Friday, May 11, 2007

Reason analysis of the feasibility of commuter rail in Atlanta

It's a very busy time at my software startup, so just a quick pass-along this morning from Reason. They look at how realistic commuter rail is for sprawling Atlanta, a city not unlike our own. Although we do have almost twice the density they do (I think they zone for large lot sizes), Atlanta and Houston are still the two least dense cities in their study. They take a cold, hard, detailed look at how realistic European-style transit is for a city like Atlanta, including various densification scenarios. The abstract:

Commuter Rail Is a Poor Fit for Sprawling Atlanta
Atlanta has tried to reduce its traffic congestion by getting people out of their cars and onto commuter rail trains. But a policy brief by the Reason Foundation shows that Atlanta's sprawling population is ill-suited for this type of transit. To illustrate this point, Reason compares Atlanta to a European city that heavily relies on rail transit, Barcelona. Atlanta and Barcelona have both hosted the summer Olympics and in 1990 both had populations of around 2.8 million people (Atlanta has since swelled to over 5.1 million people according to Census Bureau estimates). The built-out portion of metro Atlanta was already over 1,650 square miles in 1990. In contrast, the built-out portion of the Barcelona metro area covered just 62.5 square miles (see map in study for visual comparison of the two cities). Barcelona's metro rail network has approximately 60 miles of track, nearly all of it underground, and around 120 stations. In order for Atlanta to provide its commuters with Barcelona’s level of rail transit accessibility, Atlanta would need to build more than 2,100 miles of rail tracks and 2,800 rail stations.

And some other excerpts that caught my eye:
In order for Atlanta’s density to reach 7,800 people per square mile (over 20 years with current growth trends), and taking into account the increase in population, the current built-up area would have to shrink by 64 percent. To reach 7,800 people per square mile, about twothirds of the existing real estate stock would have to be destroyed, two-thirds of the built up area would have to revert to nature and its population and jobs would have to be moved into the 36 percent of the urban area which would remain. We can safely affirm, given the likelihood of this scenario, that Atlanta will never come close to the 7,800 people per square mile density threshold required to justify an extension of transit.
...
Thus, even when using draconian land use regulations over periods as long as 20 years, it is difficult to change the density of a large metropolitan area.
...
Our analysis concludes that the current fashion in transportation planning—of investing heavily in mass transit, carpooling, and land-use changes to reduce the extent of driving—is not compatible with the goal of reducing traffic congestion.
They also have a series of congestion reduction recommendations, including value tolling, most of which are already in the process of being implemented in Houston.
There would be large benefits from implementing this approach. Valuing the time saved at a conservative $12 per hour, the time saving over 20 years would be more than $98 billion. But there would also be major economic benefits. Studies have shown that by allowing employers to recruit from a wider radius (and employees to seek jobs within a wider radius), better matches of skills with needs would occur, making Atlanta’s economy more productive.
Just for the record, I think most of Metro's transit plan is much more realistic for a city like Houston. Atlanta has evidently been a bit more delusional in their visioning, thus Reason felt compelled to write the report.

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3 Comments:

At 2:30 PM, May 11, 2007, Blogger John said...

(Reason analyzed a commuter rail project and found it wanting? Shocking!)

That's a cold, hard, detailed look? It's actually quite shallow and facile. The driving assumption in the Atlanta/Barcelona comparison seems to be that Atlanta must either provide the exact level of transit service to the same portion of the population as Barcelona does, or remake itself to have the exact density characteristics of Barcelona.

It's silly. Has anyone in Atlanta actually suggested such a thing?

I realize that this is coming from Reason and it's agenda-driven "research," but I still would have expected something other than such an obvious strawman.

Funny thing is, I don't think they're wrong. It's just a poor attempt at making their argument.

 
At 9:00 PM, May 11, 2007, Blogger Max Concrete said...

I remember how Atlanta was the vaunted golden city in the 1980s and 1990s with its model MARTA heavy rail system.

For some reason that vaunted MARTA rail didn't seem to solve Atlanta's traffic or sprawl issues. (Shouldn't MARTA rail have provided density?) And the Reason Foundation is surely correct when it predicts that commuter rail will also have a minimal/negligible impact in America's lowest-density megasprawl.

Atlanta has seen a severe decline in highway construction since the mid-1990s and virtually no toll road construction (none since the Georgia 400 opening in 1993, its only toll road). The cancellation of the Northern Arc/Outer Perimeter was a very serious blow. At some point Atlanta is going to have to face up to reality and put more freeways and toll roads in the solution mix.

 
At 11:19 PM, April 24, 2008, Blogger Brian said...

All it would take is a parking garage next to a commuter rail station and you'd get people piling in. Obviously, the strategy would have to be a bit different in lower density areas, but it definately would still get the amount of usage it needed. It just can only be for commuting from residential areas to commercial.

 

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