities than Atlanta and have city centers that are the center of the region’s business and retail activity. Most people in the region do not work or shop in downtown Atlanta."

"Instead of trying to copy European or Asian rail systems that can't be recreated in Atlanta, officials should be looking at the transit system most suited to their reality: buses. Atlanta should look to bus rapid transit and express toll lane busways that could provide the time-savings and efficiency that might actually lure people out of their cars."

Full Study Online

The complete policy brief, Density in Atlanta: Implications for Traffic and Transit, is available online at www.reason.org/pb61_atlanta.pdf.

Reason's previous research on Atlanta's transportation system includes, Reducing Congestion in Atlanta: A Bold New Approach to Increasing Mobility, which can be found online at www.reason.org/ps351.pdf. Reason's August 2006 report forecasting future congestion levels in Atlanta is here: www.reason.org/ps346/ga.shtml. Reason Foundation's transportation research and commentary is here: www.reason.org/transportation/index.shtml.

About the Authors

Robert Poole is director of transportation studies at Reason Foundation, a free market think tank he founded. The New York Times says Poole is the “chief theorist for private solutions to gridlock. His ideas are now embraced by officials from Sacramento to Washington."

Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, has advised the last four presidential administrations on transportation and policy issues. In the field of surface transportation, Poole has also counseled the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the White House Office of Policy Development, National Economic Council, Government Accountability Office, and state DOTs in numerous states.

Alain Bertraud is an urban planner with over 30 years of international professional experience. Previously, he was a principal urban planner in the Urban Development Division of the World Bank. His work can be found at www.alain-bertraub.com.

Reason's Galvin Mobility Project

This study is part of the Reason Foundation Galvin Mobility Project, which is developing practical, cost-effective solutions to reduce traffic congestion. For more information, please visit: www.reason.org/mobility/index.shtml.

About Reason

Reason Foundation is a nonprofit think tank dedicated to advancing free minds and free markets. Reason produces respected public policy research on a variety of issues and publishes the critically acclaimed monthly magazine, Reason. For more information, please visit www.reason.org.



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