On Atlanta's traffic issues and the dismal hope of a better future: In which I present a scathing criticism of the state and the metro counties

I know the Atlanta/Metro Area Transportation Referendum is old news; the vote was July 31, 2012, and it went down in a blaze of glory. Citizens again voted against solutions to our clogged traffic and lack of alternative transportation options. The plan was not perfect, and in fact still included for many surrounding metro counties, plans for more roadways as part of the new options. (Sorry, say what? What??? There was really nothing better you guys could dream up? It's 2012.) But it still makes me really sad for this city, and mad as a citizen who loves it, that we have doomed ourselves to upwards of fifty more years in the traffic quagmire, while our population is expected to increase by about 3 million more people by 2040. Sounds awesome, guys. Can't wait for the daily connector traffic with those extra people beside me, too! But I did feel some hope when I read my August 2012 issue of Atlanta Magazine, which was their inaugural "Big Ideas" issue, including what the editors dubbed their "Groundbreakers," the big things Atlantans and local planners and companies are doing to make this city amazing. I think this is a great city; it has imaginative people, a colorful and quite distinct history, a pretty awesome climate (all things considered), and it's arguably the hub of business and culture in the southeastern United States. That's a big deal; this is where companies set up shop if they want to have access to the burgeoning southern region, which has finally risen--for the most part--out of its difficult historical economic and social stagnation, which plagued the South from the inception of the United States until roughly the end of the Jim Crow era.

And yet we still had to screw up further potential by a fissure that has long cursed Georgia: the legislative relationship between the state (and often, the rural communities throughout the state) and the city of Atlanta. Harkening back to the days of the County Unit System (a topic for many blogs and many books, indeed), those outside the city--and the lawmakers who represent them--are often hesitant to spend time and money doing much that could improve its largest economic asset. That is exactly what has happened historically with the budding and dying and budding and dying of transportation options and alternatives in Atlanta since the 1960s, when cities like Washington, D.C. and San Francisco were also planning their subways and rapid transit systems. So, we all know where DC and SF stand today, right? And Atlanta, too.

Learning this particular comparison was a revelation, that all three of these transit systems were conceived and planned in the same era; I've used D.C.'s subways and they're wonderful. I can't vouch for San Francisco. But I certainly have an opinion about Atlanta's. And it turns out, the anemic rail lines we have today are a direct result of politics, and people disagreeing, and counties (counties who are part of the metro area, and have a responsibility to the city they depend on and the people who live in the counties) bailing on what once would have been a cohesive plan for a second viable commute option.

I'm looking at you, Cobb County. As my home for five years, I resent the choices your representatives and citizens made long ago, in a little mess that culminated in the Transit Compromise of 1971. It diminishes our entire reputation as a city; I want to believe this city can be even greater, but this is a bit of an important black mark on our future. I might sound a little bitter, but it's nothing compared to the scathing little article assessing the situation in Atlanta Magazine:

Like ghosts rising out of a Confederate cemetery, Atlanta's past lapses in judgement haunt the region today, leaving a smoky trail of suburban decay, declining home values, clogged highways, and a vastly diminished reputation.

At the heart of the rot eating at metro Atlanta is the Mother of All Mistakes: the failure to extend MARTA into the suburbs. It wasn't just a one-time blunder--it was the single worst mistake in a whole cluster bomb of missteps, errors, power plays, and just plain meanness that created the region's transportation infrastructure.

As we look at the future of Atlanta, there's no question that battling our notorious traffic and sprawl [!!!!!!!] is key to the metro area's potential vitality. What if there were a Back to the Future-type option, where we could take a mystical DeLorean (heck, we'd settle for a Buick), ride back in time, and fix something? What event would benefit most from the use of a hypothetical "undo" key?

The transit compromise of 1971.

I read this whole article and scribbled all over in the margins my own notes (as I do in practically every piece of literature I read, of any kind). Next to this whole intro, I wrote simply, "Ouch!" And then I felt excited. Yes, Atlanta Magazine, please harshly rip this apart. Represent those of us most disgruntled and angry and seeking options that do not exist because of the decisions made by voters and politicians decades ago, representing a far different Atlanta than exists today. Thank you, most seriously, for publishing this article.

The original plan for public transit, MARTA, was to include five metropolitan counties: Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett. After several failing votes, the final plan would be for only two of these counties, Fulton and DeKalb--the two the constitute the city of Atlanta. Already, really it was set up for anemic failure. The article explains the issues:

Before we get into the story of what happened in 1971, we need to back up a few years. In 1965 the Georgia General Assembly voted to create MARTA, the mass transit system for the City of Atlanta and the five core metro counties: Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett. Cobb voters rejected MARTA, while it got approval from the city and the four other counties. Although, as it turned out, the state never contributed any dedicated funds for MARTA’s operations, in 1966 Georgia voters approved a constitutional amendment to permit the state to fund 10 percent of the total cost of a rapid rail system in Atlanta. Two years later, in 1968, voters in Atlanta and MARTA’s core counties rejected a plan to finance MARTA through property taxes. In 1971—when the issue was presented to voters again—Clayton and Gwinnett voters dropped their support, and MARTA ended up being backed by only DeKalb, Fulton, and the City of Atlanta.

The compromise in 1971, that we finally got state legislators to agree on, was that MARTA would never be able to spend more than 50 percent of its sales revenue on operating costs, meaning it could never improve infrastructure and expand without finding money elsewhere--namely, in raising the fares and going into a lot of debt. The Atlanta Magazine article goes into the background and explains it all phenomenally. Please read it. There is a lot of politics involved. Basically, this compromise came out of state legislators bullying the city leaders into this, threatening that this whole thing would be dead on arrival, never happen at all, if they did not agree to this condition.

As an aside, this agreement doesn't even make clear sense to me. I mean, I don't see how this limit benefits anyone at all; it looks to only have been a mechanism with which to threaten, bully, and corner Atlanta leaders and lawmakers, a way to say, we'll do what we want and you, Atlanta, you'll have no say in this matter. Stop trying to be the big man on campus in this state. The problem is, Atlanta is the big man, and its potential--economic and social and otherwise--is probably permanently stunted as a result of the state's behavior towards it.

Am I being too harsh? Oh, I'm not done yet.

We had a couple of problems back in the 1960s and '70s. First, we loved the automobile, we were in the middle of a long-term love affair with our guzzling mobiles. Also, white people flocking to the suburbs really, really wanted to remain, steadfastly, separate from the city. That was precisely why they were leaving. Give me my oasis of picket fences, far away from that old wooden ship, diversity. I mean, yuck, right? But as the city has grown and become more diverse, and race relations have improved many degrees from the era of desegregation, the suburbs are also enclaves of multicultural communities. And now, none of us have any other way of getting from the suburbs to the city besides our cars. As the article succinctly and sardonically points out:

"This is the irony: The majority of whites in Atlanta wanted to be isolated when they thought about public transportation," says historian Kevin Kruse (who wrote this great book on white flight and Atlanta). "As a result, they have been in their cars on [interstates] 75 and 85. They got what they wanted. They are safe in their own space. Their just not moving anywhere."

YES!

The 1960 Census counted approximately 300,000 white residents in Atlanta. From 1960 to 1980, around 160,000 whites left the city--Atlanta's white population was cut in half over two decades, says Kruse [a Princeton professor]. Kruse notes that skeptics suggested Atlanta's slogan should have been "The City Too Busy Moving To Hate." [Atlanta touted itself for much of the 20th century as the City Too Busy To Hate.] "Racial concerns trumped everything else," Kruse says. "The more you think about it, Atlanta's transportation system was designed as much to keep people apart as to bring people together."

In the early 1970s, Morehouse College professor Abraham David observed, "The real problem is that whites have created a transportation problem for themselves by moving farther away from the central city rather than living in an integrated neighborhood."

Also, we could not help ourselves from building enormous highways, bingeing on federal grants to help us build them

The alluring of roaring around Atlanta in cool cars took over and never let go. Once MARTA was up and running, who would ride a bus or subway when they could drive a sleek, powerful car and ill it with cheap gas? Only the people who couldn't afford the car. MARTA became an isolated castaway, used primarily by poor and working class blacks.

...

David Goldberg, a former transportation reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, says the road-building binge that lead to the gigantic highways that course through metro Atlanta--some of the widest in the world--diminished MARTA's potential. "It's not a single mistake but a bunch of decisions that add up to one mistake -- the failure to capitalize on the incredible success we had in winning funding for MARTA by undermining it with the incredible success we had in getting funding for the interstate highways," says Goldberg, now communications director for the Washington-based Transportation for America. "We were too damn successful--it was an embarrassment of success. Like a lot of of nouveau riche, we blew it before we knew what to do with it."

...

The vast highway system sucked up billions of federal dollars while the state refused to put a penny into MARTA--until the past fifteen years, during which it helped buy some buses. "The sick joke of it all is that we built the place to be auto-oriented and designed it about as bad as we could to function for auto use," Goldberg says. "The highway network we did build was designed in a way almost guaranteed to produce congestion--the land use around all that development put the nail in the coffin." He refers to neighborhoods full of cul-de-sacs that force cars onto crowded arterial roads lined with commercial activity, which eventually funnel down to one highway through the heart of Atlanta.

I feel strongly that what we delivered to ourselves on July 31 was at least fifty more years of the troubles that have plagued us for the last fifty. This time it might not  be race that's guiding our decision; this time maybe it was economic recession, I don't know. But I agree, once again, with the assessment of Christopher B. Leinberger, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institute and a source for this same article:

The July 31 vote is "an Olympic moment" [here meaning, one of those seminal, deciding moments, like when we were awarded the honor of hosting the Olympics 1996 Games]. "If the vote fails, you have to accept the fact that Atlanta will continue to decline as a metro area."

Harsh, and probably true. I really, really hope not. I am invested in this city, and I love it. And I hate to see its future decided by the disagreements of the counties that compose its metro area. But I can't understand how this is not of the utmost importance in the state senate--this is, after all, the future of the biggest economic center in our state, and one of the biggest and most important in the southeast region. This is a big deal. I am inclined to blame the same idiotic political issues that have plagued the city folk versus the rural folk for a century in Georgia. Let's not have them define a second century, please.

Cities are growing faster than suburbs

The 2010 Federal Census data documents a faster rate of growth in cities compared to their respective suburbs, for the first time in nine decades. The cities with the sharpest growth rate change are Washington, D.C., Denver, and Atlanta.

Every region of the United States sees this shift in the 2010 data, New York, Milwaukee, Seattle, Austin, Cincinnati, and scores of others, listed in the Brookings Institute article that reported the data.

Regarding the three outlier cities in the graph, Atlanta included:

As in most of the country, their suburbs disproportionately bore the brunt of the late 2000s housing collapse.  However, all three have important urban amenities and economic bases that are attractive to young people and other households now clustering in their cities.

For whatever reason people are staying in the city; by choice, or involuntarily (perhaps they are unable to qualify for a mortgage or have incurred some other problem related to the housing market crisis), or they are moving into the city, leaving suburbs behind for urban amenities and lifestyle.

This new ‘tipping point” clearly has its origins in the downturns in the national housing and labor markets of the past five years. Young people, retirees, and other householders who might have moved to the suburbs in better times are unable to obtain mortgages or employment. Many remain stuck in rented or shared homes that are more often located in cities.  Yet what may look like a temporary lull in the broad sweep of suburban development may turn out to be an opportunity for some cities to showcase their oft cited lifestyle and cultural amenities to a new generation of residents and developers, so that in some regions a new version of the American Dream could take root.

There is an interesting thread in this larger trend: are the motives really changing, or is this people reacting to their situations by making do, and not by achieving what they had initially planned for their lives? Is this a new version of the American Dream for the 21st century, or is this a temporary lull in our obsession with single-family homes, giant highways and matching cars, and a big yard with a pool?

I hope that the number of people scorned by the market collapse, the trauma of foreclosure, and the massive loss of value on the homes and mortgages they purchased can actually have a lasting effect on our collective psyche. I hope it challenges us to really think deeply about our means, our goals, and our desired lives. There are many ways to live contently, and the idea that a house must be the center of this is ludicrous. We have been skewed by decades of suburban dreams and urban sprawl.

So this report is great news. And I am a more recent transplant than even this data suggests. Give it another ten years, and we will be able to see if this was a fluke, affected by economic recession of the time, or whether it will have longer-term effects on where we live. Give it fifty years, and then we'll really know the role the city, and the suburbs, will have, especially as the planet swells to population 9 billion.

Little Boxes... made of ticky-tacky

... and they're all made out of ticky-tacky, and they all look just the same.

This little ditty was the opening theme song for the television show Weeds, whose primary theme for the first three seasons was a critique of the suburban culture, lifestyle, vanities, and contradictions. Housewives and business professionals are smoking dope far more often than you might assume (but then again, this is the southern California version of the suburbs we are talking about, in the show).

But the theme song has always been the great, obvious reminder of the writers' criticism of the suburbs as somehow more safe, with less vice, and the fledgling perception that it is somehow filled with more wholesome people. Most obviously, it points out that all the "little boxes on the hillside," while they might be green, yellow, and blue, are all the same. Little cookie cutters set up for a life of Jonesing (by which I mean, keeping up with them).

One of my favorite exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art on our recent visit was an exploration of the city, the suburb, and our relationship to these different kinds of spaces. It revolved around the Buell Hypothesis, which is brilliantly simple at its core: change the dream and you change the city.

This deeply resonated with me; because, yes, I have taken a class on the history of the U.S. city and its development, the fallacies we have believed about them, and the many mistakes we have made in expanding them. We have had some victories too, and I think we are in an era now where we are becoming better equipped at adjusting the errs. Urban sprawl, the desire for the suburban "space"--which is, having a little yard next to your neighbor's little yard--the single-family house, the two-cars-and-garage, the desire for this "American Dream" has resulted in enormous masses of Metropolitan Statistical Areas--giant areas that now constitute the urban area of a city, and with tragically awful commutes for the people living an hour outside, as the only transportation system to accomodate the two-car dream is the interstate highway.

The Metro Statistical Area of Atlanta includes 28 counties, including the city of Athens, more than an hour east of the center. I think MSAs are fascinating beasts, and I've written about my thoughts on the cityscape before. Atlanta is one of the worst offenders of sprawl, the expansion of low-density development that saps the previously natural and open spaces that once surrounded a city, and replaces them with strip malls, big-box stores, retail centers, and many series of little rows of houses surrounding a singular winding street.

Plenty of people get really angry about sprawl, including the guy who wrote this book about it. In an article I talk about about here, the environmental benefits of reversing sprawl are explored: people in cities are using way less energy per capita to survive, period. The thing is, it is so hard to stop, to reverse, because we have not yet worked to redefine "the dream," as the Buell Hypothesis so simple stated. It was like a lightning bolt struck me. Of course. When we redefine what it means to be successful in this United States of the 21st Century, where, ahem, we are no longer the powerhouse leader of the universe and we better get over it fast, we can begin to properly analyze, repair, and improve the lives of so many living in our urban areas--as far out as they have spread. We can change our own perceptions of the kinds of spaces in which we live, work, play, thrive, towards more sustainable living in the population-seven-billion world of today. And it all, fundamentally, comes down to one uncomplicated sentence. Change the dream and you change the city.

Plus, it was just very fun to browse the theoretical models for housing systems of the future, when cities are a much larger part of the dream, and the family dwelling space for the majority of urban/suburban people might look quite different. So exciting. But I love cities. You already knew that. 

 

Cities. And earth. And living rooms in Seoul.

"It starts with looking at growing cities in a positive way--not as diseases, but as concentrations of human energy to be organized and tapped."

 

This series of photos accompanies the article I mention here, on urban living and the future of the planet. They are photographs of families in Seoul, South Korea, in their identical 150-square-foot living room spaces in the Evergreen Tower highrise. Of Seoul's 24 million people, more than half live in highrises. Many consider them safer and a better investment for families than single-family dwellings. They are also vastly more energy efficient. Photos by Yeondoo Jung for National Geographic

 Last weekend I watched Contagion, a recent Hollywood rendition of what would happen to the planet and its people if there was a massive, contagious disease that wreaked devastation and death, spreading so quickly and aggressively that its MO was "figuring us out faster than we can figure it out." Characters race against time in the film, doctors at the CDC (including Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard), and other health institutes around the world, traveling and researching to find out what caused this outbreak and how to solve it, immunize against it.

And what do we learn about humanity? We are not nearly as orderly and respective to each other during crisis as the model Japanese refugees were during last year's triple-crisis earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. In fact, we panic, we flee, we become violent and kill each other to find food, to secure our own families. The scenes that play out as the epidemic spreads (and as fear spreads even more quickly) are terrifying and thought-provoking. What if this actually happened? Would many of us fall not by the hand of the disease that threatens, but by the hands of our own neighbors, in the spirit of the outrageous moment in which we find ourselves?

It's not Oscar-worthy, per se, but I found the theoretical situation enthralling--precisely because it was also horrifying. I would not want to live through this kind of awful moment for humanity. Us at our very worst.

It also made me think about the structure of our world, and a recent article in National Geographic about the future of our planet, and how cities can save us. I agree wholeheartedly, that, rather than the festering dirty urban spaces they have often been perceived as (and actualized as) in history, cities offer us a sustainable option for the survival of seven billion people (and an estimated nine billion by 2050), as people living in cities tread lightly on the earth: "Their roads, sewers, and power lines are shorter. Their apartments take less energy to heat and cool. Most important: they drive less." Denser populations in cities have the added effect of lessening our use of remaining green space, forests, and natural areas and reservations. Humans and the earth alike need these green spaces an essential survival components--for our human psyche, and for the earth, literal survival.

As cities become more and more the agent of our sustainable survival, they should not all expand as Atlanta did. Sprawl and the massive expansion of suburbs have not helped or lowered our dependency on large amounts of energy. James Howard Kunstler, a critic of suburbia, called Atlanta "a pulsating slime mold," a quotation that did manage to be included in the Nat Geo article, luckily for us Atlantans. But Atlanta is a perfect example of terrible teamwork among metropolitan counties, who could not agree on a transit system that stretched throughout the area, and so we are heavily, begrudgingly, seemingly irreversibly dependent on our clogged highways.

Theorists have had ideas and arguments for and against how we should design our cities for hundreds of years. Greenbelts surrounding cities were one proposed plan for stopping city growth, when it was perceived that urban centers that were too big would eat up all remaining space outside their centers. But as this set definitive borders to what would be considered the city, "greenbelts had the effect of pushing people farther out, sometimes absurdly far," says Peter Hall in the article, a planner and historian at University College London.

Brisilia, the planned capital of Brazil, was designed for 500,000 people; two million more now live beyond the lake and park that were supposed to block the city's expansion. When you  try to stop urban growth, it seems, you just amplify sprawl.

...Other government policies, such as subsidies for highways and home ownership, have [also] coaxed the suburbs outward.

The argument then, and the solution as well, is that you don't try to stop city growth. You try to stop the suburban sprawl, and have your citizens living closer to where they work and play. What has been happening with more and more use and dependency on oil to fuel our cars and big, suburban houses in the United States is happening on an ever-greater level as China and India develop, and their citizens want the same ideas of the affluent, consumer life. As this trend quickens its pace, a solution becomes more important than ever. History has not always favored the teeming urban center. It has been seen as corrupting of the mind, dirty, disease-ridden, and a slew of other things. Which are valid claims, especially, rightfully, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But there's a valid twenty-first century reevaluation and outlook:

Developing cities will inevitably expand, says [Shlomo Angel, an urban planning professor at New York University and Princeton]. Somewhere between the anarchy that prevails in many today and the utopianism that has often characterized urban planning lies a modest kind of planning that could make a big difference. It requires looking ahead decades, Angel says, and reserving land, before the city grows over it, for parks and a dense grid of public transit corridors. It starts with looking at growing cities in a positive way--not as diseases, but as concentrations of human energy to be organized and tapped. 

So we need to begin thinking about our cities as our saviors, and thinking about it seriously, even if, as I began this cheery post, we also risk the same things that have always been risky about cities: we're all really close together, sharing buses, subways, hallways, all manner of public spaces. An event like the one in Contagion isn't impossible, and cities are not the best places to stay if that did occur, as I was brutally reminded during the film. But Hollywood has not convinced me that the argument for cities isn't worth our investment of time, thought, money, and lifestyle.

I hope you enjoy peeking into these Seoul living rooms as much as I did. It was one of my favorite series of photographs to ever appear in the magazine. There's something so universal about our living spaces. 

Beijing, Architecture, and the Chinese People

I first became interested in Chinese architecture when I read journalist Ian Johnson’s book Wild Grass: Three Portraits of Change in Modern China about one year ago. The book is a well-researched account of three different situations where Chinese people are standing up for their rights within the confines of Chinese policy and government philosophy. Through Johnson’s accounts of conversation with Chinese people living in Beijing, I learned about the paradox between Beijing’s lasting cultural history and its modern changes, growth, and aim towards leading China into the 21st Century and into a significant role in the world. Beijing is a city rooted in culture and history, but arguably, the changes taking place rapidly in Beijing and across China are jeopardizing both those aspects of the nation. One of the focuses of Johnson’s research was the tearing down of the city’s hutongs, which are narrow streets that run throughout the city. Think of a hutong like an artery pumping through a city—it’s lifeblood, and home to millions of its citizens. According to many accounts, the government is confiscating homes within these neighborhoods that have housed many generations of families, dislocated those residents to slums miles away, ultimately compensating for grossly little of what was taken. Attempting to present their case to a court, petitioning groups of Beijingers have been making slow progress (with much failure and many setbacks) towards retrieving compensation—or at least increasing awareness of this process. The 2008 Olympic Games and the overall development of the city contribute to the death of the hutongs and other sources of Chinese society and culture.

I did not forget what I had learned, and came to China and Beijing curious as to what I might really find or witness. Indeed, across the city, it is evident of the vast changes taking place in Beijing, the construction of buildings, high rises, major highways, and the destruction of things that may have previously occupied that space. The city’s appearance is a representation of China: its identity truly hanging somewhere along the spectrum of agriculturally-based developing nation and one of the world’s next dominating powers.

Fortunately we took a tour, via rickshaws, through several of the hutongs. I was able to peek firsthand into these vessels, these intimate neighborhoods where government officials live behind ornate gates, next-door to laborers who might live with several families. What I saw were real people, living everyday lives in this major city, and I found the proximity of living quarters to be very communal—and therefore wholly Chinese. We got to visit one the homes (although I think it involved the residents’ ability to market their goods to an even greater audience, most specifically American tourists), see the interior, and feel for ourselves the atmosphere of close-quartered living. It was my favorite part of our visit to Beijing, and one of the most memorable things for me thus far. I liked the personal connection I felt to the city and its people, and I also felt that I had a slight piece of insight into what might be missing if the destruction I’d read about continued, and at the same pace.

I enjoyed the visit, in its personal affect of me; it was also an important experience in that I have both the journalistic research of others and my own personal experience and feelings on this one aspect of a modernizing China. It has stirred a reflective, rather reluctant emotion, a mix between celebration of culture, sadness about the homogenization that comes with globalization, longing for this historical, intimate community, and pity for the same community’s current condition and predicament.

For the history class I took in Zhengzhou in May, I wrote my final paper on the relationship I had discovered between Chinese and their architecture. Further traveling through China brought several new insights related to the close connection they have to their history, and the implications it holds, and this interested me because of what I had learned and seen. Looking to their past as guidance for present and future, the Chinese as a society are widely influenced by their nation’s history, and within this, their architecture. I found this to be an interesting paradox, as China moves ever-towards becoming fully modern.

I wonder, is it possible for China to maintain its same relationship with its history— and incidentally, its architecture—while growing more capitalistic with each new towering high-rise or all-inclusive shopping center?

I continue to ponder and analyze this question, each time I walk along a city street or watch the bustling life blur past the window of our little bus.