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How We Live: Atlanta

April 30, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Where and how Americans live their lives: That’s the focus of a new series that begins tonight. We’ll be looking at issues such as sprawl and low-income housing, shopping, and architecture.

Ray Suarez has the first of these occasional reports from Atlanta.

RAY SUAREZ: In many ways, metropolitan Atlanta is like cities and their suburbs around the country. Only here, the problems are all worse. Ever longer commutes…

WOMAN: My commute from Lasolia to here takes me now an hour.

RAY SUAREZ: Downtown housing prices spiking…

MAN: I would love to live in town, but you can’t afford to live in town and have the kind of space you can get 15 to16 miles from town.

RAY SUAREZ: Debates over building new freeways…

WAYNE HILL: If we don’t build it, we add 400,000 more people in the north end of our county, nobody moves.

RAY SUAREZ: The Atlanta metropolitan area is now in its third consecutive decade of rapid growth: In jobs, in residents, in wealth, and in size. And it’s struggling to control the sprawl. There are no rivers or mountain ranges, no natural boundaries to block Atlanta’s expansion. It has absorbed all or part of 13 counties in north central Georgia.

About 500 acres of land are bulldozed here every week to make way for new development. In the last 20 years, the population has doubled, but land is being developed far faster, so the number of miles driven by the average Atlantan more than doubled.

MAN ON STREET: There’s a store that’s about a mile and a half away, Kroger, but we don’t ever walk there.

RAY SUAREZ: The design of the suburbs makes driving a necessity, not an option. Local zoning laws require set distances between offices, retail stores, and housing. And walking anywhere can be tough, if not dangerous.

MAN: In the subdivision I live in, there is not a sidewalk to be seen.

WOMAN: We don’t have any sidewalks or parks, anywhere around that we could get to without getting in a car.

RAY SUAREZ: Richard Tucker is the president of the Chamber of Commerce of the fastest growing county in the region, Gwinnett.

RICHARD TUCKER: The metro Atlanta way of life is almost like out West, you know, one man, one horse. We’re one man, one woman, one automobile, and that’s a hard pattern to break.

RAY SUAREZ: Except it’s becoming less convenient. In the last decade, the number of hours spent sitting in traffic has doubled.

MIRIAM FAROOQ: Such huge cars and just one person sitting in each car. It’s just ridiculous.

RAY SUAREZ: The commute frustrates Miriam Farooq.

MIRIAM FAROOQ: You want to start your day with a happy, smiling face, and you don’t want to be, like… by the time you reach work or school, it’s, like, an hour and a half of a ride, and you’re all tensed up, and your day starts all messed up.

RAY SUAREZ: Eight months ago, Miriam and her husband Ameen moved 30 miles from downtown to get a larger but still affordable home for their three children. Ameen Farooq’s ten-mile commute often takes an hour or more. A professor of architecture and urban planning, he is worried that the traffic congestion and rapid expansion of subdivisions are affecting the area’s water, air quality, and green space.

AMEEN FAROOQ: The first thing, which I noticed is, you know, the lack of trees. Now this subdivision has only 104 houses — a very nice, clean subdivision without much trees, so landscaping becomes the major problem. And especially, you know, in the summertime, you can see the difference, you can feel the heat of the summer, because there’s not many trees here, you know.

RAY SUAREZ: According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, fewer trees and more asphalt and air conditioners have created a growing heat island effect throughout metro Atlanta. The area’s water supply is dwindling, and air pollution is increasing. When ozone smog is high, the Centers for Disease Control has reported a 35 percent increase in emergency room visits for respiratory illnesses.

In 1998, the Environmental Protection Agency ruled that Atlanta had violated the 1990 Clean Air Act, meaning the region would lose over $1.7 billion in highway funding. Wesley Wolf of the Southern Environmental Law Center explains.

WESLEY WOLF: The sanctions are you have to redirect your transportation monies from projects that pollute the air to projects that help clean up the air.

RAY SUAREZ: Two opposing camps responded to the crisis with different strategies. Wolf’s organization is part of a coalition that has used the Clean Air Act as leverage to slow sprawl and highway construction, and give people an alternative to driving.

WESLEY WOLF: The federal transportation money can keep flowing to this region and other regions like Atlanta. The region just cannot spend that money on things that pollute the air. We can spend our money on transit that helps improve air quality, we can spend that money on pedestrian safety, highway safety projects, intersection improvements, other sorts of projects like that, but we can’t dig the hole deeper.

RAY SUAREZ: The second camp’s strategy, led by the suburban counties, was to clear out traffic by building more roads. Federal and local transportation officials created a plan that would postpone the Clean Air Act’s 1999 deadline for cleaner air until 2005, and allow road building to resume. Richard Tucker backs that plan. Along with the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce Post, he’s on the board of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.

RICHARD TUCKER: Whether we like it or not, we have to provide for people to drive in a car. If they want to drive alone, that’s their prerogative. We want to make it… we want to incent them to drive in carpools. That’s why we have HOV lanes, that’s why we have a new bus system that just came on line last November that is over capacity now.

We already need new buses, so some people are wanting to do that. But as a percentage of the four million people in this region, only 2 percent to 3 percent are going to use those means of transportation today. Now they may use more in time, and that’s certainly the long-range plan, but we can’t neglect the road building that needs to continue.

RAY SUAREZ: The most controversial part of the Transportation Authority’s plan is to build the Northern Arc Freeway, a 65 mile crescent across three counties, 25 to 30 miles north of the city’s limits. Wayne Hill, the longtime chairman of the Gwinnett County Commission, says that unless the arc is built, pollution problems will increase, not decease.

WAYNE HILL: If it’s not built, I think we’re going to have major congestion, even more than we have today. I think you will see long-term probably the economy go down.

RAY SUAREZ: In Hill’s vision, the Northern Arc will end at the intersection of two other highways in Gwinnett County and those two intersections will eventually anchor a new city the size of Baltimore or Boston.

WAYNE HILL: And you got the mall of Georgia right there.

RAY SUAREZ: So that’s about ten miles.

WAYNE HILL: That’s about ten miles.

RAY SUAREZ: Downtown Atlanta has its own set of problems created by urban sprawl and the individual choices that make up the way we live. New arrivals, increasing demand, and horrible commutes have driven up demand and prices in desirable Atlanta neighborhoods. And for all the talk about loving the sidewalk, corporate and residential high rises with no street life continue to rise in isolation, and apartment complexes hide in gated cul-de-sacs.

The upshot: Even city residents are still dependent on their cars. The public transportation system suffers from a lack of funding support from the surrounding counties.

WESLEY WOLF, Southern Environmental Law Center: We do have a transit system, it does function, it goes to certain places. If you live in the right place, it works for you. If you don’t, it doesn’t.

RAY SUAREZ: One strategy of developers downtown is to fill in empty space. In midtown Atlanta, Atlantic Station, one of many new projects, is under construction on the site of an old steel mill. Developer Jim Jacoby touts the 140-acre site’s potential, saying it’s well worth the challenges of cleaning an old Brownfield site, and building a bridge across a river of traffic to attach a new neighborhood to the rest of the city.

JIM JACOBY: We’re creating a sort of a magnet for people to want to come back downtown, to be at the art center, to be able to walk to work, to live, work, and play in an area that’s better for you, better for the environment, and having this opportunity is creating the opportunity for people to come back into the city.

RAY SUAREZ: Thanks to new zoning laws, Atlantic Station’s high-density design will feature a mix of residential, office, and retail space, flanked by sidewalks and trees.

JIM JACOBY: The residential units will on the third and fourth floor of these four buildings right here overlooking the one acre park.

RAY SUAREZ: Planning commissioner Michael Dobbins has worked with Atlantic Station from the start, and believes the design fits with the city’s future plans.

MICHAEL DOBBINS: The basic strategy that the city of Atlanta has undertaken is to create the kind of environment that responds to the markets that we’re seeing emerging and leveling out across the region, which is Generation X folks and empty nesters and seniors, who are showing a clear desire to live in an area that’s more walkable, where services are closer at hand, where there are options to having to get out of your car, where there are housing choice options. So we’ve geared our strategies to induce developments that respect the sidewalk and the street, and reestablish the sidewalk as sort of the front door of the activities of the city.

RAY SUAREZ: As part of his sidewalk strategy, Dobbins looked for a way to get people out of cars. What he found was the much ballyhooed Segway human transporter, a battery-powered device steered by chip-driven gyroscopes. It reaches 12.5 miles per hour and weighs 65 pounds.

MICHAEL DOBBINS: It does seem to be very promising with respect to displacing that short-hop car trip. People will walk three or four blocks, but not much further. It really is a niche between walking and driving.

RAY SUAREZ: City police have successfully used the new scooter. It’s easy to learn, and fun to drive.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s great. You don’t get aerobic on it, though.

It’s going to take more than a newfangled scooter or even Dobbins’ years of work planning for Atlanta to combat urban sprawl. The challenge for Atlanta is giving more people choices in housing and in transportation that don’t bust the family budget. Miriam and Ameen Farooq’s situation, having left the center city for more affordable suburban real estate, is very common.

MIRIAM FAROOQ: If we were to buy a house there, we wouldn’t be able to afford it, and this is the only reason we moved here. We did go and look around, you know, saw some beautiful houses there, but they were, like, one- fourth of this place.

RAY SUAREZ: Multiply the Farooq family’s quandary by thousands, and you have a classic sprawl trap. Families moving further and further out means more development, more roads, and more car trips. The forces powering Atlanta’s outward expansion are so strong, that it’s unlikely the sprawl will halt anytime soon.