Sunday, May 31, 2009

Atlanta vs. Houston

I 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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. No Southwest Airlines, the nation's largest discount airline, although they do have discounter Airtran.
Houston has the nation's 3rd-largest hub operation (Continental at IAH), as well as the convenience of Southwest at Hobby. If you're a major world traveler, Atlanta has the advantage, but if you're a more normal business or leisure traveler, Houston airports are easier to deal with and have plenty of nonstops to major destinations. Tie.

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.

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At 10:17 PM, May 31, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No commentary on the beloved train from the Atlanta airport?

At 8:56 AM, June 01, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

See update at the end of the post. I did not get a chance to ride MARTA while I was there, so I can't comment on it.

At 9:00 AM, June 01, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You forgot that Atlanta has a wonderful subway system - I attended a downtown convention couple years back and stayed way out into the surburbs, took raiol to get into down everyday. It was clean, efficient and pleasant ride everyday.

Definitely advantage Atlanta.

At 10:04 AM, June 01, 2009, Anonymous Neal Meyer said...


Last year at the American Dream Coalition conference here in Houston, I heard Reason magazine's Sam Staley speak. Part of Staley's message is that a big key to mobility in urbanized areas is to try to make sure that every part of an urban area can be easily reached from every other part of the urbanized area.

Staley critiqued Atlanta and noted that Atlanta does not have a multiple belt or a grid freeway network. You can compare Atlanta's freeway network with Minneapolis's network, Dallas's, and ours by reading this study. The document is 2.9mb in size and 84 pages. See pages 14-15 to view images of each city's road network.

Staley notes that Atlanta's road system has only one loop and does not connect every place to every other place all that well. Instead, everything gets funneled towards I-75. This system served Atlanta fine back in 1970, but it doesn't serve Atlanta well today since Atlanta has grown so much and has sprawled out. Hence Atlanta's TTI congestion index has skyrocketed.


At 10:09 AM, June 01, 2009, Anonymous kjb434 said...

I've used MARTA once while attending a seminar in downtown Atlanta. I took it to Lenox up past Buckhead.

When I planned the trip for work, I was intending on using MARTA from the airport to downtown since I wouldn't have the need for driving anyway while I was there for the week. Funny thing is my company wouldn't let me. They booked me a rental car for the week. They feel it's safer for me drive myself than use public transport. I was just thinking it was be cheaper.

The system is nice but it is a great example of a great waste of money being spent on a few people.

Very few people can conveniently use the system.

I've been to Atlanta many of times before that seminar experience. If you have to do anything that is not along I-20 or I-75/85 corridors withing the perimeter loop, then MARTA is not for you. And the thing about Atlanta is the most business travelers will be scattered throughout the city and not in downtown, midtown or uptown Atlanta.

At 10:16 AM, June 01, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Neal: thanks for the data. That's good stuff. The table on p.16 (or 8) also shows Atlanta's arterial weakness.

KJB: I did look at the MARTA map, and I agree it seemed sort of limited, both in geographic scope and number of stops.

At 10:52 AM, June 01, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting observations. I actually lived in Atlanta for two years while in graduate school. Some of your comparisons are "dead-on" with regard to the trees, mobility, and new downtown buildings.

Their MARTA system is more functional than our rail system (i.e. it provides access to points North, South, East & West of the well as to the Central Business District and the Airport).

There are some older areas near downtown where you will see some new housing developments going up, such as Little Five Points and Virginia Highlands.

They also have a new mixed-use center called Atlantic Station, which used to be an old steel mill. It is now a master planned development located right across from Midtown, that contains retail, residential and office space.

In my opinion, we could develop something like this at the old "Astroworld" site.

At 1:02 PM, June 01, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Atlanta it is positively beautiful place to live. Houston is a hole. When it comes to quality of life - This one isn't even close Atlanta wins hands-down.

BUT - Like so many cities in America, Atlanta is broke. It is a "bubble" city full of non-productive financial, service-based and unprofitable "technology" companies which are little more than web-site developers.

As for Houston - No sane person lives in or around here but for the sole purpose of making MONEY. That is what this city is about. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Houston is a money making machine - ugly, industrial and polluted, but a cash cow for those who can put up with it.

Atlanta is a beautiful glam city but not much in the way of opportunity. Much like much of america itself.

At 4:02 PM, June 01, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

A friend tells me that Atlanta has tax incentives for home preservation, so that would explain the prevalence of older homes. Hat tip to Sam.

At 5:02 AM, June 02, 2009, Blogger Rail Claimore said...

It's a wonder that Atlanta's traffic isn't worse than it is given how underdeveloped the arterial system is. GDOT and other various agencies have been working on that problem over the past decade though, and most areas in the five core counties are pretty well-served by 4-lane arterials compared to 10 years ago.

The Georgia state legislature has been tossing around a transportation funding bill for roads and transit for the past two years that would rely on either a regional or a state-wide 1% increase in the sales tax. This would get a LOT of badly-needed projects moving, from freeway expansion to commuter rail.

Houston probably gets the shaft because it competes with DFW and other metro areas within such a large state... but Atlanta suffers the same effect due to a much-different situation. Georgia politics is well known for the hatefest between Atlanta and the rest of the state, very similar to what happens in other single-metro dominated states such as Illinois (Chicago).

On the one hand, Atlanta might have an easier time getting pet projects it wants because it's the only game in town. But the relationship it has with the rest of Georgia is very precarious, whereas I think the relationship between urban and rural areas of Texas is much more benign. The next 2-3 years will be very telling as for where Atlanta is headed.

At 8:12 AM, June 02, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I've definitely heard the same things about Chicago (rural vs. urban). I think it helps that Texas has several major metros. It not only moderates that conflict, it keeps everybody on their toes and competitive (and cooperative when needed). You don't get the arrogance problem of the single major metro.

At 1:14 AM, June 04, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory, in the world traveller category you've got to give IAH the edge, it's 7 busiest internatinal gateway, yes being Delta's hub boosts it abnormally, but can't compete with Continental's Mexico lift alone much less SAmerica.

Plus, we're the world capital for several industries and arguably the TMC too, Atlanta's got some great corporations, but it's not international anything, yes in that respect its a regional/inland capital, like Dallas.

Edge to Houston bigtime.

Aesthitically, anyone could beat us but we are getting better.

You're doing interesting work here, keep it up.


At 1:23 AM, June 04, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory, have you ever thought of having a happy hour or something once a month where we Houstonians and other ubanites can meet.

Also, what's happening with your "Keep Houston Houston" campaign? It's all about community, even if it's 5.7MM of us.


At 9:27 AM, June 04, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I agree we have the edge in Latin America, but they have many more to Europe, and soon to Asia and Africa. They also cover a few dozen more domestic cities. They just have a better geographic location for hubbing, north-south as well as east-west (we're mostly just east-west).

You can see the route maps here under Delta and CAL:

I agree we're a more international city, though, when it comes to diversity and business.

At 9:31 AM, June 04, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The Keep Houston Houston campaign was not mine, although I definitely support it. Here's the guy behind it:

A happy hour is a really good idea. Any suggestions for best timing? Workday evening vs. weekend? Fri evening or other? I think Amazon on Kirby would be a great place to have it, with order-at-the-counter drinks and food.

At 1:08 PM, June 14, 2009, Blogger Joe House said...

I have visited Atlanta several times, the politically incorrect observation I came away with was there is more racial tension there. I think the races get along much better here.

At 3:55 PM, June 16, 2009, Anonymous Keep Houston Houston said...

RE: Freeway Corridors,

Houston's freeway aesthetics are "trill." True, and real. What you see is what you get. Houston freeways are lined with the businesses we actually frequent (even the unsavory ones) and the neighborhoods we actually live in.

RE: Joe's post above,

Check the Census data on racial distribution and the difference couldn't be clearer. Atlanta has a pretty solid line running northwest-souteast, above which all neighborhoods are majority white and below which all neighborhoods are majority black.

Houston is a patchwork quilt of neighborhoods that are alternately majority black, white, asian, hispanic, and various other potpourri. It totally defies the "sectoral model" of racial/ethnic/income distribution, while Atlanta is almost a case study in Hoyt's ideas.

At 5:25 PM, June 30, 2009, Blogger Unknown said...

I moved to Atlanta from Houston in May. From October up to my move, I flew back and forth once or twice per month.

I never needed to be at the Atlanta airport more than 30-45 minutes before my flight. Even when flying out on a crowded Friday just after work, an hour was plenty of time to get through security, stop to buy a sandwich, and get to the gate.

Also, I've used the MARTA every time, even when carrying large suitcases. The MARTA is limited if you're looking at all of Atlanta, but it's fantastic for north-south trips.

I work at a tech start-up in Midtown right on the rail; business travelers coming to and going from our office use the MARTA to get to the airport. And several coworkers with kids who live in the suburbs park at an outer MARTA station and take the train into town every morning. It's standing room only during rush hour; it's completely packed during sporting events. On game days, train cars fill up with fans dressed in team hats and jerseys.

All of which is to say this: the airport waits usually aren't bad, and the MARTA is damn useful for north-south trips, business travel for Midtown and Downtown offices, and sporting events.

At 10:55 PM, July 03, 2009, Anonymous kain said...

Atlanta Is a pretty powerful city all around and even though there are some differences between the two cities they are both also very similair. However, I've noticed quite a few people trying to knock down the reputation of Atlanta. I beleive Atlanta has a wonderful subway system. Most people think its only good for north south trips but thats entirely untrue. It is not a perfect system and as all other public transit systems it is not always the fastest. But it will get you where you need to go and works especially well in the buckhead, midtown, and downtown districts. As for our economic standing, Atlanta is classified as a Beta world city and is home to many national and international corporations. Such as The Coca Cola company (one of the most recognaized brands in the world) and Delta Airlines (The world's largest commercial carrier), and CNN (The number two rated cable news network in the United States). It is the central metropolis of the Southeastern United States and is home to one of the tallest buildings in the world, The Bank Of America Plaza (the tallest building in the United States outside of Chicago and New York). So we have things to improve on; such as our heavy traffic, severe air polution, and urban sprawl, but we also have many advantages. SO DONT KNOCK ATLANTA!! lol

At 5:50 PM, August 17, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm thinking of moving to Houston from Atlanta for a change of scenery...I love ATL but I've ALWAYS want to go to Houston and figured I should while I'm young and have no children. This post was really helpful and thorough,Thank You! I will be visiting for the Labor Day weekend...not used to flooding but Atlanta has some flooding areas too that is not zoned as such but does flood. Maybe it doesn't make national news and its nothing like TX,LA,FL for sure, but its bad since ATL doesn't have many flood zones which means the residents doesn't have insurance for flooding...a mess. Talk to the neighbors before you move to ATL if your thinking about it to find out before you move or buy a house out there, but approach them with your hands up, its crazy out here they may think you trying to rob them, or ask "Do I know you, why you talking to me!!" The economy is rough and competative in ATL so people are pissed off because they are out of work or are working poor and we tend to take that out on whoever is around :-(

ATL gets a bad rep for its driving skills, but actually its the people who drive slow and don't know where they are going that causes accidents and traffic. And the people who have piece of crap cars.

At 5:53 PM, August 17, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Atlanta gets a bad rep for its drivers driving skills...I blame the out of towners, and people who don't know where they are going and drive 50 mph in the 65mph zone in the passing lane! "Get out of the way!"

Traffic is bad but it is so unnecessary. Know where your going before you hit the road, print a door to door or buy a GPS system before you get on 85/75/285/20/400...because if not you may just get ran off the road AND given the finger!

At 8:31 AM, September 29, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Atlanta has a lot of great neighborhoods with older homes. People have fought teardowns, because often they don't match the neighborhood -- one-story 1920s bungalows with a 3-story monster in between, looks really bad.

As far as the traffic, it has been getting better since 2005, when gas first hit $2.00/gallon. The recession has really done a number on it, so I don't really have complaints any more about the freeways.

The arterials? Complete agreement with you. I love driving around cities like Memphis that are largely on a grid with 4- or 6-lane arterials every 3 or 4 streets. You never get bogged down. We have tons of 2-lane roads that make getting to the freeways the real traffic nightmare.

At 11:45 AM, March 29, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I heard that Houston has no major public transportation system. Major disadvantage! Anyhow, you all can have the large cities. I'll stay where I'm at, in small town America. Bye the way, lived in Atlanta for 6 years in the 90's. Major congestion all over. Never again!

At 11:55 AM, March 29, 2012, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

We have Metro, which is one of the largest public transportation systems in the country. Mostly bus based, but with one very successful light rail line, and more under construction (of less certain value).

At 8:47 PM, August 31, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well Atlanta ha changed abit since the 2009, it's the movie and reality city.. A lot I partying and other activities as well. I have not being on MARTA since high school but its pretty simple to ride goes almost everywhere.

At 11:44 AM, August 12, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes , Houston is hot ,humid and flat . But on the bright side we have lots of highways and recreational things for the kids , and bars for adults. Yeah Houston may not be the most glamorous and celebrity filled city , but we definitely are diverse and we love to barbeque and do lots of family oriented things like; the rodeo , the carnival , going to hermann park , the miller outdoor theatre , baseball games , football games , moody gardens in galveston , the kemah boardwalk, etc. If you like indoors try : k1 speed , malls (we have plenty) , indoor skydiving , art galleries, children meuseum , the aquarium , the galleria of course ,gouing to see the rockets basketball game, etc. It all depends on what you do and when you do it . we're not the most spectacular city , but we have more to do than google tells you . Crime overall is not That bad, just stay out of fifth ward , north , and Northwest Houston and you'll be fine. Ive never been to atlanta , but i'm pretty sure its amazing.


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