“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.

 

The difficulties in addressing poverty in the Atlanta suburbs

Here is a look at how poverty is being addressed in the Atlanta suburbs:

This is not an indictment of Cobb County in particular. Rather, what’s happening in Cobb is a microcosm of the dilemma facing suburbs nationwide: a rapid spike in the number of poor people in what once were the sprawling beacons of American prosperity. Think of it as the flip side of the national urban boom: The poverty rate across all U.S. suburbs doubled in the first decade of the millennium—even as America’s cities are transforming in the other direction, toward rising affluence and hipster reinvention. If the old story of poverty in America was crumbling inner cities and drug-addled housing projects, the new story is increasingly one of downscale strip malls and long bus rides in search of ever-scarcer jobs. We can’t understand what’s working in America’s cities unless we also look at what’s not working in the vast suburbs that surround them.

And there’s a lot about Atlanta’s suburbs that isn’t working. Suburban poverty exploded here between 2000 and 2011, rising by 159 percent. Now, 88 percent of the region’s poor people live in suburbs. On its face, there is nothing remarkable about that statistic; after all, metro Atlanta is huge (8,300 square-miles, about the size of Massachusetts), and its population keeps rising (it’s now almost 6 million, equivalent to the population of Missouri). But fewer than 10 percent of us live in the city of Atlanta itself. So it would stand to reason that most poor people are suburbanites; most metro Atlantans are suburbanites, period…

For suburban Atlanta, as in suburbia nationwide, this shift presents some vexing problems. Designed around a car-centric culture of single-family homes clustered in cul-de-sacs served by strip centers and shopping malls, and fueled by jobs reached by commuting to downtown or suburban office parks, suburbs like Cobb County have struggled to respond to denser populations, increased congestion and, as a result of the 2008 recession, a decline in the middle-class jobs that made it all possible. Suburban Atlanta voters, including in Cobb County, have consistently rejected mass transit that might relieve their car dependency. And county zoning ordinances have continued to favor single-family housing over denser development, exacerbating the problem for the poor who are clustered there in ever greater numbers…

Here’s the most complicated problem with poverty in the suburbs: It’s almost invisible. There are 86,000 people in Cobb County who live below the poverty level. But you could live in Cobb your whole life and never see them, or at least not knowingly. Cobb County covers 339 square miles and is home to 717,000 people. Its poor residents can be lost in the crowd—and lost in all that space.

An interesting look at the myriad problems that makes addressing suburban poverty harder: lack of transportation options besides cars, limited social services that tend to be spread out, race and class differences that get reified through political and economic decisions, and limited recognition of suburban poverty.

Just a note: we need more sociological research on suburban poverty and suburban patterns in Sunbelt metropolitan regions that may be less segregated than Northern cities but are also more sprawling.

Did a lack of regionalism lead to the traffic nightmare in Atlanta after 2″ of snow?

What caused the terrible gridlock in metropolitan Atlanta after two inches of snow (which quickly turned to ice)? Here is one argument for a lack of regionalism:

Which leads into the blame game. Republicans want to blame government (a Democrat thing) or Atlanta (definitely a Democrat thing). Democrats want to blame the region’s dependence on cars (a Republican thing), the state government (Republicans), and many of the transplants from more liberal, urban places feel the same way you might about white, rural, southern drivers. All of this is true to some extent but none of it is helpful.

How much money do you set aside for snowstorms when they’re as infrequent as they are? Who will run the show—the city, the county, or the state? How will preparedness work? You could train everyone today, and then if the next storm hits in 2020, everyone you’ve trained might have moved on to different jobs, with Atlanta having a new mayor and Georgia having a new governor.

Regionalism here is hard. The population of this state has doubled in the past 40-45 years, and many of the older voters who control it still think of it as the way it was when they were growing up. The urban core of Atlanta is a minority participant in a state government controlled by rural and northern Atlanta exurban interests. The state government gives MARTA (Atlanta’s heavy rail transportation system) no money. There’s tough regional and racial history here which is both shameful and a part of the inheritance we all have by being a part of this region. Demographics are evolving quickly, but government moves more slowly. The city in which I live, Brookhaven, was incorporated in 2012. This is its first-ever snowstorm (again, 2 inches). It’s a fairly affluent, mostly white, urban small city. We were unprepared too.

The issue is that you have three layers of government—city, county, state—and none of them really trust the other. And why should they? Cobb County just “stole the Braves” from the city of Atlanta. Why would Atlanta cede transportation authority to a regional body when its history in dealing with the region/state has been to carve up Atlanta with highways and never embrace its transit system? Why would the region/state want to give more authority to Atlanta when many of the people in the region want nothing to do with the city of Atlanta unless it involves getting to work or a Braves game?

The region tried, in a very tough economy and political year (2012), to pass a comprehensive transportation bill, a T-SPLOST, funded by a sales tax. It wasn’t perfect, but it was an attempt to do something. The Sierra Club opposed it because it didn’t feature enough transit. The NAACP opposed it because it didn’t have enough contracts for minority businesses. The tea party opposed it because it was a tax. That’s politics in the 2010’s. You may snicker, but how good a job has any major city done with big transportation projects over the past 30 years?

The argument here is that no one smaller group of government was prepared to deal with the roads and the problem was compounded because there was no structure to coordinate and organize activity when something like this happened. Additionally, regionalism could promote more mass transit to serve the entire region and reduce dependence on cars.

It would then be helpful to look to other major metropolitan regions to see how they tackle responses to natural disasters. Does regionalism lead to a better outcome for the region in such situations? For example, regions like Minneapolis or Indianapolis are held up as examples of regionalism – do they respond better in major snowfalls because of this? Without regionalism, is there a way to coordinate across levels of government in emergency situations that doesn’t require a full-level of regional cooperation on everything else?