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Help growth happen wisely

Atlanta Journal- Constitution
By Davd Allman
Published on July 2, 2008

Here's a suggestion for a bumper sticker for metro Atlanta: Growth happens.

In metro Atlanta, growth happens a lot. And fast. The question is, then what?

In a July 15 column, Jim Wooten raises one of the issues that must be addressed — linking development and transportation spending ("Development must hinge on road capacity," @issue).

I think Wooten's simple solution — increase road capacity before allowing more development — will be a tough one to implement. For example, some people could argue that I-85 is at capacity, especially at rush hour. But who will argue that we can halt development there?

I say "amen," however, to the notion that land use and transportation go together like a rowboat and oars. You can have one without the other, but you won't be going anywhere. Easing traffic congestion should be the bedrock goal for all transportation spending and major developments. The two are joined at the hip. They must be.

But transportation spending isn't only about easing today's busy streets. We can spend transportation dollars cleaning up after the growth that happens to us, or we can spend them to support growth that is happening as a result of demographic changes, market demand and $4-a-gallon gas.

We can't change metro Atlanta's traffic congestion overnight. That's the bad news. But we can change it. The key is tying land use to transportation, and vice versa. Here are some examples:

• Giving people sensible options to live where they want to live. Take Atlantic Station, for example. Atlantic Station provides housing for many residents and does it in a way that inconveniences almost no one. At least three reasons make that so. It's close to a MARTA rail station, with shuttle service. It's close to I-75/85. The restaurants and stores in Atlantic Station give residents the option of walking or driving a very short distance for errands and entertainment. Every time someone walks to the cleaners or restaurant, we erase one car trip. Bravo.

• Build neighborhoods that combine housing and retail stores. It's almost possible to imagine living without a car in downtown Decatur. There are apartments, condos, single-family homes and townhouses within walking distance of coffee shops, restaurants, a drugstore, a park and bandstand, a MARTA rail stop and much more. You don't have to give up your car or like downtown Decatur to appreciate the fact that many of those good people who do aren't driving as much as the rest of us and leave the streets at least a little less crowded.

• Follow market demand. Polls aren't the only places people vote. They vote with their feet and their wallets, too. After years of decline or stagnation, the population of the city of Atlanta is growing again. In fact, Atlanta ranked seventh in the U.S. for residents added between 2006 and 2007. And what do property values tell us? Why is a house in Ansley Park so much more expensive than a house of the same size in Coweta County? More generally, why is property inside I-285 almost always worth more per square foot than property on the outskirts of the metro area? It can only be because there is competition and pent-up demand for intown properties. Let's find creative ways to make it easier for the many people who want to live intown to do so.

• Give rail and bus service a fighting chance. If the state of Georgia spent as little on roads as it has traditionally on rail and bus service, you'd still need a horse to get up and down the region's muddy, unpaved streets. Isn't it something of a self-fulfilling policy to starve public transportation and then wonder that hardly anyone uses it? And yet. People do use it. Some need it. A growing number prefer it. Atlanta's rather sparse transit is already used by city residents for 14 percent of work commutes. MARTA train ridership grew by 15 percent from April 2007 to April 2008. Overall MARTA ridership, including bus riders, grew by 7 percent. If gas stays at $4 a gallon or higher, I predict more residents will prefer to ride than drive.

• Redesign and improve existing streets for people and cars. After roadway improvements, traffic-signal upgrades and a re-timing of signals in 2007 along Peachtree Road from Rumson Road to Club Drive, total traffic delays during peak times — morning and evening rush hours and lunchtime — fell 26 percent.

• Connect the dots. Make sure that big new developments intown include a street grid network that connects sensibly to surrounding streets and neighborhoods. That way, residents of the new developments and their neighbors will have a choice of routes to drive when local traffic is heavy.

Growth happens. But there is so much we can do to make it better. What on earth have we been waiting for?

David Allman chairs the Buckhead Community Improvement District and the Livable Communities Coalition.