Monthly Archives: June 2013

1908 Former Elks Lodge on Ellis St

I’m thrilled to hear that this building, a block away from both the buildings I’ve worked at for the past 4 years, is going to be re-opened.  It will house the Atlanta Legal Aid Society.  I’ve always thought it was a beautiful building from the outside and I hope I can get a peek inside once it re-opens.

As pointed out by ATL Urbanist, there are a lot of exciting developments around these blocks of downtown: new GSU graduate schools, GSU dorms, and the streetcar.  However, this building is also surrounded by a sea of parking lots and concrete parking garages, which do not make for an inviting streetscape.  At the corner of Peachtree Center and Ellis, there are two surface lots and two garages (GP across Ellis and the slightly more aesthetic 191 across Peachtree Center).  Further down the block are 3 more surface lots and another garage.

While the garages are there to stay it would seem, it would be wonderful to see the surface lots redeveloped some day.  As a regular at the GP garage, I know that there are several open floors at the top every day that could easily accommodate the cars from those surface lots.  At the moment, the price of parking is minimal at those surface lots, so I would be curious to know how much they really produce in revenue relative to other opportunities.  With all the announced moves into downtown (Coca-Cola, GSU expansions), I wonder how long the downtown parking glut will last and if we will see parking prices rise.

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Rain, Drought, and the Growth Ponzi Scheme

It’s been raining a lot in Atlanta this year.  So much so that I was drenched on my bike commute into downtown today.  Also, so much so that by June 24, we already had more rain in 2013 than we did in all of 2012.  This is good news for Atlanta, as Lake Lanier, our biggest reservoir, is a bit above full pool.

While my focus for this blog is really urban design, planning, transportation, and economics, maybe I need to devote some time and research to water issues.  After all Georgia is currently pursuing a legal border war with our neighboring states, because Atlanta is literally sucking the state dry. A year ago, a friend’s father who specializes in municipal water told me, “You don’t know how close you all came to running out of water during the last drought.  It could have been really disastrous.”

Typically, when drought strikes Atlanta, we hear alarmist cries to get more water to Atlanta from somewhere or somebody else.  “Without water, Atlanta can’t keep growing so quickly!”  To me, this rings of the Growth Ponzi Scheme, as articulated by Charles Marhon at Strong Towns.  I won’t try to lay out the thesis here, but to summarize:

…We’ve simply built in a way that is not financially productive.  We’ve done this because, as with any Ponzi scheme, new growth provides the illusion of prosperity. In the near term, revenue grows, while the corresponding maintenance obligations — which are not counted on the public balance sheet — are a generation away.

If you haven’t heard of it or read the whole Strong Towns book, I highly encourage it for anyone interested in urban and transportation issues, public finance, and fiscal policy.  Marhon critiques the legislation, bad incentives, and myths that have driven unsustainable suburban growth and bad transportation systems.  These ultimately lead to a lower quality of life via less connected, engaged communities, worse health outcomes, and less relational, human interaction, and more time spent stuck in traffic.   Could periodic water shortages force Atlanta, and the surrounding metro area, to consider more carefully the manner in which the region should grow?  How many more 3/4 acre lawns and golf course can we really support (Disclaimer: I love golf, but it is a more natural fit to rainy places like Scotland than places like Scottsdale)?  We should accept our limits, one of which is our water supply, and work within those limits to build a strong city.

Update: I heard an interview this morning, Can Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee Satisfy Our Region’s Thirst?, on WABE with Sally Bethea from the Chattahoochee Riverkeepers.  She expressed optimism over the ability of our leaders and residents to be more foresighted about water issues, especially when faced with droughts that do serve as a force to change habits and patterns.  Maybe I was overly pessimistic above about the alarmist cries, but I do still see the quest for tapping other water sources as a means of prolonging the Growth Ponzi Scheme. 

Re-blogged: “The Problem with Park and Rides”

I’m not going to comment on this much for now, but I’m glad to see someone point out the inherent contradictions of park-and-ride transit systems.  However,  Atlanta’s MARTA rail system is so sparse in geographic coverage, that it is a near certainty that many people will need to drive (or bike, as I would encourage, or take a bus) to MARTA rail stations.  

http://streetsblog.net/2013/06/26/the-problem-with-park-and-rides/ 

(Jay)Walking in the city

Jaywalking is often really the only practical option for a pedestrian trying to navigate an environment that has been built solely for cars.  This holds true for Atlanta, but I could apply it to any place built on a car-scale anywhere.  If the place you need to go is directly across the street, and the only place to cross is fairly out of the way, you’re probably going to jaywalk.  Yes, jaywalking is illegal.  Yes, it can be dangerous.  But when the infrastructure accommodates driving but not more basic human behaviors like walking, the walking instinct is going to win out over a set of laws that was essentially lobbied by the auto industry in the early 1900s.  These laws undoubtedly serve one population (those in cars) at the expense of another (those not in cars).  I love to walk, but I do so by choice, for I could drive or bike, too.  It is often our city’s poorest residents who must walk.  As J Gresham Machen, a Presbyterian minister in Philadelphia in 1929, wrote:

That brings us to the real purpose of these [jaywalking] laws, which is not that pedestrians should be spared injury but that motorists should be spared a little inconvenience. I drive a car from the driver’s point of view. I know how trifling is the inconvenience which is saved thus at the expense of the liberty of the poorer people in the community. Indeed, I do not believe that in the long run it is for the benefit even of the motorist. I think it is a dreadful thing to encourage in the motorist’s mind, as these laws unquestionably do, the notion that he is running on something like a railroad track cleared for his special benefit. 
(Thanks to Darryl Hart at Front Porch Republic for the quote.  It also makes this Presbyterian urbanist pretty giddy to quote the founder of Westminster Theological Seminary, where my church’s pastors studied, on urban issues.) 

The infrastructure in place now encourages high auto speeds and provides little signaling to drivers that they may even need to yield to pedestrians.  Of course, the result is that drivers “slaughter the usual suspects,” as my old Commercial Law professor would say.  However, drivers are not usually held too responsible, because often the slaughtered folks are (1) jaywalking and (2) poor.  It’s my hope that the the legal outcome hinges more on the former, where the pedestrian is technically committing an illegal act, but I’m at least a bit skeptical.  It isn’t my goal here to demonize car drivers.  I’m a car driver.  And as a car driver, I know that the infrastructure is designed more for me to not hit other cars than for me to not hit human beings on the roads.  Frankly, that should scare me a lot more than it usually does when I’m in my Toyota 4Runner.  With the way the roads are set up, people are going to get hit, period.  Drivers should be more responsible, but then, so should the traffic engineers who are supposed to be experts in designing the damn things.

Having set up the problems with walking, jaywalking, and the present infrastructure, I’d like to highlight two Atlanta roads that I will discuss more in later posts:

  •  Buford Hwy, an approximately 6 lane wide hub of immigrant communities in the northeast of the city, is our most notorious example of a poor pedestrian environment.  At best, Buford Hwy has mediocre sidewalks and a terrible streetscape for pedestrians; at worst, it has narrow, rocky foot trails wedged between the curb, utility poles, and drainage ditches that are the only option for anyone not in a car.  Crosswalks may be spaced out by half a mile or more.
  • Howell Mil Rd., about 100 yards from my house in West Midtown, actually has some real potential as a walkable street.  I ride my bike into work on Howell Mill and walk to church.  It’s not great, but it’s no Buford Hwy.  Howell Mill has things to walk to, decent sidewalks, and a fair number of cross walks.  The Beltline Overlay, a special zoning code encouraging walkability related to Atlanta’s Beltline project, applies to Howell Mill near my house. Yet there are some real issues with making Howell Mill truly walkable:
  1. A few popular bus stops with no nearby crosswalks
  2. Lack of shade, an essential for Atlanta’s heat
  3. Land uses and building frontages
  4. Overgrown ground-level vegetation
  5. Excessive curb cuts and unmaintained, broken sidewalks
  6. Broken water meter covers leaving holes in the sidewalk

Bike-share could see commuter tax benefit

Thanks to the Bike Sharing Blog, I recently heard that Congress is considering the Commuter Parity Act of 2013 (HR2288).  The bill would include bike-sharing in the commuter tax benefit available to bicyclists through their employers.  This is a timely development for Atlanta, as Atlanta and Decatur have just recently released an RFP for a bike-share program based on the Atlanta Bike Coalition’s Feasibility Study.  Writing at Bike Sharing Blog, Paul DeMaio asked readers to write their congressman, so I did, and I’ll go ahead and encourage you to do the same.  Not only did I ask for my congressman’s support for the proposed changes, but I also pointed out some flaws I see in the present law that might could be amended during revisions of the present bill.  I share below my letter to Rep. John Lewis (GA-5), my representative for where I live in West Midtown Atlanta.

Dear. Rep. Lewis,

My name is Will Jungman.  I grew up in Atlanta, own a home at…in West Midtown, serve as president of the Berkeley Park Neighborhood Association and a deacon of Atlanta Westside Presbyterian, and work in Pricing at, a block from your Atlanta office.  I studied economics at the University of Virginia…  Also I regularly commute via bike 4 miles to downtown. 

HR 2288 sponsored by Rep. Grimm (NY 11) would raise the tax-deductible bicycling commuter benefit from $20 to $35 and also include bike-sharing in the benefit.  Given the City of Atlanta’s recent plans to invest in bike infrastructure and issuance of an RFP for bike-sharing, I strongly support these measures for our district and ask that you will lend your support as well.  I hope that further incentives for cycling will persuade more Atlantans to try commuting via bicycle, which inevitably results in making other trips via bicycle, too.  Compared to auto and even mass transit, bicycling is a proven winner at providing a transportation option that generates high rates of return on fiscal investment, improves public health,, reduces traffic and infrastructure costs, and benefits our local air quality.  Not to mention, I happen to think bicycling is just good for citizenship; bicyclists and pedestrians are naturally just more in tune with the rhythms of their community because they aren’t encased in their private space inside a car (I probably wouldn’t have noticed that the women’s shelter I ride by on Howell Mill Rd. really needed a crosswalk if I was on I-75/85 in my car).

Supporting expansion of a tax subsidy is actually a counter-intuitive position for me, a pricing professional and fiscal conservative schooled in economics.  I’d really like to see fewer transportation subsidies and more user fees (e.g. tolls, gas taxes, etc.), with subsidy cuts and fees aimed first at our most heavily subsidized mode, the auto.   Unfortunately, that seems unlikely to go anywhere politically any time soon.  Given that, the next best course is to increase bicycle subsidies to at least bring bikes to a more level playing field with the more heavily subsidized modes.  Maybe even some of your Republican colleagues in Congress would be amenable to this line of reasoning!

While I do support this bill, I wish to point out a few difficulties with the current tax treatment of bicycle commuting: 

  1. As currently defined in Sec 132 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, a “qualified bicycle commuting month” in which a commuter may receive the benefit is only a month in which no other benefit (auto, parking, transit) is received.  However, many bicycle commuters in Atlanta are not single-modal, but use multiple modes depending on factors such as distance (e.g., bike to Marta & ride), weather (e.g., bike in good weather, drive in poor weather), or scheduling.  Given the much larger subsidies for auto and transit, it almost always makes sense for any multi-modal commuter to forgo any bike subsidy even if they use a bike fairly regularly.  I ask that the members supporting this bill investigate a means by which multi-modal commuters could mix & match commuting benefits based on their modes taken.
  2.  To receive any tax benefit, the commuter’s employer must create a bicycle program.  Unfortunately, employers may just ignore bike commutes, now about 1% of the city’s total.  Under present law, an employer may provide up to $2,640/year in non-taxable income to car commuting employees, but then may just ignore their bike commuting employees and decline to even provide them even a paltry $240/year in non-taxable income.  In this way, an employer may essentially discriminate against one form of transportation over another.  In Atlanta, this is more likely to result in a preference for the car, over transit and biking, which are more likely to benefit lower income employees.  Employers who offer any one of one of these federally sponsored transportation benefits ought to be required to offer all.

Rep. Lewis, thank you for taking time to read my letter and consider these concerns.  I do hope you support the bicycling measures in this bill.  Since I work just a block away, I would be happy anytime to come in and discuss these matters in further detail with you or anyone on your staff.  As your constituent, thank you for your work on behalf of Georgia’s 5th district.