Atlanta: Ground Zero for the American Dream


The Atlanta area has much to be proud of, though it might not be obvious from the attitudes exhibited by many of its most prominent citizens. For years, local planners and business leaders have regularly trekked to planning’s Holy City (Portland) in hopes of replicating its principles in Atlanta. They would be better saving their air fares.

Money Better Spent by Government than People? Most recently, Jay Bookman of the Atlanta Journal Constitution wonders whether taxes are high enough in Georgia and seems envious of the fact that Oregon’s voters approved tax increases in a recession, despite months of having one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. Perhaps they were naïve enough to believe that the higher taxes would not stand in the way of attracting new business to the state. Or, perhaps the voters believed that, as a neighbor to basket case California, Golden State businesses might still flee to Oregon as an expensive but less congested environment (Note 1).

Portland Transit: Nothing to Emulate: Bookman is also envious of Portland’s transit system with its light rail and commuter rail. Perhaps he is unaware of the “pecking order” of transit. Atlanta’s MARTA is superior to Portland’s MAX light rail in virtually every respect. MARTA a world class Metro. It is fully grade separated and averages about 70% faster than MAX, which is a revival of abandoned streetcar technology. It is thus not surprising that MARTA carries three times as much passenger demand as MAX, despite a total route length approximately the same as in Portland. Despite MARTA’s superiority to MAX, both the Atlanta and Portland transit systems share the transit curse of excessive costs. Atlantans are paying far less to subsidize their transit system than if they had unwisely, like Portland, extended it and taxed residents throughout the suburbs.

Portland’s Embarrassing Commuter Rail Line: And, commuter rail does not appear to be a matter of pride in Portland at this point. Portland’s one commuter rail line celebrated its first year anniversary recently. Before the line opened, Tri-Met transit officials estimated that the line would “have 2,400 riders a day as soon as service begins.” The Wilsonville to Beaverton WES commuter rail line, however, never came close to that number. Daily ridership has been under 1,200. But the relative paucity of riders did not interfere with the transit agency’s spin and the media’s general sheepish agreement. At the one year anniversary a Tri-Met spokeswoman commented that “When you think about having 55,000 jobs lost in the region, that translates into fewer transit riders throughout the system and particularly during rush hour.” However, nowhere near the half of riders that failed to show for WES cannot be blamed on Portland’s high unemployment rate. If Portland were to return to unemployment levels of a year ago, WES would likely add no more than 50 daily riders.

So, recession-ravaged Portland has built a commuter rail line that carries, at best, 0.5% of the capacity of adjacent freeways when it operates. Moreover, it has been costly. The line costs about $60 per passenger, only $2.50 of which is collected in fares. This means that the annual subsidy per passenger is nearly $15,000, almost enough to pay the annual mortgage cost on two median priced Atlanta homes.

Portland Traffic Congestion Worse than Atlanta: Atlanta is renowned for its traffic congestion, which is a direct result of its failure to invest in the type of arterial grid that could provide substantial relief for its less than robust freeway system. Yet, based upon the latest Inrix National Traffic Scorecard, (GPS collected data for 2009), there is less peak period travel delay (as measured by the Travel Time Index) in Atlanta than in Portland, which is a reversal from data earlier in the decade (see note).

Atlanta: Adding a New Zealand: Atlanta has no reason to look to Portland as a model, or anywhere else, for that matter. Coming out of World War II, the Portland metropolitan area was larger than the Atlanta metropolitan area (1950). Since that time, Portland has grown strongly, adding 1.5 million people. Atlanta has added more than three times as many people. The result is an economy that produces at least $150 billion more in wealth every year than Portland. Thus, the difference between Atlanta and Portland is more than the gross domestic product of New Zealand. For at least the last two decades, Atlanta has been the fastest growing large metropolitan area in the high-income world.

Atlanta: Land of Opportunity: But perhaps the biggest draw about Portland for Atlanta leaders is its “growth management” (so-called “smart growth”) land use policies. Portland has drawn an urban growth boundary around its urbanization. Its land regulators commission “sun rises in the West” studies to deny the fact that this rationing of land increases house prices. There is, however, no question of the impact of more restrictive land use policies, from the World Bank to members of central bank boards to decorated economists such as Kat Barker of the Bank of England and Donald Brash, former governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand.

The result is superior housing affordability. Late in the year, the median house price in Atlanta was 2.1 times median household incomes (the Median Multiple). By comparison, the Median Multiple in Portland was 4.2, indicating that house prices are twice as high relatively speaking in Portland. In 1990, before Portland implemented its more stringent smart growth policies, housing affordability in Portland was about equal to Atlanta.

But there is more to the story. Portland’s heavy handed planning policies are distorting product offerings so much that only the richest can afford more than a miniature back yard. This is illustrated by the images of new housing developments below in the suburbs of Portland and Atlanta (below). Both pictures are taken from approximately 1,500 feet above the ground.

In the Portland example, virtually on the fringe of the urban area (the next urbanization is at least 10 miles away); houses are stacked in at more than 15 to the acre, with just a few feet between the roof-lines - vaguely reminiscent of third world shantytowns (Note 2). The more traditional suburban development that characterizes most of Portland is also shown on three sides of the overly dense new development.

In the Atlanta example, houses have been recently built at about 4 to the acre, which has been the American suburban norm (except where land use regulations have required larger lots). The emerging sameness of Portland’s housing gives new meaning to the “ticky tack” criticism of suburbanization.

Our 6th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey found Atlanta to be the second most affordable metropolitan area with more than 1,000,000 residents and the 17th most affordable metropolitan area out of 272 markets in six nations. Portland ranked 180th. Atlanta is truly a land of opportunity for young households and lower middle income households that can never hope of owning their own home in Portland’s pricey, growth management driven market.

Rather than being a shameful example of metropolitan disaster, Atlanta remains one of the diminishing number of American urban areas where the American Dream can still be offered at a price that middle income households can afford. Atlanta has also emerged as one of the world’s best examples of ethnic diversity, not only in the core but also in the suburbs. More than half of the new residents in the suburbs have been non-Anglo since 1990 in Atlanta, about which it can proud. Atlanta is inferior only in the quality of is public relations and self-understanding. It should be a required stop for planners from Portland and beyond, for remedial education on injecting humanity and aspiration back into urbanization.

Note 1: Bookman also notes in his column that Portland’s traffic congestion has not worsened at the rate I predicted in a 1999 Atlanta Constitution oped. I had not anticipated the huge gasoline price increases, which have materially reduced the rate of traffic growth virtually everywhere and made previous congestion increase rates unreliable as predictors of future growth.

Note 2: For example, see the similar rooflines in a Dhaka shantytown near Gulshan at 23:47 North and 90:24 East in Google Earth. The principal difference in roof lines is the Dhaka slum’s lack of streets and cars, both of which seem consistent with the anti-mobility stance of “smart growth” planning.

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris. He was born in Los Angeles and was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission by Mayor Tom Bradley. He is the author of "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.

Photo: hyku

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Ugh...not again.

    "Portland Traffic Congestion Worse than Atlanta:
    Atlanta is renowned for its traffic congestion, which is a direct result of its failure to invest in the type of arterial grid that could provide substantial relief for its less than robust freeway system. Yet, based upon the latest Inrix National Traffic Scorecard, (GPS collected data for 2009), there is less peak period travel delay (as measured by the Travel Time Index) in Atlanta than in Portland, which is a reversal from data earlier in the decade (see note)."

There's no amount of voltage in this world to shock me into believing the statement that "Portland's traffic congestion is worse than Atlanta's".

Atlanta is routinely cited as having one of the worst congestion in the US. TTI conducted in 2007 showed that Atlanta has a TTI of 1.35 vs. Portland's 1.29.

I think this is exemplifies why your writing will only permeate to the demagogues of the urban policy world.

I'd kill for a moderate post on this site. There's much to criticize about Portland, and this post actually touched on some good issues regarding MAX. But, it gets ruined by references of Portland's congestion "worse" than Atlanta and a silly Google image of Portland and comparing it to a slum in Dhaka.

Seriously? Gutter tactics to prove a point.

Portland's Got Innovative Economic Development People

One area where I have to give Portland credit is it's economic development authority. They're focused, creative, think for themselves, and among the best in resisting the flavor of the month biotech, energy tech strategies currently sweeping through econ development.

Of the 28 forced union (not right-to-work) states, Oregon is one of just 3 growing its population faster than the national average. I don't think MAX is all that impressive, especially with the indirect route from the airport, I made that 45 minute ride last trip and will be cabbing it next time. But it is a forward thinking city that will always be a step outside the mainstream - for better and worse.

Comparing Atlanta, and Portland

is like comparing apples to orangutans. They are very different places, with different people, industry, topography and mindsets. Your article gives the distinct impression that you haven't been to either place.

Comparing Portland to Dhaka, is a stretch that few could make. I do however appreciate your "Note 1", acknowledging your failure to understand the complexities of fuel cost, and how it relates to development. As I read your writings, I see you still haven't fully grasped this.

The WES line, The MAX, and the Portland Streetcar system, are in a fledgling state. Comparing ridership, on a system that's cross-connects have not been completed is short-sighted, and deceptive. Your "Creative interpretation" of congestion statistics also belies your bias.

Had I not been familiar with Portland, I may had allowed your mischaracterization to provide sway. Clearly, you aren't familiar with the subject matter.

Seattle, Portland & Atlanta

I live in Seattle, where the zeal to imitate the failures of other cities reigns supreme and disdain for the South is a common prejudice. To be like Portland, we built a light rail system that also cost a fortune for its pitifully limited ridership. I recently passed on an opportunity to take it from the airport to downtown. The bus is faster and easier to catch. The facts don't seem to have diminished the gushing enthusiasm for it in the local media. The facts never do. A previous poster seems to have bought similar propaganda about Portland.

The same seems true of housing. One article during the housing bubble gushed at how much money a couple made selling a home for a downtown condo. The reporter seemed clueless when I pointed out to her that far more people want to move the other direction and were kept back by policies that encourage high-density, childless housing and drive up the cost of free-standing kid-friendly homes. It's not just the stupidities of Portland that many city planners want to emulate. It's the stupidities of NYC too.

Long-term, Seattle is in trouble. Microsoft is still huge and rich, but it has become bureaucratic and lost what little ability it had to innovate. Boeing is shifting production to the South, where people prefer good-paying, stable jobs to becoming bitter tools of their union officials. People in Seattle can't understand it when I tell them that a high school teacher in Alabama can afford a home that only a bank president could buy in Seattle. Buzz words like "Our quality of life," blind them to the decline in their quality of life.

In a recent visit to the South, I drove near the huge Mitsubishi auto plant near Montgomery, Alabama and past the state-of-the-art Kia auto plant in LaGrange, Georgia. I also visited the best-in-the-world aquarium in Atlanta. "Those things cannot be" was the response when I described them on my return to Seattle. In their minds, most Southerners live in tar-paper shacks and marry their cousins.

I've long wondered why people in the social sciences and various 'planning' fields seem so clueless. I eventually concluded that as 'experts' they regard ordinary people as stupid, so when ordinary people, based on their experiences, conclude something, then the experts have to do a study proving the exact opposite and thus that they are 'smarter' than we.

Perhaps Wendel Cox should write a book detailing just how cities and regions can keep themselves prosperous and delightful places to live. It's obviously not by imitating Portland or being more like California. It's also obviously not what we are doing in Seattle.

Patience, Inkling

Seattle has a system that consists of a loop 2.6 miles in length. Streetcar systems are created in pieces, and yours is just beginning. When the initial MAX line was installed in Portland, there was some dismay, as to its placement. That is like receiving a radiator cap, and criticizing the car it came from. Another thing to keep in mind, is that Seattle has a much different topography. That topography may not lend itself as well to rail transport.

Also, regarding the manufacturing base in southern states: Lower wages=more manufacturing. Quite simply, it's the same reason why the new Boeing dreamliner assembly plant will not be in Seattle. So, do you really want to encourage a "Race to the bottom" when it comes to wages? Lower wages also translates to lower prices for property, which is why your public sector teacher in Alabama can afford a rather nice property there.

I do not intend to come off as harsh, but I think it's important to see the whole picture. I suppose the reason why you live in seattle, is because you have meaningful employment? Would you have to take a significant pay cut, in order to move to a southern manufacturing area?

Portlander_in_exile, there

Portlander_in_exile, there is no race to the bottom. The south is actually quite wealthy. That's been well known for decades. More so the race to the bottom doomsday scenario is poppycock. Look at Japan. Look at South Korea. Look at Taiwan, Singapore and others. They had wages much, much lower and now are among the most wealthy countries in the world.

The statement about lower wages == lower property prices is far too simplistic. That is why we look at the ratio of wages to prices. Why is Atlanta's still at 2.1 years of local wages for a local house versus Portland's 4.2? It's not a matter of low wages; we're looking at a ratio. Something else has caused things to go out of wack.


How about measuring the concentration of wealth. is this wealth in the hands of corporations? or in the hands of individuals. In the case of Boeing, their decision was primarily motivated by avoiding union labor, and wages. Measuring overall wealth, is not entirely an accurate method, when it comes to livability.

Location, Geography

I don't deny that it's erroneous to assume that the growth boundaries in Portland causes an increase in housing prices, but it's simply overstated by Cox. It comes down to the location and geography of cities. Portland is in a very nice setting with close proximity to oceans, mountains, forests, deserts, lakes, rivers, etc. etc.

Housing costs are supply related, and there's no shortage of supply in Portland (or any city right now). There's too much supply, in fact. I've seen no such report from anyone showing actual supply stock of housing in Portland that would artificially raise prices.

Unless one is offering a world-class urban experience like New York, London, Paris; the Atlantas of the world will remain quite affordable. That's no offense to Atlanta, I don't think it's trying to be that type of city, anyways.

It mostly comes down to real estate speculation, in my opinion. Prices have come down and will come down in the future in Portland. If the UGB was a restrictive as some people assert, wouldn't prices still remain relatively high and mostly unchanged?

Response from a Portlander

It seems that at this point, Portland has become a bit of a blank screen on which people on all parts of the spectrum can project their fantasies. For many people, myself included, Portland is a wonderful place to live, but it is neither the Utopia that some make it out to be, nor the antithesis of the so-called American Dream as Professor Cox seems to think. Professor Cox makes some fair points, but is way off base on others.

First, on the recent tax increase: it is a canard that this tax increase is going to drive away business. Most businesses will see an increase from $10 a year (an amount set in the 1930s which has not increased until now) to $150 per year. I don't imagine that many businesses are going to move to save $140 a year. Oregon has relatively low business taxes, and still does even after the recent increase. Oregon has not done a good job of attracting businesses, but there is no evidence to suggest that high business taxes are a significant factor in this. Surely as an academic, Professor Cox is used to having to marshal evidence to support his arguments - I challenge him to marshal any evidence from an economist who is not employed by a think tank funded by industry to support this contention that the recent tax increase will cause us to lose business or have more difficulty attracting them.

I have to concede that in many ways, MARTA is superior to Portland's light rail system. I think the light rail system works well for Portland in many ways, but I would agree it's not something Atlanta needs to spend time and energy envying.

As far as traffic, a quick look at the Inrix data cited by Cox reveals that Atlanta is rated the 12th most congested, whereas Portland is lower down the list at #24. So, at best, this suggests to me that Portland's traffic is better than at Atlanta by some measures, and worse by others. Professor Cox seems to be cherry-picking his facts here to support his point of view. I would venture to guess that the average Portlander has a shorter commute than the average Atlantan.

Now onto the infamous Urban Growth Boundary. First, I think it's probably true that the growth boundary results in higher housing prices than there would be without one, which does in effect translate to being able to afford a smaller house on a smaller lot in a city like Portland compared with Atlanta. However, Cox's argument by selective satellite picture is just silly. Does he really think that suburban Portland is like Dhaka? I think Professor Cox has some legitimate points, but this is utter nonsense. Does it ever occur to him that possibly the majority of residents of the Portland metro area prefer to live in a region that consists of a relatively dense urban core, surrounded by some of the world's most productive farmland and beautiful wilderness areas? I live in the heart of Portland, and I can be hiking in the Cascade mountains in less than an hour. I've been to Atlanta, and it would take 50 minutes just to drive from one end of Buckhead to the other.

The houses in the Atlanta photo look just as cookie-cutter as the ones in the Portland photo, so how this prove that Portland's housing is any more characterized by sameness that Atlanta's or anywhere else.

I actually agree with some of what Professor Cox has to say, but his method of argument by selective, out-of-context statistics, and by random Google Earth photos is really weak.

I agree that Atlanta need not either envy nor try to emulate Portland. I love Portland, and you couldn't pay me enough to move to a place like Atlanta (and yes, I have been there and liked a lot of things about it). I'm sure many Atlantans would feel the same way about Portland. Perhaps there isn't only one right way to have a successful city. However, couldn't Professor Cox point out the good things about Atlanta without bashing Portland and making comments that are beyond ludicrous (ie. saying the suburban Portland is like the Dhaka slums). Manhattan is far more dense than suburban Portland, so we he compare the Upper East Side, to Lagos, Nigeria?