Playing Favorites on Land Use Won’t Solve Congestion

By Benita M. Dodd

Benita Dodd,  Vice President, Georgia Public  Policy Foundation

Benita Dodd,
Vice President, Georgia Public
Policy Foundation

Attend a local planning meeting these days and the discussion inevitably turns to land use and the role it plays in transportation, congestion and density challenges, especially in the metro Atlanta region.

It’s no surprise, given the national trend to “smart growth” practices and Atlanta’s reputation as “sprawl capital of the world,” that area forums and studies reveal a strong push in some quarters to link transportation policy and land use practices.

At an Atlanta Regional Commission retreat recently in Cobb County, ARC members heard of the successes of the ARC’s Livable Centers Initiative communities. The ARC provides seed money to communities that incorporate the live-work-play concept, are pedestrian-friendly, improve access to transit and other transportation options and offer expanded housing options. And members heard about studies showing that LCIs have reduced vehicle miles traveled by about 10 percent.

The theory is that linking land use practices and transportation will reduce congestion by promoting higher-density and mixed-use development, reducing vehicle miles traveled, concurrently improving air quality and preserving more greenspace. Therefore, goes the argument, why not use incentives to concentrate development around transportation infrastructure and transit corridors?

“I’m looking at how land use supports transportation instead of how transportation supports land use,” Roswell Mayor Jere Wood told the ARC at the retreat. Wood is among those who support “using transportation dollars as an incentive for land use planning.”

The idea, unfortunately, is based on the premise that people choose where they live and work with transportation as their priority. If that were the case, efficient transportation ought to be the carrot in itself to make such development profitable and popular. Instead, by offering incentives to promote one type of development trend, the potential is that government will discourage or penalize other, equally responsible but less politically correct options by denying or delaying funding. Nobody verbalizes that “land use planning” is frequently a euphemism for “smart growth,” which is anti-suburbia, anti-roads and anti-automobile.

Population trends indicate that it’s hardly necessary to give higher-density development in the region any preferential treatment. The ARC recently released new population and employment forecasts for the 13-county metro area showing that by 2030 the metro region will have 6 million residents. That’s an increase of nearly 2.3 million people between 2000 and 2030. It projects 1.7 million new jobs, suggesting an influx of young people who’d probably prefer lofts to large lots and weekend yard work. The ARC also projects shrinking households, and it projects that 20 percent of the region’s residents will be over age 60 in 2030, a rate double that of 2000. They, too, will prefer the convenience of higher-density cluster communities to pruning the shrubs. And work centers will continue their distribution across the region.

Undoubtedly, most residents still want the proverbial picket fence. Georgia’s families prefer large lots – their personal greenspace – usually in quiet subdivisions with minimal through traffic and self-contained recreational amenities. They seek affordable homes in good school districts. They want a community in which they feel comfortable, safe and accepted. They want stores nearby but not in their neighborhoods, and neighbors close enough to bond with yet far enough to ignore.

And they’ve shown time and again that they’re even willing to suffer the inconvenience of congestion for that lifestyle choice. Despite the complaints about gridlock, a recent ARC survey found that people are willing to leave their cars for public transportation only if it’s cheap, fast and gets them where they need to be. The 2002 American Community Survey reports that 81 percent of Georgians drove to work alone in 2002. Eleven percent carpooled, 3 percent took public transportation and 2 percent used other means.

Congestion remains a costly problem, but it must be tackled through transportation solutions. Thankfully, despite funding woes, that is what is taking place.

Solutions under way include innovative funding methods such as public-private partnerships; a prioritized approach that covers improving arterial roads; expanding Intelligent Transportation Systems such as Georgia’s Navigator system; relieving bottlenecks; expanding road capacity, synchronizing traffic lights, and a speedy response to traffic incidents. Cost-effective transit solutions such as bus rapid transit and express bus service are being implemented to provide for residents who need public transportation as well as for those who choose not to drive.  

When congestion woes are solved with transportation solutions, the region can turn its attention to the growing market for a diversity of development. Then, a market able to function on a level playing field that accommodates the needs of a diverse population with diverse needs will encourage the kind of healthy competition that produces affordable, accessible housing options.

Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (August 20, 2004). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.