Wowza: Scale Maps of Barcelona and Atlanta Show the Waste of Sprawl


This graphic was created by Alain Bertaud, a senior researcher at NYU’s Stern Urbanization Project. He was formerly principal urban planner for the World Bank. Part of his work has focused on comparing densities of world cities.

In this stunning comparison of metro Atlanta and Barcelona, you can see that the two regions have almost the same population. Barcelona is actually a little bit bigger in that respect. They also have a roughly similar total length of rail transit: Barcelona has 99 miles of rail lines to Atlanta’s 74. But the living patterns couldn’t be more different. Atlantans are just way, way more spread out. In fact, the urbanized area of Atlanta is 26.5 times that of Barcelona. That has an enormous impact on the usefulness of the transit systems, Bertaud explains:

Urban densities are not trivial, they severely limit the transport mode choice and change only very slowly. Because of the large differences in densities between Atlanta and Barcelona about the same length of metro line is accessible to 60% of the population in Barcelona but only 4% in Atlanta. The low density of Atlanta render this city improper for rail transit.

Bertaud counts “accessible” as within one-third of a mile of a rail transit station.

Bertaud’s comparison focuses mainly on how low-density development affects one aspect of city life: the efficiency of transit. But there are many, many other ways Atlanta’s spread out nature produces waste, inefficiency, and high costs. Atlanta’s sprawling scale means it needs roads, utilities, and public services that cover 26.5 times as great an area as Barcelona’s public infrastructure and services do. And it means individual people must travel farther — at great personal and environmental expense — as they go about their daily lives.

h/t @joesarling and @m_clem.

58 thoughts on Wowza: Scale Maps of Barcelona and Atlanta Show the Waste of Sprawl

  1. You’re imagining what many people here think. Actually, you’re imagining uniformity of opinion where this none. Many people here are rather ambivalent about Manhattan-style densities. A more typical view on Streetsblog is probably in favor small-scale mixed use urban density (think attached, probably a few stories, probably some storefronts) of the sort you would see in Brooklyn or Portland, generally sans skyscrapers.

    This doesn’t describe everyone, or any stated position of the blog that I am aware of, but many people on Streetsblog NYC and other Streetsblogs, I shit you not, appear to be hostile to subways and rail in general and think new transportation investment should be in pedestrian infrastructure, bikes, and perhaps buses.

    Of course, where both you and the anti-rail people in Streetsblog go wrong, is neither understands that cost-effective heavy rail implementations do not require particularly high densities. Meanwhile, car ownership is itself an expensive and stifling proposition for people of even middle income means.

  2. I appreciate your informative comment for a relative newcomer, about what a broad church Streetsblog is. I can definitely find common ground with some of them. What I try and bring to the argument, is an understanding of the relationship between transport systems and “land rent”, and the dialectics of productivity and social justice that are inherent in them.

    It is a huge mistake to overlook the role in economic and socio-economic development, of people having the freedom to travel from and to any points in the urban economy by a means far faster than their own motive power. I am absolutely not defending over-kill in the form of thirsty SUV’s and 4-acre exclusionary lots; but I do say that ignoring the massive “whole system” advantage that Model T Fords, or modern small super-economical cars, or electric tricycles, or motor scooters, have over fixed-route mass transit, is a huge mistake.

    I also say people today who can get their head around “the whole system” like Henry Ford certainly did in his day, will understand that the solutions that fit with economic inevitability, have to involve a step forward in flexibility, not a step back. For example, I applaud this very new thinking:

    “Dynamically generated” PT routes…….

    Bear in mind that the automobile is the last disruptive
    technology, and some people have still not “got it” about the changes to the “whole system” that occurred because of it. “Automobility” can already be more
    efficient than public transport, period, simply by pursuing a path of adaptation of the “automobile” fleet. The very point that PT vehicles have to set out empty, and reposition near-empty at rush hour, and have a high dead weight per rider, and require a lot of energy to constantly re-accelerate after every frequent stop, and these disadvantages are multiplied by gradients; means that the nice mental pictures some people have of the efficiency of a full PT vehicle at cruising speed, are a total disconnect from the “whole system” reality. It
    is people who can grasp the “whole system”, who come up with things like containerisation in shipping. People who can grasp the “whole system” can see that individual powered surface travel can be more efficient
    than mass powered surface travel.

    There are some very interesting energy efficiency in real life, analyses here:

    Lowson: Energy Use and Sustainability of Transport Systems

    Particularly from page 11 onward

    Sorenson: Assessing Current Vehicle Performance…..

    Note the graph at the top of page 9, and note that the scale is logarithmic……! The low end of the existing efficiency for commuter rail in Europe, is above the low end for currently in-production automobiles.

    Volkswagen Lupo 1.2 diesels (and the Audi equivalent) are the most efficient, even ahead of the “Smart For Two” car. Note that a fairly common Toyota Yaris is one of the most efficient means of humanity getting around. And we are not even talking yet, about proxies for automobility, like electric trikes, or even motor scooters.

    Car ride-sharing systems like Carma, Lyft, and Uber that result in cars with multiple riders, are inherently an order of magnitude more efficient than any mass transit system. I see the time having come, where government involvement in a lot of this is superfluous; they could actually abandon transit altogether, but “public transport” would still exist. Tax breaks and perhaps subsidies that follow riders would still make sense. But the status quo model of mass transit organisation is an obstruction to progress. A consistent approach to solving problems of energy consumption, emissions, and social justice, would actually be clamouring for reform of the current model, not for throwing more money down its profligate maw.

    I would love to hear your argument about how heavy commuter rail can be competitive even without high urban densities.

    Of course driverless cars, if they work out, will cause a massively disruptive break in the entire urban system.

    Thank you for linking to that Streestblog item on “expensive and stifling” car ownership; I have placed my own comment there now:

  3. I think I can find common ground with you – you are very sensible about streets being a necessity (and should not be counted as part of the “subsidy to automobility”).

    The question of “room” is the same, both where there is “no room” for pedestrians and cyclists, and where there is “no room” for expansion of road capacity. It is generally too late to do anything when land space is built-out and the land is high-value. But it is cities with low-value land and plenty to spare that represent the opportunity for retrofitting with improvements. This is why Alex Anas (one of the brightest minds in the world in urban economics) says that smart growth is being “wrongly promoted”. the priority SHOULD be, that smart growth development should end up as an inherently affordable housing option. Townhouses for $1 million absolutely cannot possibly bring savings for anyone, relative to living in Houston. And there is no guarantee that anyone in the city with $1 million townhouses, will be able to choose a nice walkable lifestyle any more than anyone in Houston can.

    Those who do order their lives around a job and a home within walking distance of it, in Houston, will achieve a living cost an order of magnitude below anyone achieving the same thing in a long-time smart-growth-planned city like those of the UK represent.

    I say the solution is to NOT prohibit anything, ESPECIALLY the conversion of rural land to urban use, because this is the guarantee of land in the entire city being low-cost. And so what if there are neighbourhoods where people democratically agree to preserve its character with large lot mandates? The important thing is to get the prices right (of infrastructure use) and to ensure that there ARE choices for those who want to live another way.

    This is where there IS a role for government-led planning. No particular group of people with a particular desire should expect other groups to be deprived of their differing desire, so the only solution is intelligent demarcation of boundaries between the differing types of living. And to maximise the availability of the non-car-dependent lifestyle, these should be expedited on a multi-nodal basis, not limited to more central locations.

    What should be prohibited is not “low density suburbs”, but mandates against housing and accommodation MIXED IN where there are other urban land uses, and mandates against height and density in those mixed-use locations. Among the mistakes of the past, are the decades of prohibition EVERYWHERE against mixtures of accommodation and other land uses, the decades of prohibition on “intelligent use” infill of fragmented land interpersed between splattered suburban developments, and the decades of spending “road” budgets on elevated highways instead of the kind of surface (and trenched, grade-separated) “grid” envisaged by Frank Lloyd Wright.

    The use of green space and landscaping is essential to provide buffers between NIMBYists and development types they regard as undesirable; but any city with fringe growth containment ends up with unacceptably high opportunity cost of space, to allow for this. Ironically, the same high cost of land means that developers desperately try and avoid sacrificing any more space than they can possibly get away with, for footpaths and green space and even intersections, let alone cycle paths. The cul-de-sac is simply a way to cram in saleable lots to recoup excessively high raw land costs.

  4. Not surprised. It’s horrifying that this writer (I hesitate to call her a journalist) missed that fact but didn’t even use common sense. Even traveling from the East to West coasts in the United States, you can see the impact of advancements in central planning, highways, and urban development.

  5. False! I am from there and have lived there for over 20 years. Barcelona has plenty of pedestrian only streets and areas where you can walk around and/or sit and relax without any cars, traffic, or fumes close-by. Obviously, just like if you walk around ANY city, you will walk by traffic and fumes… the thing is you may not see that in Atlanta because you don’t/can’t actually walk, but instead need to drive everywhere, even if you are going from one store to another that is only on the other side of the street!

  6. To be fair, there is a fairly large contingent of (mostly older) people who are all about car-centric urban suburbia. At least in my city (Austin, TX) these people wield an inordinate amount of political influence because they have the time to attend every public hearing on some zoning change in order to complain. The urbanist agenda is mired in the same political dilemma as the larger political landscape: most people don’t vote, and don’t participate, so the conservative zealots win by just showing up.

  7. I have been living in the States for 12 years. Living here without a car is like being a prisoner in your own home. I do not want the cramped narrow homes of London; I do like that our houses are more spacious. I wish we could have some sort of urban design intermediate to that of Europe and modern-day America. Perhaps we could reduce the required setback from the street and have every 10 or so blocks have a small public square. I agree with you that everything is about maintaining the status quo. I live in a city with literally a hundred gated communities; it is horrible for children because they grow up in front of their electronics since they have nowhere else to go. Old people live in Century Village and take a bus to Kmart…it would be so much better if they could just walk to a park (and not a giant park that requires admission and driving).

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