As I had written in a previous article, I made a trip to Atlanta a few months ago. In that article, I wrote about many of the good things I observed during my visit. I also stated that the “bad” of Atlanta outweighed the good and that I would write about it in a future article. Finally, after months of mulling over my observations (or just being incredibly busy), I bring you the rest of my thoughts on the Atlanta area.
If I could sum up the Atlanta area in one word, this is what it would be. Thick and beautiful forests wiped clear for McMansions, mega highways, and big boxes. The most astounding thing was how spread out it was. Even though the densities are the same in particular neighborhoods when comparing to California regions, the developments are more compact in California. In the Atlanta region, most developments are so spread out it’s impossible to walk to any of them not only because of distance, but you will also inevitably have to cross or walk along a six-lane (or more) highway. There are so many of these highways (most of them state highways) running through cities and towns that you feel like everyone must live in their cars.
I saw massive interchanges on regular state highways (not just freeways, mind you), right in the middle of several towns. At some of these interchanges, a simple but effective roundabout or traffic signal would have been much less costly and less damaging on the livability of the communities. These interchanges effectively render multi-modal transportation a pipe dream. The width and design of streets, roads, and highways made for some of the most uncomfortable walking environments I had ever experienced – even in the most walkable areas of Atlanta such as Midtown, Downtown, and Buckhead (granted I did not get to see everything, but I have the feeling I didn’t need to).
The environment was very sterile and everything looked like gray concrete. Many of the architecturally beautiful office towers were dead zones at the pedestrian level. Little thought seemed to be placed into how the buildings would integrate into the surrounding environment for pedestrians, while automobiles were thoroughly accommodated. Many of the supposed transit-oriented developments were really transit-adjacent developments, since many of them were very inaccessible by pedestrians when walking from transit stops. At times while traveling from stations to TADs, I had to pull my luggage behind me walking down the middle of the street and up hills because there were no sidewalks. Desire lines just don’t cut it for hauling luggage.
Also, the drivers were among the most inhospitable to pedestrians I had ever seen. I was nearly hit numerous times. In many cities I have walked in, drivers are hostile toward pedestrians. In Atlanta, many drivers seemed as though they pretended that pedestrians didn’t even exist! I truly believe that it is almost completely about design and not about cultural differences. In fact, I think that design influences cultural differences. The Atlanta area is developed so heavily around the automobile that even in areas well-designed for pedestrians, drivers were not respectful to pedestrians.
I also feel that since the Atlanta area is so unwalkable, it is having an effect on the health of people. Obesity and air quality especially. I definitely encountered more obese people in Atlanta than other places I have visited (although it’s certainly not the worst). This is no secret, as Men’s Fitness verifies my observations. Even if you do not believe reports like Men’s Fitness, just take a tour of some of these places on both sides of their lists and common sense will tell you all you need to know. Again, I say this not to poke fun at Atlanta, but to inspire dialogue about the issues. No place is perfect – there is always room for improvement.
All hope is not lost on Atlanta. As I have said before, there are many positives too. I do not by any means think that the area is beyond repair. In fact, the city has a very good core to work from (grid pattern, lots of parks, decent setbacks, beautiful architecture, good climate, etc.). Some difficult decisions will have to be made, and experts will need to be brought in to really convey what constitutes a good walkable city and how to go about creating one. Widening Interstate 75 to 23 lanes through the region will not solve its congestion problems – widening did not work before (it made the problem worse), and it will surely do it again (induced congestion).
One more thing to consider (Disclaimer: These are based upon personal experiences and things I’ve heard, so take it with a grain of salt): In order to prepare for the Summer Olympics in 1992, Barcelona removed a freeway running through the city. For the 2000 Olympics, Sydney constructed a new transit line to the Olympic Village. I am not sure of all of what Atlanta did, but I do know that they widened their freeways in preparation for the 1996 Olympics. The Olympic Village in Atlanta pales in comparison to the village in Sydney. At least it is right it the heart of the city, while Sydney’s is not.
Atlanta knows it needs a change in philosophy. Hopefully the political will, land use and transportation decisions, and the money for development will all favor good walkability. I shall also hope that some of the quality residential developments in Atlanta are matched here in Sacramento – we are due.