The Urban Noose

By Eddie Mansius
On January 28, a snowstorm descended on the amoeba-like sprawl of the Atlanta metro area. Businesses throughout downtown Atlanta called a snow day and let their employees go home early. Almost immediately, traffic in the notoriously congested city spiked. For nearly a full day, motorists sat immobile and shivering in one of the worst traffic jams the country has ever seen. Commuters holed themselves up in supermarkets, IHOPs and Home Depots rather than brave the roads. Over 1,000 traffic accidents were reported, and hundreds of motorists abandoned their cars along the city’s web of freeways to attempt a dangerous and icy trek home. The official snowfall recorded at the end of the day was only two inches.

It’s true that the South has little practice dealing with snow. But Atlanta’s now infamous “snowjam” points to a much larger and more insidious problem than paltry winter weather budgets. It was Atlanta’s lack of investment in a robust and widespread public transportation system, not its lack of snowplows, that caused the snowjam. Too many people were forced to rely on single-passenger cars rather than mass public transit to return to the suburbs. Essentially, Atlanta’s urban growth paradigm, relying on sprawl and steering wheels, is no longer sustainable in the 21st century.

Atlanta’s transportation woes are not unique; this knot of inefficiency ensnares cities around the nation. As more and more young Americans return to the urban core in search of employment, municipal, state and federal governments must work together to remedy the widespread lack of efficient public transportation and walkable infrastructure. Over the course of the past six decades, most American postwar cities have become automobile-obsessed, decentralized centers of population. And as slowly as the crawl of rush-hour traffic on I-95, these poorly planned postwar agglomerations are now beginning to realize the depth of their predicament.

The full history of America’s urban decline involves a multitude of factors, including suburban sprawl’s inextricable connection to racial disparities. Booming growth in city centers during the early part of the 20th century gave way to an outward diffusion that makes up today’s suburbs. As lower-income, immigrant and black communities began to move into the formerly white-collar city center, many white families decided to flee for the greener pastures of suburban lawns. Meanwhile, the practices of redlining and restrictive race covenants kept minorities sequestered in the urban core.

By the end of World War II, the inner city had become synonymous with decay, violence and various other social ills in the public consciousness. Fears that the city center had declined beyond repair led many cities to carry out large-scale urban renewal projects that displaced thousands of low-income residents, shoving them into high-rise housing projects. In many cities, 19th century structures faced the wrecking ball to become what are now wide freeways and endless rows of asphalt parking lots.

As Americans moved outward, cities and states constructed more freeways and wider roads. But instead of connecting these new suburban communities to the city via public transport, a federal highway funding matching system led many cities to focus their resources on freeway construction instead of more sustainable options, contributing to the American fixation with automobiles. Public transportation was expected to pay for itself on local budgets, while roadways were on Washington’s tab. In this way, a new chapter in public transportation’s history began, as cities dismantled streetcar systems, initiated fare hikes and instituted service cutbacks. America’s urban landscape soon became characterized by multilane freeways slithering out from central cities towards suburban communities and stretching even further to the exurbs.

In 2010, over 70 percent of Americans living in the 51 largest metropolitan areas were located in the suburbs. These suburban Americans commute largely by car: Only 5 percent use public transportation. Lack of efficient public transportation, the ease of multilane freeways and the relatively low price of cars and gasoline all contribute to the decision to drive rather than ride. So it is no wonder that many of the largest American cities face what Yale University Political Science Professor Douglas Rae calls “urban thrombosis.” Borrowing from the medical dictionary, the term likens the effect of a blood clot to the loss of mobility and resources in cities choked by their own traffic. As in the biological world, urban blood clots can have grave consequences.

Atlanta’s snowjam demonstrates the necessity of large-scale public transportation networks, if only to provide disaster relief. When millions tried to evacuate Houston during Hurricane Rita, Mayor Bill White said, “Being on the highway is a deathtrap.” White’s sentiment reflected the larger reality that the city’s infrastructure was fundamentally insufficient for such a major evacuation.  It’s not only about having accessible transportation; it must also be effectively deployed in case of emergency. Although New Orleans had 400 buses in daily use when Hurricane Katrina hit, officials admitted that they had never fleshed out plans to use them in an evacuation. A center point of the city’s evacuation plan was the use of highways as a route out of the city, but the implementation of the plan’s elements for inner city areas — especially where residents lacked cars — left thousands stranded in the Superdome or on rooftops.

Looking towards the future of urban development, it is important to consider rising trends in urban occupancy and a growing desire for transportation alternatives. According to research by the Urban Land Institute, young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 are more likely to live in cities than their older counterparts, and 55 percent say that they value the quality of a city’s public transportation system when searching for a new home. As a result, companies hiring millennials are seeking to relocate to urban areas. Since the start of the economic recovery, companies are increasingly buying space in city centers as opposed to suburbs, hinting that perhaps America’s longstanding love affair with the car is slowly losing its luster.

For American cities to remain economically viable, they must work to create enticing urban environments for future generations. Density, walkability and efficient public transportation are all crucial pieces in this puzzle. As the current generation ages out from its perch atop American politics, the incoming crop has a chance to change the way the United States thinks about urban centers.

In Charlotte, N.C., the city center is struggling to rebuild its vibrancy. With a metropolitan population of 2.3 million, Charlotte was the fastest growing American city between 2000 and 2010, with a growth rate of 64.6 percent, and is the second-largest financial center in the nation behind New York City. But in recent years, much of the post-recession job growth has moved into the abundant office space south of the city. Ballantyne, an upscale neighborhood occupying about 2000 acres of land on the state’s southern border, is lush with golf courses, gated communities and shiny new office towers. It is what post-modern urbanists refer to as an “edge city” — essentially a large center of employment that exists at the periphery of a metropolitan area. The burgeoning edge city is centrally located for residents of the city’s affluent south suburbs, with easy access to a ring road that encircles Charlotte. In April 2013, when insurance giant MetLife moved 1,800 jobs to Ballantyne instead of Charlotte’s downtown commercial hub, it was apparent that the city’s urban dynamic was beginning to shift.

The urban growth paradigm of the postwar era has left cities so decentralized as to necessitate the development of business districts outside the historic core. Commuters have started to give up on driving all the way into the city and instead are opting to drive halfway there — to suburbia’s version of a downtown. But while these denser sub-cores may seem harmless, they are often developed without sustainable, interconnected transportation between urban and suburban centers.

The compromise of edge cities is not a viable solution to urban and suburban sprawl — it only adds one more isolated node to the mix. For years, cities like Portland, Oregon have fought this pervasive trend by investing in a robust public transit system and enforcing strict multi-use zoning policies. Instead of accepting the federal government’s proposal to build a freeway through the heart of the city, Portland decided to substitute those funds for the construction of a public transit system, the MAX Light Rail. The system has an average of 120,400 boardings per weekday — certainly not bad for a city with a population edging past 600,000.

Public transportation solutions have become more difficult to finance as cities have scaled back their budgets, but there are cheaper alternatives to building multi-billion dollar light rail and subway systems. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) offers the exclusive right-of-way of light rail without light rail’s sticker price. San Bernadino, despite (or perhaps due to) its location in the notoriously car-dependent Inland Empire of Southern California, has invested in a 15.7 mile-long BRT corridor. The price tag is $191.7 million. By comparison, Charlotte’s second light rail project is slated to cost $1.16 billion and cover just 18.6 miles. Ballantyne, at least for the foreseeable future, will remain accessible only by car. But as Atlanta recovers from its brief stint of apocalyptic mayhem, perhaps it will transform into a city that restrains, rather than reveres, America’s own four-wheeled creation.

Eddie Mansius ’17 is an urban studies and modern culture and media concentrator.

Art by Olivia Watson