Atlanta Forward/ Another View: Arterial street system needed

Atlanta is known for many things. It has been the developed world’s fastest-growing large metropolitan area for three decades. Its cultural diversity is the envy of urban areas around the nation. And then there is the intense traffic congestion.

Atlanta’s traffic congestion is blamed on various factors. Some say it results from Atlanta’s low density. Others claim that it is because there isn’t enough rail transit. Still others cite Atlanta’s huge freeway system as proof that traffic congestion cannot be improved. All of these views are incorrect.

For decades, the response to traffic congestion in the Atlanta area has been to expand the capacity of the I-285 beltway. As this was going on, Atlanta developed the largest expanse of suburbanization in the world without a cross-town freeway. The Atlanta area’s freeway coverage is among the most sparse in the developed world. As for density and rail transit, consider that Sydney, Australia, long since passed by Atlanta in population, has three times the density, 10 times the transit market share, and yet Sydneysiders endure average one-way commutes to work that are longer than in Atlanta.

It is time to put the romance away and recognize that the modern urban area requires effective personal mobility — a road system that can take one from every square foot of the urban area to every other in a reasonable time. Research at the University of Paris and the University of North Carolina has demonstrated the strong relationship between minimizing urban travel times and better economic performance.

Of course, Atlanta’s pathetic freeway system needs improvement. But Atlanta needs something it does not have — a quality arterial street system. Such a system would provide alternatives to the freeways that simply do not exist today. Ten years ago, I proposed development of a “terrain constrained” grid of major arterials throughout the Atlanta area in a report for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. A few years later, the Atlanta Regional Commission adopted a plan for such a system, though it was somewhat more modest. Probably no other improvement could reduce traffic congestion more readily.

Local leaders need to understand that the car is here to stay. This is true in Los Angeles, the most dense urban area in the United States; in Portland, which is half as dense, despite the misleading claims of its boosters; and in Atlanta, the least dense major urban area in the world. The payoff would go beyond reducing traffic congestion. More expeditious traffic movement would reduce the intensity of air pollution and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially with the spectacular improvements in fuel economy that lie ahead.

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, a research firm in St. Louis, and a former member of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission.