Connecting residential segregation, highways, mass transit, and congestion

Historian Kevin Kruse suggests the traffic congestion in today’s big cities is connected to segregation:

This intertwined history of infrastructure and racial inequality extended into the 1950s and 1960s with the creation of the Interstate highway system. The federal government shouldered nine-tenths of the cost of the new Interstate highways, but local officials often had a say in selecting the path. As in most American cities in the decades after the Second World War, the new highways in Atlanta — local expressways at first, then Interstates — were steered along routes that bulldozed “blighted” neighborhoods that housed its poorest residents, almost always racial minorities. This was a common practice not just in Southern cities like Jacksonville, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans, Richmond and Tampa, but in countless metropolises across the country, including Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Syracuse and Washington.

While Interstates were regularly used to destroy black neighborhoods, they were also used to keep black and white neighborhoods apart. Today, major roads and highways serve as stark dividing lines between black and white sections in cities like Buffalo, Hartford, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. In Atlanta, the intent to segregate was crystal clear. Interstate 20, the east-west corridor that connects with I-75 and I-85 in Atlanta’s center, was deliberately plotted along a winding route in the late 1950s to serve, in the words of Mayor Bill Hartsfield, as “the boundary between the white and Negro communities” on the west side of town. Black neighborhoods, he hoped, would be hemmed in on one side of the new expressway, while white neighborhoods on the other side of it would be protected. Racial residential patterns have long since changed, of course, but the awkward path of I-20 remains in place…

[S]uburbanites waged a sustained campaign against the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) from its inception. Residents of the nearly all-white Cobb County resoundingly rejected the system in a 1965 vote. In 1971, Gwinnett and Clayton Counties, which were then also overwhelmingly white, followed suit, voting down a proposal to join MARTA by nearly 4-1 margins, and keeping MARTA out became the default position of many local politicians. (Emmett Burton, a Cobb County commissioner, won praise for promising to “stock the Chattahoochee with piranha” if that were needed to keep MARTA away.) David Chesnut, the white chairman of MARTA, insisted in 1987 that suburban opposition to mass transit had been “90 percent a racial issue.” Because of that resistance, MARTA became a city-only service that did little to relieve commuter traffic. By the mid-1980s, white racists were joking that MARTA, with its heavily black ridership, stood for “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta.”…

Earlier this year, Gwinnett County voted MARTA down for a third time. Proponents had hoped that changes in the county’s racial composition, which was becoming less white, might make a difference. But the March initiative still failed by an eight-point margin. Officials discovered that some nonwhite suburbanites shared the isolationist instincts of earlier white suburbanites. One white property manager in her late 50s told a reporter that she voted against mass transit because it was used by poorer residents and immigrants, whom she called “illegals.” “Why should we pay for it?” she asked. “Why subsidize people who can’t manage their money and save up a dime to buy a car?”

Translation: decisions about transportation were both a consequence of a national inclination toward racial and ethnic segregation and an ongoing contributor toward racial and ethnic segregation. In a country that is relatively sprawling and prefers cars, determining who has access to transportation and what kind of transportation is available can be part of who can get ahead.

While the root cause of all of this may be racial issues, it is interesting to consider this as a congestion issue. Would the public be convinced to change transportation infrastructure because they dislike sitting in traffic? The evidence from Atlanta as well as numerous other American cities (such as developing a regional transportation effort in the Chicago region) suggests this is not a strong argument. Wealthier residents are hesitant to ride buses, trains may be tolerable, but driving is still preferred even when so many hours per year are devoted to it. Suburban Americans like cars and they like the ability to exclude and I would argue the second is the master priority when push comes to shove.

Suburban efforts outside Atlanta to secede and form a new community; about race and income or business development?

Voters yesterday in unincorporated suburbia outside Atlanta voted on a proposal to create a new suburb:

The proposal to form a new city, up for a vote on Tuesday, has roiled Henry County, raising tense debate about racial and economic disparity and voting rights. Once a sleepy rural, predominantly white region, the county has seen an influx of minorities and a solidification of black political power as its population has exploded in recent years. In 1980, whites made up more than 80% of Henry County’s population, but now they have dwindled to less than 50%…

If Eagle’s Landing manages to wrestle away the southern portion of Stockbridge — a section that includes its most affluent residential pockets as well as its main commercial corridor that brings in nearly $5 million of the city’s $9 million annual revenue — Ford has warned the city would be forced to impose a new property tax on remaining residents…

Backers of Eagle’s Landing counter that their aim is nothing more than to lure new fine dining and retail to a freshly coined community with a median household income of about $128,000 — more than double that of Stockbridge. Imagine, they tell their neighbors, a Whole Foods or a Trader Joe’s, a California Pizza Kitchen or a Capital Grille…

For more than a decade, rich, white pockets of metro Atlanta have led a national movement to form new cities out of unincorporated land in an effort, they say, for greater control, more efficient government and lower taxes. But this could be the first time a new city would take an existing city’s land without all the residents of the existing city having a vote.

Perhaps both arguments could be true: there is a race and class component to the proposal for a new suburb and backers of the change are interested in unique business opportunities that might come to a wealthier suburb. This reminds of the argument Freund makes in Colored Property. By the late 1960s, conservatives realized they could no longer object to non-white residents in or near their communities based on race. They instead switched over to economic arguments to justify ongoing residential segregation: people with fewer resources simply could not access nicer communities.

The matter about annexation law in Georgia is strange. The annexation of suburbs to big cities was fairly common in the late 1800s in the Northeast and Midwest as suburbs saw advantages in joining the big city. But, as cities changed, suburbs in those regions became less interested in being annexed. Laws usually reflect this: people being annexed or affected by annexations generally have to agree to the changes.

Even if race was truly not a factor (and it certainly sounds suspicious here), it also sounds like some growth machine activity is taking place. Local officials and businesses (developers?) see possible profits at stake in a suburban area with little wealth thus far. They get the state legislature to make some special regulations. Who exactly will profit here? How much of the money will come back to the (new) community?

“Blue surge in [suburban] Georgia” quote

I talked earlier this week with Patrik Jonsson of the Christian Science Monitor about the primary race in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District in the Atlanta suburbs. Here is part of the story published on Wednesday:

In part seen as a referendum on President Trump, Ossoff’s out-of-the-blue campaign also offers a mirror on how changing suburban values are coming to a head in unexpected ways.

In the past decade especially, Atlanta suburbs like Cobb, Dekalb, and Fulton, parts of which make up the Sixth, have become younger, more diverse, more place-focused, and more urbane than their dad’s suburbs. A values shift toward walkability and sustainability is creating opportunities for moderates like Ossoff who respect suburban traditions while also seeking not to exclude people by race or wealth…

The new suburban appeal resonates not just for younger Americans in search of authentic experiences, but older ones as well, ranging from empty nesters who want a more urban lifestyle without having to move to the city to Gen X divorcees who are trying to juggle jobs, social lives, and two households without being stuck in Atlanta traffic all day.

“The suburbs are not just composed of wealthy conservatives, even though such communities do exist,” says Brian Miller, a Wheaton College, Ill., sociologist who studies the suburbs. The difference is that “there are now a variety of populations with a variety of concerns.” That means “local and national elections may [now] depend on reaching voters in middle suburbs who might go either way depending on the candidates, economic conditions [and] quality of life concerns.”

I’ll add a bit more since this touches on one areas of my research: from the outside, suburbs may look all the same. The physical pieces may be similar (different configurations of subdivisions, roads, big box stores and fast food establishments, etc.) and there are presumed to be similar values (middle-class homeowners who fiercely protect local interests such as property values). Yet, if you spend time in suburban areas, you find that communities can differ quite a bit even if they all fit under the umbrella term “suburb.” Depending on the demographics of particular communities (and suburbs are increasingly non-white as well as have more poor residents) as well as unique histories (which are influenced by the date of founding, distance from the big city, and actions of past and current leaders), suburbs can be quite different and have their own character.

So trying to understand voting patterns in suburbs can be complicated. Suburbs closer to big cities tend to lean Democratic and those at the metropolitan edges lean Republican. In the middle, voters can be swayed and are less predictable – indeed, they may be the real swing states for politicians to fight over. This map of the primary results in the New York Times supports these earlier findings: there are different clusters of support for the various candidates throughout the suburban district.

Atlanta bridge collapses, traffic isn’t that bad

Urban highways are often very busy but when they are completely out of commission, it doesn’t necessarily lead to horrific traffic:

You’ll forgive our excessively clinical attitude about this damage—and it’s going to cost tens of millions to fix—but what we have here is a classic “natural experiment” of the kind economists and students of public policy relish. So what happens when we take a major urban freeway out of service for a couple of months? Are Atlanta commuters in for hours of gridlock every day and grisly commutes? Will the region’s economy grind to a halt as a result? We’ll be watching over the next several months to see.

So far, the results are consistent with what we’ve seen in Los Angeles and Minneapolis. Monday morning came, and something funny happened: traffic wasn’t so bad

So what’s going on here? Arguably, our mental model of traffic is just wrong. We tend to think of traffic volumes, and trip-making generally as inexorable forces of nature. The diurnal flow of 250,000 vehicles a day on an urban freeway like I-85 is just as regular and predictable as the tides. What this misses is that there’s a deep behavioral basis to travel. Human beings will shift their behavior in response to changing circumstances. If road capacity is impaired, many people can decide not to travel, change when they travel, change where they travel, or even change their mode of travel. The fact that Carmageddon almost never comes is powerful evidence of induced demand: people travel on roadways because the capacity is available for their trips, and when the capacity goes away, so does much of the trip making.

If Atlanta can survive for a month or two without a major chunk of its freeway, that’s a powerful indication that more modest steps to alter road capacity don’t really mean the end of the world. If we recognize that traffic will tend to adjust to available capacity, we then end up taking a different view of how to balance transportation against other objectives. For example, this ought to be a signal that road diets, which have been shown to greatly improve safety and encourage walking and cycling, don’t have anything approaching the kinds of adverse effects on travel that highway engineers usually predict.

I do think that this suggests drivers will adjust their behaviors based on what roads are available. At the same time, there is probably a tipping point where reducing too much traffic capacity would make a big difference. This might be especially true in car-driven places like Atlanta and Los Angeles that are known for sprawl. Presumably, places where traffic capacity could be picked up by other transportation options (such as closing the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco where driving is already a hassle and other options include BART, Muni, etc.) would fare better. Or, perhaps road capacity has to be reduced gradually so that people have time to adjust and make new choices about travel and where they live and work.

See earlier posts about what happened with Carmageddon I and Carmageddon II in Los Angeles

Trying to replicate Times Square in places like Atlanta

Large cities often borrow ideas from each other. But, is it possible to design places like Times Square into being by adding lights?

Some smaller American cities have recently been attempting to mimic this aesthetic, albeit on a lesser scale, in the hope of spurring economic development and a more pedestrian-friendly downtown. Denver’s theater district, for instance, now features an enormous video screen and lighted advertisements peddling the latest in products and entertainment, and Atlanta is in the process of planning such a district for a section of its downtown.

The organization Central Atlanta Progress (CAP) is spearheading the effort to relax signage restrictions so that property owners can go bigger and brighter. “At this point, downtown Atlanta’s zoning doesn’t allow signs that are over 200 square feet, and our billboards are stuck in time,” says Jennifer Ball, CAP’s Vice President for Planning and Economic Development. “We’re anticipating an increase in size as well as the ability to do large-screen video and LED boards.” Atlanta’s City Council will likely vote on the measure in January…

But the larger aim is to bring more people downtown—and for them to experience the area on foot rather than in their cars. Atlanta is known for its incredible sprawl, with its more walkable neighborhoods scattered throughout the city and thus only easily accessed via automobile. The city is aiming to make itself denser and more pedestrian-friendly, and the district is, according to Ball, “a piece of the puzzle.” To further that goal, the bright lights district would also include more housing and ground-level retail outlets and restaurants. “Atlanta wants to have a strong core that is walkable and bikeable and has the level of density to support a lifestyle where you don’t have to be in your car all the time,” Ball says.

Such a multi-pronged strategy is important, as urban lighting scholars caution that illumination on its own doesn’t guarantee an increase in business or foot traffic. Margaret Petty, Head of the School of Design at Australia’s Queensland University of Technology and a historian of electric lighting, says that there’s no evidence to suggest that lighting alone attracts people to an area, unless that area, such as Times Square, is “iconic.” Josiane Meier, lecturer at the Technical University of Berlin and co-editor of Urban Lighting, Light Pollution, and Society, adds that the “if you build it, they will come” model doesn’t really work in terms of lighting and density. “The interdependency runs the other way,” she says. “Density is a prerequisite for the existence of bright lights districts.”

It sounds like the Atlanta plan isn’t just about lights; it is about creating denser, vibrant places with a variety of uses and lights (which both can attract people and highlight existing activity). New Urbanism and Jane Jacobs come together to possibly reshape Atlanta.

Will it actually work? This reminds me of the number of cities that tried to replicate the High Line after it proved very successful in New York City. It isn’t hard to build things to look like someplace else – look at Las Vegas – but it is difficult to create legitimate neighborhoods that aren’t just tourist destinations. Times Square is interesting not just because of the tourists but also because it is at the center of the number one global city (New York City) and and is located in one of the most densely settled places in the United States (Manhattan). A bar/entertainment district with some housing above and nearby may be nice but it can’t exactly replicate the conditions of a New York City or London or Tokyo.

What could a city like Atlanta create that would be more authentic to itself while also increasing density and vibrancy? What is unique to Atlanta that can’t be found elsewhere (besides the sprawl)?

Black homeowners not seeing the same rebound in home values

As if residential segregation and disparities in homeownership (and wealth) weren’t enough, black homeowners haven’t benefited as much from the housing recovery:

The communities in South DeKalb are almost entirely African American, and they reflect a housing disparity that emerges across the Atlanta metropolitan area and the nation. According to a new Washington Post analysis, the higher a Zip code’s share of black residents in the Atlanta region, the worse its housing values have fared over the past turbulent housing cycle.

Nationwide, home values in predominantly African American neighborhoods have been the least likely to recover, according to the analysis of home data from Black Knight Financial Services. Across the 300 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, homes in 4 out of 10 Zip codes where blacks are the largest population group are worth less than they were in 2004. That’s twice the rate for mostly white Zip codes across the country. Across metropolitan Atlanta, nearly 9 in 10 largely black Zip codes still have home values below that point 12 years ago.

And in South DeKalb, the collapse has been even worse. In some Zip codes, home values are still 25 percent below what they were then. Families here, who’ve lost their wealth and had their life plans scrambled, see neighborhoods in the very same county — mostly white neighborhoods — thriving…

These disparities, though, are not simply about income, about higher poverty levels among blacks, or lower-quality homes where they live, according to economists who have studied the region. The disparities exist in places, like neighborhoods in South DeKalb County, where black families make six-figure incomes.

Race strikes again in America. While the issues may not be the same as past actions such as official redlining or blockbusting or restrictive covenants, even in wealthier communities – ones like these that tend to look like the white suburban dream of a big house in a nice community – race continues to affect home and property.

This also reminds me of the book Crisis Cities which I had my urban sociology class read for the first time this past sentence. The one sentence summary: government and private sector actions after major urban crises like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina tend to privilege the already wealthy and do little to help the poorer residents of major cities. Similarly, poorer and minority residents were hurt disproportionately by the economic crisis (through means like subprime loans – another quote from the article: “Nationwide, black families earning around $230,000 a year, according to research by sociologist Jacob Fa­ber, were more likely at the height of the bubble in 2006 to be given a subprime loan than white families making about $32,000”) and then don’t share as much in the recovery. We need urban and housing policies that at least help everyone, if not provide more for those who need more help.

When American protestors take to the highway

Americans like their highways free of obstructions. So, what happened recently when a group of protestors blocked one of Atlanta’s main highways at rush hour?

That was what made the images of last week’s protest on the road known as the Atlanta Downtown Connector so jarring. A few dozen individuals, including members of the group Southerners on New Ground, walked out onto that roadway and laid down a banner reading “#BlackLivesMatter.” This was one of several actions around the country protesting police violence and mass incarceration, and expressing solidarity with those who have been demonstrating in Ferguson, Missouri, over the killing of black teenager Michael Brown by white policeman Darren Wilson…

The protesters blocked traffic on I-75/85, one of Atlanta’s major commuter routes, for only a short time, but they managed to get the attention of the drivers who rely on that route before the police cleared them from the roadway without making any arrests…

Reaction to the protest was decidedly mixed among Atlantans, with some people going on Twitter to criticize the action with comments such as, “I support the protests in #Ferguson, but why are they shutting down a highway in Atlanta so that BLACK folks can’t get home from work?” and “Look, I get standing in solidarity w/ #Ferguson, but #Atlanta traffic is already bad. So yeah, if you’re stuck in that, I’m POd w/ you.”

Blocking city streets has been an urban protest tactic since there were urban protests…

Blocking major roads in the United States, however, is much more rare. Most notably, the Selma to Montgomery marches that were pivotal in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s used U.S. Route 80, a move that was upheld in a ruling by Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. His opinion was deeply controversial at the time: “The law is clear that the right to petition one’s government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups,” said the judge, “and these rights may be exercised by marching, even along public highways.”

While this summary doesn’t give many details, I would be really interested to hear how the police handled this. Any pedestrian activity, let alone an intentional protest, on a major highway would often be viewed as a concern. At the same time, this is a good way to get the attention of a lot of people for the unusual location of the protest.

The article ends on a note that such protests help make highways less removed from normal life. This is due to a long American history of generally wanting their roads to be for automobile travel. This means bicycling, walking on nearby sidewalks, slow vehicles, and any other impediments (including natural ones) are often scorned. Such thoughts and policies helped lawmakers and politicians ram highways through major cities and urban neighborhoods in the mid-1900s. In contrast, our cities don’t have as many public pedestrian spaces like many European or other global cities which are full of plazas, parks, and wide sidewalks.