No Choice at All

Rebecca Burns has a lengthy piece on Politico assessing how metro Atlanta’s recent “snowstorm underscores the horrible history of suburban sprawl in the United States and the bad political decisions that drive it.” The piece highlights metro Atlanta’s political balkanization, its over-reliance on the automobile, and its lack of transit coverage as exacerbating factors in the recent storm.

Viewed through a different lens, these problems have created a transportation system lacking in resiliency. Our roadways have been completely shut down by snow storms twice in the past four years.  Torrential rains, construction, and automobile wrecks paralyze portions of the roadway system on an all-too-frequent basis.  But when Plan A fails, too many metro Atlantans have no viable Plan B.  The question is whether we are willing to accept a city where a storm, wreck, or other fluke event can render millions of people essentially immobile.

Advocates of transportation alternatives talk about providing travel choices: sometimes we drive but other times we should be able to walk, bike, or take transit. This redundancy is more than just a luxury; parallel transportation options are necessary for a resilient transportation system.  Ms. Burns’ piece closes with the sly remark that she “got home Tuesday by MARTA and foot.” She was able to do this because she has transportation options.

This past Tuesday’s storm will be dissected for weeks to come and there are many things that could have been done differently.  But better weather forecasts, closing schools earlier, and more heavily salting the roads will not remedy the underlying fact that most Atlantans don’t have much choice in how they get around.  For the region to have a truly resilient transportation system, everyone should have options for getting home if and when they cannot drive. Like Ms. Burns, snow storms should be an inconvenience but not incapacitating

Building this resilient transportation system will require us to be more deliberate and intentional about providing alternatives to driving.  If the only available option is driving eight hours on an icy road, then we have no choice at all.

Growing Roads

Shane Phillips has a piece on the Planetizen site exploring the link between a state’s urban road building and its per-capita income.  Drawing on FWHA and Census data from the past ten years, Phillips finds a negative correlation between a state’s urban road building and its per-capita income. Or, as Phillips explains it:

Rather than increasing productivity through increased mobility and reduced congestion, as politicians and lobbyists so often promise, all this mindless road-building could be depressing statewide economic growth!

His graph of the data is below:

Phillips Graph of Road Growth Versus Per-Capita Income Growth

Phillips’ Graph of Road Growth Versus Per-Capita Income Growth

Analyzing this data for trends, Phillips draws the following conclusions:

  • States that increased their urban road mileage by less than 30% grew by an average of 14.40%, while those that increased mileage by greater than 30% grew by an average of just 8.77%.
  • If we set the cutoff at 20% mileage growth, states that built less grew by 17.97%, and states that built more grew by 9.24%.
  • At a 10% cutoff, states that built less grew by an impressive 20.70%, compared to just 10.66% for those that built more.

Data for Georgia fits Phillip’s theory:  Georgia expanded its urban roadway mileage by 41% but its per-capita income only increased by 0.5% over the years studied.

But as the axiom goes, correlation does not imply causation. Just because Phillip’s data shows a negative correlation between road building and per-capita income doesn’t necessarily mean that road building dampens income. To the contrary, a state’s economic condition is influenced by a myriad of factors.  But in metro Atlanta and elsewhere, the road building/economic development syllogism is repeated without question: reducing congestion will improve the economy; building new roads will reduce congestion; therefore building roads will improves the economy.  These premises and the conclusion are too often accepted as fact, and without the kind of empirical analysis that Phillips attempts to undertake.

The idea that transportation investments can and should be used to benefit the economy is a core tenant of Georgia’s regional and state transportation plans.  But, as this research suggests, we need to rethink what kinds of projects best accomplish that goal.

Same Stations, New Development

MARTA has released an update to stakeholders of its TransitOriented Development Program.  In March 2013, MARTA set the goal of launching five new TOD projects around existing stations by 2015.  Progress appears to be well underway for three such projects:

  • King Memorial Station (Downtown Atlanta) ‐ Request for qualifications/request for proposals (RFQ/RFP) process has been successful. Please anticipate an announcement in the next few weeks.
  • Brookhaven/Oglethorpe University Station (City of Brookhaven) ‐ MARTA received authorization to release the property on January 6, 2014 and is preparing the solicitation.
  • Avondale Station (City of Decatur) ‐ MARTA and the City of Decatur accepted proposals through January 15, 2014.

MARTA’s full letter to stakeholders is here.

The Place To Be

According to the New York Times, the opening of the streetcar and new museums makes downtown Atlanta one of the places to be in 2014:

 Atlanta plans several ribbon cuttings in 2014, but the main event is the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, scheduled to open in May next to the Centennial Olympic Park and the Georgia Aquarium downtown.

By midyear, visitors will be able to take the new Atlanta Streetcar on a 2.7-mile loop that will link the park to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site and other stops. Another parkside attraction, the 94,000-square-foot College Football Hall of Fame, is expected to open in time for fall kickoff of the N.C.A.A. season.

New Years Resolution

The blog Transport Politic released its annual survey of transit projects for 2014. The survey includes a spreadsheet with detailed information on every transit project under construction in the country, an interactive map, and annual surveys from previous years.  They’ve also released an infographic depicting what kinds of projects are being built and at what cost.

Transport Politic's Major Transit Investment Infographic

Transport Politic’s Major Transit Investment Infographic

Metro Atlanta is once again on the list thanks to the Downtown Streetcar.

GSASCE's 2014 Georgia Infrastructure Report Card

GSASCE’s 2014 Georgia Infrastructure Report Card

At the same time, the Georgia Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers released its 2014 State Infrastructure Report Card.  Although Georgia’s infrastructure was rated a C overall, its transit received a D-. This grade is down from its already-poor D+ showing in 2009 (the last time the report was issued), and ties transit with dams as the state’s worst performing categories.

The Report’s transit analysis cites lack of coordination and funding as the key challenges facing transit service in Georgia.  And, like everyone else, the Report recommends finding a dedicated source of operational funding, improving inter-system coordination, and removing MARTA’s 50/50 restriction as key ways to improve the state’s transit.

Georgia’s road rating improved from a D+ to a C- over the same timeframe.  However, recognizing the relationship between the two modes, the Report recommends improving transit service as one of the best ways to improve Georgia’s road rating.  As the Report explains, improving and expanding transit “to provide a viable alternative [] will reduce the percent of single occupancy vehicles and reduce peak traffic.”  

In other words, Georgia’s engineers think the key to improving our roads is to built more transit.

Transit in the Land of Car Culture

The L.A. Times reports on a study by Marlon Boarnet and Doug Houston on travel patterns around the city’s Expo light rail line. Examining travel patterns for 200 households before and after the rail line’s construction, the study found that:

After the light-rail line opened, Angelenos who lived within a half-mile of a station tripled their rail ridership and reduced their daily driving by 40%, the study found.

Households within a half-mile of an Expo Line station reduced their driving by 10 to 12 miles a day, compared with those who lived farther away, according to the data.

The study adds to the growing body of data showing that people will reduce their driving when given a viable alternative, even in cities known for their love of the automobile. The study can be found here.