Don’t get me wrong — I like Atlanta.
It’s got the world’s largest aquarium, which our 7-year-old loves. As the home of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the site of several Civil War battlefields, it’s got plenty of history. Plus, it’s not doing too bad for the only major American city that was ever burned to the ground. (Not surprisingly, lots of Atlanta sports teams use the phoenix for their mascot.)
Talk to any real estate developer in Charlotte who was around in the 1980s and they’ll tell you the dream was to “catch Atlanta.” It’s safe to say that is no longer the case.
Atlanta is now widely acknowledged to have made serious mistakes during its period of hyper-growth that began in the 1980s.
Charlotte’s growth is only accelerating. What cautionary tales can we learn from our metropolitan neighbor to the south?
(1) Blocking mass transit from the suburbs
It’s difficult to overstate what an obvious no-brainer this is for the top spot. The failure to extend Atlanta’s mass transit rail network into the suburbs has been called “the mother of all mistakes” and “the single worst mistake in a whole cluster bomb of missteps.”
As a result, Atlanta routinely earns unflattering recognition for its traffic, such as having the longest commute in the nation. (There was also the time it had “the worst traffic jam in history” after 2 inches of snow shutdown the interstate for 16 hours. Seriously, people were giving birth in their cars.)
The lack of mass transit has also been a leading contributor to the endless sprawl that defines the outskirts of the city. Without infrastructure that allows for denser development, people expand to fill the space they think they have – with little thought to the cumulative impact for traffic.
Everything played a role in the decision not to extend mass transit, from racial politics, to class warfare, to penny-wise-pound-foolish underfunding. But the result is clear: even with some of the widest highways in the world, Atlanta traffic is so bad that it functions as the leading deterrent to business recruitment.
Charlotte, ever debating mass transit, can only truly go wrong by taking a none-of-the-above approach. We simply must accommodate denser growth, before this challenge assumes Atlanta-sized proportions.
(2) Water wars
Did you know that Atlanta is routinely cited as one of the American cities “Most Likely to Run Out of Water?” It’s true. During a drought in 2007, Atlanta — the biggest city in the South — came within 90 days of running out of water. Whoa.
Not surprisingly, Atlanta has the second-highest water rates in the country — roughly double what we pay in Charlotte.
This is not an easy problem to have. For the last 25 years, Atlanta has been in litigation with surrounding states about access to water. Given how heavily we here in Charlotte rely on Lake Norman, there are some highly valuable lessons about conservation and planning that we should take to heart.
(3) Gone in 60 seconds
I’m not just saying this because my motorcycle was stolen in Atlanta (but it was, and I’m still bummed about it). The fact is, you’re more than twice as likely to have your car stolen in Atlanta than in Charlotte.
The most frequently stolen vehicle? Dodge Caravan. Go figure.
Charlotte is now considering a move toward community policing, an effort that takes more officers and more time, but is designed to increase the trust that communities have in law enforcement and help stop crime before it starts. It’s the type of decision that could keep all of our motorcycles a little bit safer.