Creating Walkability in Atlanta Requires Policies Tailored to Georgia, not Washington DC

While spending much of my time this year in Metro Atlanta, the least dense major metro area in the world with less than 2.0 percent of commuters walking to work, imagine my surprise when a new George Washington University study heralded a resurgence of walking in Atlanta. While increased walking is a great goal, Atlanta lacks most of the rest of the country in walkability. Further, it can best improve walkability by adapting its own urban form instead of copying Washington D.C.

The GW study has several different purposes. First, it defines walkable urban developments known as WalkUPs in Atlanta. The report highlights how some neighborhoods are more walkable than others. Second, the report makes several policy recommendations to encourage walkability. These include encouraging mixed-use zoning and creating additional community improvement districts (CIDs) (areas where businesses pay extra taxes to support improvements) to facilitate denser urban development. While both of these recommendations make sense, more solutions targeted to Georgia would have been helpful. The report’s biggest issue is its lack of local knowledge when it overestimates the number of walkable destinations, the demand for such destinations and the significance of WalkUPs.

According to the report, twenty-seven of the 46 walkable developments and more than 80 percent of the established walkable developments are in the city of Atlanta. And the walkable neighborhoods are gaining population. Yet from 2000 to 2010 the city of Atlanta gained only 4,000 people–less than a 1% increase in population. Recent census bureau factfinder estimates show a similar trend from 2010-2013. So people may express a stated preference for a walkable urban environment but they are not necessarily moving to one.

Even when walkable neighborhoods attract some residents they force the relocation of others. These developments either directly displace low-income minorities (by demolishing their housing and building unaffordable residences) or indirectly displace residents (through rising taxes). These practices displace as many residents as they attract. Low-income residents who depend on transit to reach their jobs often move to more affordable suburbs; these often lack quality transit service. So while the new development equals more walkability for high-income folks it decreases walkability for low-income folks.

The report assumes a certain type of development in the suburbs is walkable. While a few of these suburban developments may be walkable, most are not. A majority, or thirty-two of the forty-six walkable neighborhoods are far more car-friendly than non-motorized or transit friendly. Downtown Roswell is listed as one of the top suburban walkable neighborhoods. Yet the vast majority of all visitors to downtown Roswell drive to one of its surface parking lots. In the evening banks, churches and even residential homeowners sell access to parking spaces for $3. Very few visitors walk or bike. And almost none use transit since transit does not adequately serve the area. The revival of Downtown Roswell is good news for the city’s tax collections, but it has not led as yet to any significant increase in walkable developments. Another of the potential walkups listed in the report is Serenbe located 33 miles southwest of Atlanta in the city of Chattahoochee Hills. Chatahoochee Hills includes 2,300 people located on 50 square miles of land area. There is no transit service of any kind and all the walking is recreation not commute-oriented.

The report assumes that Atlanta and Washington D.C. are identical. Therefore, if DC can create walkable communities so can Atlanta. Other than being of similar size the two metro areas are very different. Washington has relied on federal government subsides to both build its heavy-rail system and steer development downtown. Washington’s high presence of government jobs includes a large number of positions that require face-to-face contact including law services and government support services. These positions naturally gravitate to downtown areas. On the other hand, Atlanta’s large number of technology and retail positions does not require a robust downtown. Atlanta has many different geographical business districts including Midtown, Buckhead, the Perimeter, the Airport, Alpharetta, Cumberland and Town Center. The biggest business district in Atlanta is actually the Perimeter district located far outside downtown in the suburban cities of Sandy Springs and Dunwoody. And while Washington D.C. is not particularly dense, Atlanta is the least dense major metro area in the world.

Atlanta’s lack of density as well as development patterns and zoning conflict with the report’s recommendation to implement rail transit particularly the BeltLine. The parks and trails components of the BeltLine could be built by now, if not for the obsession with rail transit. The BeltLine is a poor transit project because it includes many residential origins but few actual commercial destinations. If there is any demand for transit, it is bus-based not rail-based. Despite the President of the American Public Transit Association, several Georgia Tech transportation professors, Atlanta practitioners and MARTA’s recommendations to use bus transit for this corridor, this report is still pushing rail.

The reliance on rail transit will hurt Atlanta’s walkability over the long-term as relying on rail transit simply perpetuates Atlanta’s poor transit connectivity. Atlanta has a 4-line heavy-rail system yet only 3.7% of residents can commute to work within 30 minutes via transit. There is neither the density nor the funding to increase rail to the suburbs—the areas that lack walkability. The way to improve transit (and hence walkability) in metro Atlanta is to provide high-quality bus service. Walkable communities can increase transit usage, which will help to create even more walkable communities.

Walkable communities are an important goal but to reach the goal we need to accept the on-the-ground reality and make policy changes that will help us meet that goal in Atlanta.