Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Accomodating Density

Jim Wooten, associate editorial page editor for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, writes an interesting opinion piece about the appropriateness of density, given recent trends and statistics about traffic congestion in the Atlanta metro area.

Wooten says that while higher density development seems to be the "in" thing in urban planning these days, it may not be the smartest thing to do. "Every impetus economic and political is to create high-density development," he writes. "But unless that density feeds a concentrated employment center -- the nearly extinct downtowns of yesteryear, for example -- it's nothing more than high-volume, congestion-worsening traffic clutter."

Wooten cites the recent report released by the Census Bureau showing that several parts of the Atlanta area have some of the worst congestion and longest commute times in the nation. "One could argue that, once built, high-rise dwellings and high-employment centers would spring up. That has not been Atlanta's experience with rapid rail in the decades since the east-west line opened. And with the possible exception of the Lindbergh station, MARTA hasn't driven density around stations on the north-south line, either."

But Wooten is not entirely anti-density. He just argues that it should be placed where it can be accomodated. "The practical remedy is to ratchet down density in all but the places where roads exist to carry it. Just as water withdrawal permits exist, so too should jurisdictions be assigned traffic-addition permits for every major highway based on the road's carrying capacity. If cities and counties want to add traffic, they should be required to jointly fund new capacity."

Some interesting food for thought here. I'm reminded about the studies that show Los Angeles to be one of the densest metro areas in the nation, and also one with the worst traffic congestion. Higher density doesn't automatically mean more efficient transportation. As Wooten points out in his piece, and as we all know from experience, in today's world, people travel all over the metropolitan region for a variety of purposes. Finding ways to efficiently accomodate that kind of travel demand is difficult.

24 Comments:

At 10:05 AM, Blogger David Everitt said...

Though this post by Michal Lewyn focuses narrowly on the work commute, it does offer another view on the value of density:

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At 12:58 AM, Blogger burnt bacon said...

Why is everyone so fixated on density? Density is a function of what you want to do with a certain piece of property. If you want to live in a neighborhood without services, transit, retail , civic and you don't mind congestion (eventually) then a low density area might be great for you. If you wish a rich, enabling environment with transit, mixed use, and proximity to cultural entities, then a higher density design is probably what you should be looking for. Two points are critical here. Design and choice. While we here in Utah have plenty of CSD (conventional suburban development) if you are looking for something different, your choices are limited. (Daybreak or Harvard Yale $$$$) Is one size fits all the only option here?


Go back and look at the original design plan for our area, city of Zion plat. Notice any thing about this plan that we are not doing today? There are many, but several stick out to me. Commuities with centers. Communities with limits and open space borders, Communities of (self-)sustainable size as regards to transportation, resources, etc. Mixture of uses designed into the town and neighborhood plans.

I don't like this focus on the D word. It means nothing by itself and from my experience only functions as a diversion for nimbys, bananas and the like. Get over it!

It's DESIGN not density!

 
At 11:24 AM, Blogger Student-Builder said...

Mr. Wooten's comments only make sense in an environment that is subservient to the automobile. Our problem is that most of us simply accept the fact that the car is the ONLY legitimate transportation solution.

I quick review of local zoning ordinances shows that most have hardly any land designated for higher density housing. They do give lip service to the state requirement of "affordable housing plan", but that is all it usually amounts to, a half baked plan. This means they are pricing their own children and elderly out of living in the community.

Fortunately, Utah continues to build plenty of Retirement Homes to toss our elderly into as soon as they are unable to drive.

Talk about "unsustainable development"!

 
At 1:49 PM, Blogger vagabond said...

burnt bacon is correct. Design is far more important than density. Cities that have poor economic development and transportation plans are doomed to permanent congestion and high stress.

Davis County is a great example of poor planning. While it is home to the state's largest employer, overall is has little commercial development and the county's populace is highly dependent upon commuting to work outside the county. Traffic on I-15 has dramatically increased just in the last year. Why? Take a guess.

Not enough people work at or near home, not enough services are provided at or near home, amenities are not located at or near home, cities do not build facilities for economic development within their own boudary. Etc, etc, etc,.

Commercial nodes need to scattered within communities and there needs to be more regional planning cooperation. Ooops! Can't say that here in "rural" Davis County. Thats akin to communism!

We're soiling our own nest very quickly.

 
At 2:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is an interesting article but I think it is difficult to compare Atlanta and SLC. I have lived and worked as a planner in the south and the differences between the two metro areas are vast. The editor of the article said, "The problem now with commuting times is that the region has no live or work center. Residents live everywhere and work everywhere." That is very true in ATL, but SLC is not like that. The are has very distinct live and work centers, a perfect situation for implenting transit opportunities.

 
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