The Public Purpose
Number 39 - August 2000

Ignoring Obvious Needs:
Transit Plan Can't Repeat Mistakes

Reprinted from the Atlanta Journal (2 August 2000) with Permission

By Wendell Cox

Atlanta, like virtually all other major metropolitan areas, is facing increasing traffic congestion. And like some cities before it, Atlanta seems bent on addressing the problem by social engineering strategies that would modify behavior rather than accommodating it.

For example, academics and others have been warning Los Angeles that its massive rail construction program would not reduce traffic congestion (which, by the way, is primarily the result of much higher population densities). Yet Los Angeles has spent $8 billion on rail as traffic congestion continues to worsen. Recently, the voters, appalled by the results, effectively put an end to further rail development.

Phoenix, fearing it would become like Los Angeles, was an early convert to the anti-automobile culture, deciding in the 1960s to limit freeway construction. Officials there found that one thing is worse than Los Angeles with its freeways --- Los Angeles without its freeways.

Now the Phoenix area is embarked upon a program to build the freeway system that should have been built decades ago. At the same time, the planners now have Phoenix embarked on a rail construction program that will do nothing to reduce traffic congestion.

Regrettably, the Atlanta region proposes to follow the policies that have produced only greater traffic congestion in cities such as Los Angeles, Portland and Phoenix. The Atlanta Regional Commission anticipates that regional job and housing growth will be significantly reoriented toward the central area. This would be a first for the developed world; job centers are moving farther out.

Moreover, the proposed densification of the Atlanta area will only make things worse. The higher-density urban areas of Europe have 40 to 100 percent higher air pollution per square mile than U.S. urban areas. Average roadway speeds are nearly 40 percent slower. The reason is simple --- any time more of something is placed in a smaller space, things get more crowded. This is as true of automobiles as it is of classrooms.

Under the ARC's 25-year plan, public transit, mainly rail, would account for 55 percent of transport spending. Yet, this massive transit investment and fairly-tale land-use plan show only a blip on ARC's computer models. Transit's share of travel would rise, from 2.56 percent to 3.44 percent. At the same time, ARC projects a 42 percent increase in traffic.

But, true to the anti-automobile mantra, ARC would expand roadway capacity by only 7 percent. As a result, ARC projects that the average driver will spend 28 percent more time in traffic congestion in 2025.

Defenders note that the plan is needed to achieve air quality attainment, but that will be accomplished well before any significant transit improvements are opened, as vehicle technology improves.

Our recent Georgia Public Policy Foundation report ( analyzed these plans. Because improving mobility is what transportation plans should do, our recommendations were considerably different from the 25-year plan.

Some have simply ignored the report. Others have misrepresented its findings, questioned our motives or even engaged in ad hominem attacks. The one thing that has been missing, however, is an intellectually honest analysis of the issues raised in the report.

The future is too important to be sacrificed for an ideology that not even its proponents believe will improve traffic conditions in Atlanta. The most important transportation problem facing Atlanta is accommodating the increased traffic demand that ARC concedes will occur.

Despite the apparent inconvenience to Atlanta policymakers, there are at least two sides to this issue. It is time for an open and adult debate to begin in earnest.

Cox is principal of Wendell Cox Consultancy, a St. Louis-based public policy firm. He served three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission. He also chaired two American Public Transit Association national committees.

(c) 2000 --- Wendell Cox Consultancy --- Permission granted to use with attribution.
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