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July 29, 2013 10:15 AM Immobilizing Atlanta

By Ed Kilgore

When Paul Krugman looked at the rankings of American cities in terms of social mobility recently compiled by a team of Harvard and U.C.-Berkeley researchers, he was apparently struck by the same finding I was: go-go high-growth Atlanta ranked dead last. I may have been less surprised, having spend much of my life observing Atlanta’s peculiar flair for self-defeating growth, in which uncontrolled development and the perpetual inadequacy of transportation infrastructure has reinforced the metropolitan area’s ancient patterns of racial and socio-economic segregation. Here’s Krugman:

[I]n Atlanta poor and rich neighborhoods are far apart because, basically, everything is far apart; Atlanta is the Sultan of Sprawl, even more spread out than other major Sun Belt cities. This would make an effective public transportation system nearly impossible to operate even if politicians were willing to pay for it, which they aren’t. As a result, disadvantaged workers often find themselves stranded; there may be jobs available somewhere, but they literally can’t get there.

There’s actually a more perverse cycle at work in Atlanta than Krugman suggests: suburban sprawl is both a cause and effect of political dysfunction. There are 28 counties—28 counties!—in the Atlanta Metropolitan Statistical Area. Only two participate in Atlanta’s rail transit system, MARTA. Regional planning capacity, never very strong in Georgia (believe me; I used to work for the state agency responsible for promoting it), has been completely paralyzed by the rise of the Tea Party Movement at the very moment the Republican Party is consolidating its hold on state government. In a state that desperately needs to get a handle on its development patterns, state legislators spend time watching presentations instructing them to regard planning itself as the product of the Agenda 21 United Nations conspiracy to abolish free enterprise.

The level of mistrust and the sense of a vicious scramble for limited resources permeates the political culture on all sides, as you might expect in a place with such balkanized decision-making bodies. The one thing everyone can agree on is that the surface transportation system in the Atlanta area—especially in the suburbs—has been completely overwhelmed by growth. Yet last year a referendum backed by the Republican governor, the Democratic mayor of Atlanta, and the entire business community, to finance major transportation improvements (with individual regions largely choosing their own mix of projects) via a ten-year one-cent designated sales tax went down to a resounding defeat in most of the state, including metropolitan Atlanta (where Tea Folk, the Sierra Club and the local NAACP opposed the initiative for very different reasons).

The Great Recession probably headed off a full-on transportation meltdown in metro Atlanta. But as Krugman and the social mobility researchers suggest, recovery for many struggling citizens in the area could be perpetually frustrated or delayed by a sheer physical inability to get to jobs moving further away from snarled traffic and inadequate public facilities. It’s a classic example of a metropolitan area (I wouldn’t call it a “community” in any real sense) self-immobilizing, with the most vulnerable people isolated more than ever.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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