As he prepared a survey sent to 8,000 area residents on the subject of sprawl, Dr. Lawrence Frank decided to pose a very simple question: What kind of neighborhood would you like to live in?
The answers weren't surprising. People want to spend less time in their cars. They want to be able to walk to neighborhood shops. They want to live closer to where they work.
Of course, in Atlanta and the surrounding region, it's easier said than done. Especially when the state government retains its "pour more concrete" approach to traffic and sprawl, and most subdivisions are set away from shopping areas.
The study by Frank, a former Georgia Tech professor, took eight years to complete and offers the most in-depth study into sprawl ever conducted locally.
Among the findings:
• Population in the metro Atlanta region doubled to more than 4 million in the last 20 years, and is expected to grow by another 2.5 million in the next 25 years.
• Atlantans drive an hour a day, more than most other regions in the country; 31 percent of the participants in the study say they spend more than 90 minutes a day in their cars.
• Atlantans spend an average of 19 percent of their yearly income on transportation costs.
• There is a correlation between obesity and time spent commuting; every hour in a car each day translates to a 6 percent greater chance of being obese.
• 60 percent of those surveyed say they are unable to walk from their homes to nearby shops and services.
• 55 percent want a shorter commute, even if it means living on a smaller residential lot.
The study, funded by both public and private grants (including the state Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration), will be formally presented to local government officials, regional agencies and representatives from the development community on Friday.
"It's important to frame a community around the reality of providing people what they want," Frank says. "I felt very early on that there was an unmet demand for walkable communities."
The study says a key to metro Atlanta's long-term future is for the entire region to join together and come up with new zoning laws that encourage the kind of higher-density, mixed-use projects that are now sprouting up all over intown. The study also calls for more mass transit and residential housing closer to where people work.
Right now, most of the region is still building subdivisions with big lots that are cut off from where people shop and work and, the study says, that pattern is detrimental to quality of life.
"We are confident that we are undersupplying a community design that people would prefer," Frank says.
The study contends that the Atlanta region can accommodate the projected influx of 2.5 million people, and even reduce traffic congestion at the same time, if government officials appreciate that there is a correlation between land use, effective transportation and quality of life.
The problem is, Frank says, it represents a radical shift in philosophy.
Traditionally, developers have craved open, raw land. Zoning laws have generally created business districts away from residential areas and haven't allowed clustered, high-density projects with walkable destinations. In the right environment, Franks says, developers will embrace those types of projects because there is a demand for them.
The study was initiated in 1998 by SMARTRAQ (Strategies for Metro Atlanta's Transportation and Air Quality) through a collaboration between Georgia Tech and the state DOT. At the time, the federal government had frozen metro Atlanta's transportation dollars until the region put together a pollution-reducing transportation plan. Metro Atlanta is currently in compliance, although pollution numbers are rising.
Frank says he hopes the study will spur a change in public policy. Otherwise, Atlanta will eventually bog down in its own sprawl and traffic congestion. "If we continue in this vein," Frank says, "we're creating an environment that is not sustainable."
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