Mass Transit: Why Can’t Atlanta be More Like Berlin?
Paul Krugman recently visited Berlin and had an epiphany: It’s different than Atlanta.
To see what I’m talking about, consider where I am at the moment: in a pleasant, middle-class neighborhood consisting mainly of four- or five-story apartment buildings, with easy access to public transit and plenty of local shopping. It’s the kind of neighborhood in which people don’t have to drive a lot, but it’s also a kind of neighborhood that barely exists in America, even in big metropolitan areas. Greater Atlanta has roughly the same population as Greater Berlin — but Berlin is a city of trains, buses and bikes, while Atlanta is a city of cars, cars and cars.
Public transit, in particular, faces a chicken-and-egg problem: it’s hard to justify transit systems unless there’s sufficient population density, yet it’s hard to persuade people to live in denser neighborhoods unless they come with the advantage of transit access.
And there are, as always in America, the issues of race and class. Despite the gentrification that has taken place in some inner cities, and the plunge in national crime rates to levels not seen in decades, it will be hard to shake the longstanding American association of higher-density living with poverty and personal danger.
Still, if we’re heading for a prolonged era of scarce, expensive oil, Americans will face increasingly strong incentives to start living like Europeans — maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of our lives.
Now, as Mark Finkelstein documents, the same statistics which show a plunge in inner city crime rates also show that the Atlanta suburbs are three times less prone to violent crime than the downtown area. So, maybe there’s something to this perception beyond racism and classism.
While it’s undoubtedly the case that public policy decisions have made it easier for people to live in the suburbs, the assumption that everybody really wants to live in big cities and don’t because of zoning rules and whatnot is unfounded. There are actual reasons to prefer the suburbs. Some people actually like to have backyards. Or to be able to sleep without hearing their neighbor’s stereo, police sirens, or the sounds of nightlife.
But it’s true that there are advantages to density, too. The ability to walk to meet friends and go to restaurants, bars, and the corner grocery store is nice. (Although, to be honest, I’m not sure how often I’d walk to the grocery store, anyway. I like the luxury of grabbing, say, a couple cases of water or other heavy items that weren’t on my list. That’s impractical even if one is a 10-15 minute walk from home.)
Dan Savage and Matt Yglesias are right that we can do better at providing good public transportation for those who want it. Duncan Black suggests that we incorporate mass transit into the planning of development corridors to begin with. That all makes sense.
Inevitably, though, these discussions devolve into “and we need to make it more expensive for people to drive, too!” That’s just counterproductive. Our elected leaders aren’t going to go against the interests of their constituents in that way. Nor should they. We should devote our efforts to making mass transit and compact living more attractive rather than making the alternatives worse.