Atlanta vs. HoustonI just got back from an enjoyable family vacation through Charleston, Hilton Head, Savannah, the Smokey Mountains, and Atlanta. The last couple of days were in Atlanta, and I thought I'd draw on that very limited experience to make some comparisons with Houston. Houston and Atlanta are very similar in that they're high-growth, sprawling, post-WW2, southern cities with hot climates, but there are notable differences. I should be clear that the entire two days were spent in the Downtown-Midtown-Buckhead corridor (roughly the equivalent of our Downtown to Uptown), so I can't really comment on any other parts of the city.
Freeway network: Central Atlanta tries to merge 3 large freeways down into one before downtown, and it is a mess. In our equivalent part of town, we distribute traffic over 10W, 59W, and 610W. Yes, those freeways get plenty congested too, but we do seem to spread the load better and have shorter rush hours. We also have two loops to their one. Edge to Houston.
Freeway corridors: Atlanta lines almost all of its freeways with forest ("there's a city around here somewhere..."), which is certainly more aesthetically pleasing, although not as functional IMHO as Houston's approach of lining them with feeders and commercial businesses (convenience and discovery). In both cases, they act as noise and pollution buffers. Houston does fret about the image problem of the ugliness, blight, and poor neighborhoods along some of our freeways, esp. coming from the airports, and Atlanta does a good job of hiding all of that behind a wall of trees. All in all I think it's a tie.
Arterial surface streets: Atlanta has a few impressive ones (like Peachtree) that move a lot of cars, but our navigation system often routed us on color-coded major arterials that were nothing more than two-lane roads, often through neighborhoods. At least in Houston, you can almost always count on an arterial being 4+ lanes, or at the very least 3. Both cities' street grids are a mess, although Atlanta has less of an excuse since they had the opportunity to fix it after Sherman burned them to the ground. Advantage Houston.
Traffic congestion: Atlanta traffic is crazy heavy. Stats have ranked them worse than Houston for a while, and now I understand it on a personal level. The hotel concierge warned me that morning rush hour didn't clear out until *10am*! (vs. 8:30 to 9am in Houston) Freeways were even very full on a Saturday. Surface streets are jammed too, often with huge lines of cars at signals. Edge to Houston.
Aesthetics: Maybe it was the parts of town we were in, but Atlanta had an attractive environment, with very nice new tall buildings and lots of trees. It's clear that their major building growth surge has been the more recent than Houston's, with many more newer buildings. Advantage Atlanta.
Attractions: Both cities have a full compliment of museums as well as signature attractions (Georgia Aquarium vs. NASA/Space Center Houston). We have Clear Lake/Galveston while they have the mountains. The Atlanta Botanical Gardens are very nice - how come we don't have those? (Moody Gardens and the Arboretum aren't the same) I'm going to call it a tie.
Universities and Research: Rice and UH vs. Emory, Georgia Tech (impressive campus with many new buildings), and several others. They have Georgia an hour+ outside of town, and we have TAMU. Texas Med Center vs. Emory and the CDC. Tough call, but I'd give the slight edge to Atlanta, mainly based on GT's higher rankings than UH and Emory's larger size than Rice (somewhat balanced out by the TMC).
Airports: They have the world's largest hub with the most flights to the most destinations (by far). But there are three major downsides:
- You need to be at the monster airport at least 1.5 to 2 hours early to have enough time to get through everything, esp. security.
- Extremely long airplane taxi times. We took over a half-hour to get to our gate after landing, changing from 15 mins early to 15 mins late.
- No Southwest Airlines, the nation's largest discount airline, although they do have discounter Airtran.
Housing: Again, it might just be the neighborhoods we went through, but their housing seemed old (as opposed to new commercial and condo towers). In Houston and West U and Bellaire, all sorts of older houses are torn down and replaced with large, modern homes (or townhomes). Didn't see any of that in Atlanta, even in the upscale areas around Buckhead. Maybe their regulations inhibit it? (update: a friend tells me it's preservation tax incentives) Not sure. I'd like to give the advantage to Houston, but I don't feel like I have enough data or observations.
Culture: Atlanta has more of a well-dressed, young, hipster crowd and more of a design sensibility. It's really more like Dallas than Houston. The people we interacted with were mostly very nice and helpful, but the drivers most definitely were not.
That wraps it up. I'd love to hear your own thoughts in the comments.
Update: several people have asked about transit. I did not get a chance to ride MARTA while I was there, so I can't comment on it.