I wrote this years ago for the 2012 transportation referendum in Georgia (mostly north Georgia).  I see there is another vote coming up, so I figured I would send this back out, since it seems to still have resonance.


On July 31, 2012 the residents of Atlanta, along with others across the region and throughout the state, will vote on a referendum to fund transportation projects. Two primary goals of this referendum are to reduce congestion and to incentivize economic development through the construction of transportation projects. This is exactly what the city was trying to do in 1922.

On April 10, 1922, an ordinance for regulating growth in the city was approved by the Council, based on the Annual Report, City Planning Commission, 1922. This happened to be the first such report issued by the newly constituted Commission. Much of the report centers on growth in the city, and how this expected growth would be accommodated.

Regardless of one’s position on the upcoming referendum, it is important to understand the initial decisions made regarding these issues and how they ultimately impacted the city. This is important because we are living with the decisions made by those in 1922 (and 1929 – the first true zoning ordinance, 1954 – an expanded zoning ordinance that greatly impacted the city, and 1957 – the first separate subdivision ordinance). Ninety years from now the citizens of Atlanta, and the region, will be living with the decisions we make this summer. Looking at this fascinating story through the lens of history allows us to have a clearer understanding of the potential consequences, both intended and unintended, that have emerged to give us the city and region we have today.

In 1922, two major issues addressed in the Annual Report, among others that will be discussed, were road widenings and adding central thorofares [sic]. From the Report,

In Atlanta the traffic difficulties are in a large measure due to the reliance on a few narrow thorofares [sic] leading through the central business district. The remedy lies in the provision of more thorofares [sic] of adequate width coming from the outskirts of the city into and through the central business section and out to the city boundaries on the opposite side,” and further,

The 80-foot street with the 56-foot roadway will take care of approximately twice the traffic at twice the speed as compared with the 40-foot roadway.”

It is clear that even in this early planning era, the automobile, and its efficient movement, were first and foremost in the minds of city planners. At the time, the population in the city was approximately 200,000, and the average percentage of automobile ownership in the U.S. was less than 90 owners per 1000 people; or less than 10% of the population (both Atlanta and Georgia were ranked in the lowest quartile of vehicle ownership per capita, coming in below 5% in 1919). This was also the decade in which public transportation ridership in Atlanta was at its highest, peaking in 1926 with over 250,000 electric trolley trips per day. To have equaled this in auto trips would have required that every car in the city make well over ten trips per day, on average.

Many believe that planning for the automobile began in earnest in the post-WWII decades, but in fact the planning for reduced congestion, efficiency of automobile travel, and the associated economic development that paralleled road construction began in the second decade of the twentieth century. Numerous decisions were made during this era that have had lasting impact, and in this short series we will look at some of these issues in more detail, including the role of private development in road building, the constitutional justification for land-use regulation, and the options for financing the systems that we need for these infrastructure improvements, among others. Ultimately, the citizens of Atlanta and the region were asking the same questions almost 100 years ago that we are asking ourselves today. Maybe we can learn something from their experiences.

Residents in Atlanta and surrounding areas were grappling with issues that were similar to those we face today, especially providing transportation infrastructure improvements to reduce congestion and realize beneficial economic development. Ninety years ago, at the dawn of the automotive age, the correlation between infrastructure improvements and the development of the city (and region) was at the heart of the planning process, and it remains so today. While some of the concepts have remained; widening streets to move traffic more quickly and grade separating streets to gain efficiency (yes, grade separation was around long before the federal highways were constructed), others have been lost.

In the early twentieth century governments and citizens had a much stronger belief in the beneficial relationship between government controlled planning and private landowner participation. This was due in part to the belief that the improvement of the transportation infrastructure (something public) had a direct impact on the value of land and the capacity to develop that land (something private). This is so embedded in the thinking of the day, that in the 1922 Annual Report a section is titled, ‘Profit and Loss in Street Widening.’ The Report goes on to demonstrate the value to the private property holder of transportation improvements, declaring that property values are directly tied to, ‘the speed and ease with which vehicles can move along the street.’

1922 street widening

This idea is further evidenced in the discussion pertaining to the regrading of streets, going so far as to propose that regrading would provide for the expansion of business (economic growth) and, ‘would enormously enhance the value of all property affected’. But along with this, the Report makes clear that some existing private land and other assets will be required to make this work. The private landowning and development community participated in this process by providing resources to realize the beneficial outcome for the larger community.

At the time, however, the understanding of transportation infrastructure included mass transportation (the electric trolley) as well as cars and trucks. The Report outlines a strategy, including a recommended plan, for the accommodation of both automobile traffic and streetcar traffic. The Report recommended, for the sake of efficiency, the separating of streetcar traffic and cars, designating some streets for cars and others for trolleys. At the time, more than half the streets on the city’s plan were earmarked for trolley traffic (traffic, at the time, included both trolley and car), with the remaining streets designated for cars. In addition to designating existing streets there were also a number of new streets that were proposed, again, both for cars and for trolleys.

1922 street map.png

The basis for the success of these planning efforts lay in the creation of a plan of streets. The major street plan, as outlined in the Report, served two purposes. It allowed for the manageable growth of the region as well as the creation of a document; a clear guide that provided simple information as to the location of future improvements. It was intended to address the challenges that come from haphazard development patterns. Unfortunately, this recommendation (the foundation for both the infrastructure improvements and zoning implementation) was never realized, and the cooperation between the government and private development became a series of individual negotiations instead of the collaborative planning process originally envisioned. But this wasn’t the future envisioned by the Report’s creators.

In 1922, as the region began seriously planning for its future, it was clear that the foundation for the fast-growing region was predicated on cooperation between the public authorities, the private landowners and developers, and the general citizenry of the area. And at the time planning for the future included a comprehensive transportation system; one that could accommodate a, ‘…street burden (that) will under normal conditions increase twice as fast as population, i.e., with a 100 per cent [sic] increase in population there will be a 200 per cent [sic] increase in traffic.’ The planners of the time knew it was coming; they just had no idea of the magnitude of the transformation, but they did know that the only way to stave off unintended consequences was through cooperation.

The Atlanta region, beginning over ninety years ago, has been concerned with congestion, economic development, and the relationship between the two. Further, the City, and region, put strategies in place for addressing these issues that are still affecting its citizens and its transportation policy. In 1922 there was a need; increase transportation capacity, and there was a plan for meeting this need; widening roads, and there was a way to pay for it.

In 1922, the Atlanta and the region was much smaller and less populated than it is today, but it was planning for growth; and growth, the population understood, came with a cost. The citizens of the region at the time were willing, even enthusiastic, about sacrificing for the future. This included paying special taxes and assessments, as well as donating land, all for the future benefit of the region. From the Report;

‘A charter amendment secured on recommendation of the commission gives the Council authority to assess all or any portion of the cost of widening or extending a street upon property especially benefited by such improvement. Great progress has been made in various widening and improvement projects by the property owners getting together and voluntarily dedicating the property needed for street widening or assessing themselves to pay the amount of special damages to certain owners. This shows a remarkable spirit of cooperation and a keen appreciation of the advantages to be gained by street widening.’

This excerpt shows a belief in the benefit of cooperation between the private and public sectors, and further, that this cooperation went beyond just respect but included an obligation on the part of individuals to participate in efforts that would result in the betterment of the general population. The Report included a very specific recommendation for how this obligation should be fulfilled;

‘Some fund should be created in Atlanta, either by means of an annual tax levy or through bond issue voted by the people to make it possible for the city to cooperate with the property owners in these important street widening and extension projects.’

And more specifically the Report recommended a list of projects;

‘A bond issue should also be voted to provide for Atlanta’s portion of the cost of viaducts over the railroads, the extension of Broad Street and other important street improvement projects and there should also be an annual tax levy or a bond issue or both to carry forward a comprehensive plan for the acquirement of land for parks, parkways and playgrounds.’

This was happening at the dawn of a decade in which the country’s politics were primarily concerned with expanding business and reducing regulations. But even in this climate, there was a clear understanding that appropriate regulation and taxation were required to move the needs of the region forward; by providing a plan and then funding that plan. The following excerpt indicates the gravity of the situation at the time;

‘Surely, the history of Atlanta, as written to date, as concerns its physical expansion and status, should include all Atlantans to give careful heed to intelligently worked out plans of construction for the future. For the one big reason why our streets are such vexing and fretting problems today – far and away, the Georgian thinks, the most vexing and fretting of all our problems – is because Atlanta never has been built according to plan, but always at haphazard.’ – from February 21, 1922 edition of the Atlanta Georgian

This could easily have been written in the February 21, 2012 edition of the AJC.

In 1922 the newly constituted City Planning Commission was grappling with the same issues we face today, and they made recommendations that are not unlike those currently before the voters of the region. In the past century we have followed the recommendation of the Commission and built new and widened existing roads, but we have done so without much of a plan – that last street plan was also the first, that included in the 1922 Report.

As we look back at the intention of the Commission, and understand how transportation has unfolded in the region since, we see that transportation improvements have been critical to the economic growth of the region. We see that infrastructure improvements have directly benefitted property owners in the region. And we see that these benefits have materialized through individual sacrifice and participation.

But we also see that some of the planning principles espoused in the Report have been carried forward while others have not, sometimes with unintended and unfortunate consequences.

In the 1922 City Planning Commission Annual Report for Atlanta we were asking ourselves the same questions we are asking today with the pending transportation referendum. Transportation, congestion, growth and economic development are the significant concerns of both. We made good decisions then, as well as bad decisions. Today we have the opportunity to learn from those decisions, and try to make better decisions.

While the City of Atlanta was grappling with planning for growth, the rest of the country was in much the same position. It was never a foregone conclusion that the process of planning and zoning (methodically organizing the future growth of cities) would be acceptable to the general population, or more importantly, the Supreme Court. Ultimately, the question of the constitutionality of regulating for growth was decided in a case called Euclid v. Ambler, in 1926. It pitted a small village, Euclid, Ohio, against a real estate company, the Ambler Realty Co. The fundamental question was whether or not it was constitutional for the village to dictate what the developer could or could not put on its property.

The case was fascinating in many ways, and covered a number of issues, but there are two parts of the ruling that have significant bearing on how we answer the questions before us today.   The first is how Justice Sutherland addressed the relationship between municipalities:

It is not meant by this, however, to exclude the possibility of cases where the general public interest would so far outweigh the interest of the municipality that the municipality would not be allowed to stand in the way.

Here Sutherland is simply saying that if there are compelling reasons for larger, regional decisions to be made, individual jurisdictions should not be allowed to keep that from happening. In this case he was referring to the relationship between the small village, Euclid, and the major city just to the north, Cleveland, whose goals happened to be different at the time.

The second part that has direct bearing on our situation today is how he outlines the constitutional role of planning:

And in this there is no inconsistency, for, while the meaning of constitutional guaranties never varies, the scope of their application must expand or contract to meet the new and different conditions which are constantly coming within the field of their operation. In a changing world it is impossible that it should be otherwise.

Here Sutherland is saying that certain decisions were understood to be in the best interest of the community’s health, safety and welfare—the fundamental justification for planning as a legal process. But he is further asserting that the specific decisions made in 1926 should not simply be replicated, but that future planners should analyze options to insure that policies continue to support healthy, safe and productive communities. This is not simply an ideal, but a constitutional mandate.

In 1926, the Supreme Court said we should work together as a region when regional issues demanded, and we should make our communities healthier, safer and economically viable. Who could argue with that? Yet since then we have moved far afield of the sound decision of the Court.

What did we do wrong?

In 1922 a number of assumptions were made, backed by technical knowledge and years of professional experience and observation. However, at the time, the impact of the automobile and traffic was little understood. Yet many of those decisions are with us today, and continue in the face of much more robust research and analysis. Those decisions have been proven, at best, to be burdened with unintended consequences and at worst, the very reason we find ourselves in this seemingly dire situation. For example, the assumption, stated with great authority, that widening streets will produce higher capacity and greater speed was never really tested. As widened streets clogged, they were simply widened more, because that was supposedly the best way to address the situation. The same can be said for the authoritative statement,

There should be a separation of grades for through traffic at the intersection of two heavy traffic routes. The traffic efficiency of both streets is enormously increased by such separation of grades. And further, they attract more traffic which naturally makes for an increase in business values along them.

What emerges from these assumptions is a strategy of creating transportation systems that get increasingly wider and more separated. At the time, there was no evidence that demonstrated the truth of these ideas, nor has any research ever proved them to be true. Quite the contrary, research now shows that these early suppositions got us much further from healthy, safe and economically viable communities, cities and regions. This is, of course, in direct conflict with our constitutional obligation.

But it wasn’t only those misguided remnants that caused problems, there were also elements of the original planning movement that were lost over time,, with unintended and dismaying consequences. The best example of this is the street plan. The 1922 Commission Report, along with the Hoover Commission’s City Planning Enabling Act of 1928, both recommended preparing a street plan for to guide the future expansion of cities. They did this because for millennia planned cities grew in this manner. Savannah, Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and most others cities shared this common foundation. It was, at the time, the basis upon which all other elements of cities and communities were built. But for a number of reasons, none of which are founded on research or statistical evidence, the street plan fell out of favor. It suffered such a dramatic reversal of fortune that today, in almost every jurisdiction in the country, the placing of a new public right-of-way, either on a planning document, or in the city, has become the most difficult part of the planning process. Without a street plan, we end up with disorganized, un-walkable, unhealthy, inflexible and unsustainable development. This isn’t, unlike the Report in 1922, the projection of a possible future, but the clear result of the past century.

So we made mistakes, and in many cases we have let these mistakes continue to such an extent that they have become standard operating procedure. But today, if we look back to the constitutional justification for these policies, we would understand that moving forward we need to do two things—work together regionally, and do everything we can to ensure our policies are actually leading to healthier, safer and more economically productive communities. The Supreme Court, rigorous research, and common sense all tell us this, we just need to listen.

And we have to pay for this.

The great benefit of the referendum is that it will provide, for the first time, a platform for us to work regionally. After that, as citizens of the region, we have to demand that those planning the transportation projects do so in such a way that fulfills our constitutional obligations.

In this series we have discussed how, for the past 100 years or so, we have been struggling with issues of transportation; planning for the future, funding projects and trying to reduce congestion. We looked at the original context of the issues, from the constitutional and legal justifications to the initial strategies for implementation. And we reflected on what went wrong; why we are still grappling with these issues and, by most accounts, still unsuccessful. As a result, we should ask ourselves two simple questions: should we change this, and if so, how?

If the answer to the first question is yes, then the first thing we should to do is understand what we really want out of this process, how we want to live our daily lives. If we want to spend more time in our cars, get fatter and waste money, then the answer is simple: we just keep doing what we have been doing. We already know it works.

But if we want to spend less time driving, get healthier, and save money, then we have to do something else, reconsider the type of city we want to live in (and remember the Supreme Court said this is what we should do – keep people healthy, safe and prosperous). In order to do this successfully there are two broad conditions that have to change.

  1. We have to work regionally.

Unfortunately, the current situation in Georgia makes this very difficult. The trend is to further balkanize jurisdictions within each region, with many new small cities and towns. While this may seem like a good way to solve very local problems, it is moving us further from finding long-range solutions and fulfilling our constitutional obligations.

The issues and systems that bind us together are fundamentally regional (water, transportation, education, economic growth) yet we continue to try to find solutions in smaller jurisdictions. However, we have a system in the state that addresses this. It is a series of regional commissions that are charged with coordinating planning efforts throughout the state on a regional basis. The difficulty, however, is that they have almost no authority. In order to work regionally, we must give these commissions the authority to put in place planning criteria for each of the regions.

The state is currently reviewing and revising the operational structure of the regional commissions, and giving them more flexibility in how they operate within each region and giving local jurisdictions in each region more say in the process. This is a good thing, and it gives the system the flexibility it needs. Clearly, many of the issues facing the southwest region of the state are very different than the challenges the Atlanta region is facing. If this is to work, however, the regional commissions should be empowered to plan.

  1. We should require testing and evaluation of the proposed transportation projects.

The Supreme Court, in 1926, directed us to ensure that the methods we use to plan cities and regions are such that the resulting projects make us healthy, safe and prosperous. Yet the methods we currently use have either been proved to do just the opposite, or their affects on the population remain unknown.

For example, we know that the highway-arterial-collector system of roads creates an unhealthy, unproductive, unsafe environment, yet we continue to pay for and build them, based on ineffective modeling systems that were never scientifically constructed.

If, however, we find that walking creates healthy, safe and productive environments, and we want this, then we can look to recent research that shows people are significantly more likely to walk if the conditions make it comfortable to do so. And further, that the single most significant factor in measuring this is block size; smaller blocks provide an environment in which people are more likely to walk. But we have almost nothing in our current regulations that addresses this issue.

As a further example, it is now becoming clear that the cul-de-sac to highway pattern of development actually leads to a significant increase in pedestrian and vehicular deaths and injuries. The very model that was put in place to make our lives healthier, safer and more economically productive is doing just the opposite. Again, our constitutional obligation is to rectify this situation, and to do this we should provide a system in which projects are analyzed and tested to ensure appropriate results and minimize unintended consequences.

Imagine putting untested drugs on the market and waiting to see what kills us and what makes us better. This is essentially what we are doing with much of our planning efforts, with the same consequences, except in this case, even when we see the drugs are killing us, we don’t take them off the shelves; we order more.

We should be working regionally, and we should be testing projects to ensure they are doing what we want them to do.

Next week we will discuss very specific solutions and how they can be facilitated by the passage and implementation of the transportation referendum.

We are voting on the transportation referendum on July 31st.

It is almost certain that the result of the vote will have far less impact than is projected by either side of the debate. If it fails, we will continue to muddle through, as we always have, failing to fulfill much of our potential. If it passes we will surely make a mess of it, as we tend to do: the results will be less beneficial than promised, and we will most likely not learn much from our mistakes.

But this doesn’t have to be the case. While it is true that there is little opportunity in the failure of the referendum, there is much opportunity if it passes, if we can apply some key accountability measures over the next ten years. Some will argue that these measures are not allowed due to restrictions embedded in the referendum, but this is simply not true. In fact, the law requires that each of the recommendations below is included in the process.

  1. Clearly articulate measurable goals. The referendum as a whole, and each individual project should be required to have specific outcomes as targeted goals. The three categories are health, safety and welfare. As such, each project should reduce unhealthy and unsafe conditions, as well as promote economic vitality. For example, each project should reduce asthma and airborne particulates, increase pedestrian activity, and reduce vehicle-related injuries and deaths. In addition, projects should have a clear budget that aligns with its stated goals. There are a number of measureable goals that could, and should, be added to the list above, and with technical tracking capabilities today this is a relatively simple process.
  2. Set criteria for returns on our investment. Each project should have a measurable return on the investment, and each should be designed and funded relative to this return. Ultimately we want to utilize our resources (spend our money) in ways that are going to maximize the benefit to the greatest number people.
  3. Track project performance. Each project should be tracked to ensure that it is performing in the manner that was originally projected. The value in this process is that is allows us to understand what works and what doesn’t work. Without tracking performance, decisions will continue to be made based on faulty modeling and educated guesses. It also requires that we are truthful about the efficacy of projects, regardless of our position on various modes of transportation. It is the only way to provide true accountability across the board.
  4. Modify projects based on items 1 – 3. Both current and future projects should be modified to respond to project tracking. If we see things aren’t working as planned, projects underway or completed should be modified (utilizing the methods above), and future projects should be redesigned or cancelled, as appropriate. This will require modifications to our current capital planning process, but it is the right thing to do.

This isn’t all that different from the way we run our own 401(k)’s. We set a goal for retirement, we have a method for measuring returns, we track performance, and we modify our investments when they aren’t meeting our goals. When we have less money, we make individual sacrifices so that we can keep contributing. There is no reason these principles should not be true for us as collective citizens, as they are for us individually.

On November 22, 1926, the Supreme Court told us to go forth and plan, but as we did, to make sure that every decision made benefitted the health, safety and welfare of the general public. This is pretty good advice, and we would be well served by following it. Finally.