Who’s to Blame for Drive-to-Urbanism?

New apartments in northwest Atlanta have a walkable footprint but are disconnected from transit. Photo: Darin Givens
New apartments in northwest Atlanta have a walkable footprint but are disconnected from transit. Photo: Darin Givens

When the real estate world tries to deliver walkability, many times the result is better classified as “drive-to-urbanism.”

These developments have the trappings of a walkable place: sidewalks, street trees, compact form with a mix of retail and residential. But it’s still very difficult to get there without a car.

Atlanta is full of these kinds of developments. At Atlanta the City, Darin Givens posted some photos illustrating how a place that should be transit-accessible can still be disconnected unless you drive. This apartment complex in northwest Atlanta looks very walkable, Givens says, but that’s a facade:

The apartments end up only having a sheen of city-ness about them by being up against a nice sidewalk. In reality, I doubt anyone’s walking here, and with the lack of bike lanes, very few are cycling. It may look urban, but mobility behavior is bound to be suburban.

It’s not the developer’s fault. This is the available property that made financial sense to them and they likely followed code with the build out. Blame the city for not having a system for getting new developments aligned with connective pedestrian infrastructure (note that sidewalk maintenance is the responsibility of property owners in Atlanta, while car lanes are publicly funded).

And when we see stats that show a decline in MARTA ridership despite a significant rise in intown population over the last few years, that’s partly the city’s fault as well. We’re not supplying a pedestrian experience — for getting to and from bus stops — that’s able to compete with car ridership. When transit is unable to compete, cars win. No matter how urban the form of an individual structure is, it will struggle to be anything other than a drive-to destination.

Here’s a shot of the closest bus stop:

Photo: Darin Givens
Photo: Darin Givens

Of course, superficial walkability comes in many forms. Outside of urban areas, “lifestyle center” malls built on greenfield sites in distant suburbs are another classic example of drive-to-urbanism. At places like Easton Town Center, outside of Columbus, Ohio, customers can walk from store to store, but the only way to get there is by car.

More recommended reading today: The Transportist proposes a rule of thumb for urban streets — never have more than two lanes carrying general traffic in the same direction. And Reno Rambler considers why small and mid-sized American cities are having a hard time making bike-share systems viable.

36 thoughts on Who’s to Blame for Drive-to-Urbanism?

  1. It’s a catch-22, that’s what it is.

    While it may be unfortunate that you need a car to live most places, it’s also true that the great majority of people outside of a few urban meccas want to have cars and be able to drive wherever they wish and need to.

    It’s all about the money; always is. Those who wish to drive are willing to buy their own car, pay the maintenance, insurance etc as well as the tax funded subsidy for providing and maintaining the roads. In contrast the tax funded subsidies needed to provide much better transit are magnitudes higher and voters are more resistant. We vote our pocketbooks.

  2. It all has to do with the economics of these buildings. Developers need to fit in a 2 stairwells and an elevator. Plus, in most places in the US, residents want between 0.5-1 off-street parking spot per unit. To provide all this in form that is 1) profitable to the developer, 2) market rate to the consumer (hard to do since previous generations didn’t have all these requirements…) and 3) able to be financed, developers seem to have realized that they need to build a 4-7 story apartment building using cheaper wood frame construction over a concrete slab. These buildings can have surface-level garage parking on the first floor, wrapped by a veneer of street facing retail, while complying with the laundry list of government regulations.

    This is the design of our current regulatory era. In the city, they can work relatively well. I’ve seen dozens of buildings like these with the first floor parking and wrap around retail.


    It’s not the most lovable design, but it’s an improvement over the isolated towers in the park designs of the 1960s or the motel-style garden apartments of the 1970s & 80s.

  3. My area has some egregious examples as well in San Ramon especially. Famed architect Renzo Piano’s experiment in urbanizing the suburbs is a car chocked debacle. Look at the first link and the pedestrian street scenes made up by marketing. Then look at the link to the parking empire being built there.

    So many cars are expected that they are expanding the nearby lanes into a SIX lane arterial for one block. This was required by the city. As part of the lane widening the bus stop will be closed. The next closest is almost 1/2 mile away. A direct access HOV ramp was planned in the area but somehow it was stopped by the neighbors due to….crime?


  4. Really the problem comes down to density and the fact that the US (through its collective zoning regulations) has outlawed the building of cities. I highly doubt there is any place in the US where you have 10,000 people distributed over 10 contiguous city blocks (the density of moderately dense neighborhoods in cities like SF or NYC) and you don’t have sidewalks. Upgrading the walk-ability, bicycle and transit infrastructure in suburban like environments is costly and of limited practical value since the dispersion demands that most trips be conducted by car, even though I believe it’s definitely worth the costs.

  5. The subsidies needed to provide good transit are orders of magnitude *lower* than providing highways, and in the US, the driver does not pay for this cost. They pay less than half of it. So whether or not you think that people “need” cars most places (which is false)- if you say the only way to be fair is to let the money decide, then by all means, remove all transportation subsidies and watch transit and bike usage explode

  6. Don’t forget: 4) approved by city council while avoiding Nimbys. In many cases just due to the ‘possible’ fear they will get pushback they remove allowable density and provide more parking than required.

    This Silicon Valley site a block from a commuter rail station and many bus lines got watered down to a pretty standard drive to urbanism site even though they allowed 10 stories and required far less parking. They even got FTA funding for TOD!


  7. “it’s also true that the great majority of people outside of a few urban
    meccas want to have cars and be able to drive wherever they wish and
    need to”

    Most Americans live in places where you HAVE to drive. I’m really sick of people taking the fact that people respond by by making the rational decision to get a car when they live a place that is not designed for anything other than getting around via car, and trying to cite it as evidence of some revealed preference regarding car ownership.

    “Those who wish to drive are willing to buy their own car, pay the
    maintenance, insurance etc as well as the tax funded subsidy for
    providing and maintaining the roads. In contrast the tax funded
    subsidies needed to provide much better transit are magnitudes higher
    and voters are more resistant. We vote our pocketbooks.”

    Ah yes, the classic “drivers are largely self-sufficient and transit riders are handout-seeking mooches” canard. Driving is massively subsidized, not to mention the knock-on costs from things like the carnage that results from mass motoring.

  8. Not particularly. The cost of maintaining the Interstate system has ballooned to many times the cost of building it, even after adjusting for inflation. Those roads weren’t cheap, either. However, we initially could ignore this because drivers at that time paid nearly 3/4 of the costs of building and maintaining the road system, and we had a very high return on investment; now, drivers pay 2/5 of the cost of building and maitaining the roads, and they have a near zero return investment. Modern Road-Building is wasteful.

  9. I suspect you both are tarnished by a biased agenda brush. I assume your 2/5 reflects fuel tax collections. That’s a Republican tax allergy and largely irrelevant since all road construction and maintenance is supported by the great majority who drive. They are taxpayers and voters and approve of the tax-funded ‘subsidy’ of roads. It’s no different from voters who support tax-funded subsidy of transit (even if they themselves don’t use transit) which is absolutely magnitudes higher.

  10. Both forms of transportation are ‘massively’ subsidized as tax-funded ‘subsidies’ pay for both. Other than for the ‘massively’ larger road network the capital and operating costs of transit are massively higher… per mile. Sadly, in fact, I understand the the capital costs of transit have been jumping like a jackrabbit of late. Transit operating costs are also under increasing stress.

  11. Bogus. There are so many reasons the two are not directly comparable. But anyway, highway construction costs anywhere from $5-15 million per mile capital costs, and resurfaced every 10-25 years at a cost of $1-3 million per mile, in addition to all other maintenance costs (NYS Thruway has an operating budget in the billions per year). American-speed rail has a capital cost of $2-4 million per mile, higher speed rail around $6-15 million per mile. Rail needs little maintenance, and distance rail often actually makes profit globally. Remove all transportation subsidies and watch transit dominate

  12. 2/5 includes all taxes , tolls,and fees collected. The American driver pays just over 40% of the cost of his driving. The subsidy to drivers is nearly $100 billion dollars per year to individual drivers, and that is fact, you can’t argue it

  13. Six lanes is a pretty generous interpretation. Isn’t Bollinger Canyon 10+ lanes wide? Four through lanes in each direction plus double pocket left and pocket right? It’s 135 feet curb-to-curb for anyone stupid enough to cross the street.

    Bishop Ranch is such a danger to our future I think it should be shelled under the authority of AB-32.

  14. I would actually disagree that the NIMBYs are having much of an effect on these projects. 1) These things are popping up like mushrooms after a spring rain, 2) there’s a huge amount of derelict property in this country relative to other first world nations – decommissioned industrial land, old municipal property re-developed through backroom PPP deals, deeply depressed urban neighborhoods, downtown surface parking lots, etc. For example, Boston has a huge agglomeration of this stuff adjacent to downtown on what was a massive expanse of former train yard turn dust lot parking. DC has a mostly decommissioned Navy Yard within a 3-wood of the Capitol that opened up 40+ acres all getting built like this. Most of the rust belt cities tore down all of their downtown residential properties in mid-century acts of massive stupidity (and “urban renewal”) so there are simply are no neighbors to even fight these battles. Given the ease & availability of these properties, I don’t think the last couple decades of development in places like Boston or DC would have occurred in the NIMBY-rich locales like Beacon Hill or Georgetown either way.

    In my experience, the NIMBYs tend to waste most of their energy fighting neighbors over the colors of each other’s shutters but to-date have been pretty ineffectual against this type of development. Outside of the cities, the constituencies seem to be so growth hungry they’ll let nearly any project happen so long as they adhere to some superficial atheistic guidelines usually requiring some stone facing and a ridiculous strip of landscaping separating the building from the sidewalk.

  15. My goodness! Just the sheer amount of real estate given over to parking in the area bounded by Fostoria, 680, Ascot, and Alcosta is astounding. I thought San Ramon was expensive?

  16. Density isn’t the problem, car supremacy is. It’s not like upgrading the roads to handle the increase in car traffic is any cheaper than building sidewalks and bikeways, especially when the latter could be included as part of the former.

  17. We seem to have a failure to communicate. Let me rephrase.

    It seems as though you think users ie drivers should pay for all of the costs. That being the case can I assume you feel all transit users (only) should be responsible for transit instead of all taxpayers as is usually the case?

  18. Sounds like construction costs; I prefer project costs. Start a light rail project today and you’d be hard pressed to stay under $200 million per mile.

    Speaking of needing little maintenance, WMATA knows all about that.

  19. Whether or not transit is more or less expensive per passenger-mile than driving depends heavily on the type of transit we’re talking about. High-ridership services are actually quite efficient and can definitely be less expensive than private cars. Low-ridership services intended as a stop-gap for people who can’t drive (or can’t afford to), like hourly suburban bus routes, are indeed typically much less efficient, but the whole point of those routes is to be social spending for non-drivers, so private cars wouldn’t be an effective substitute here. (The amount of this service that is necessary also depends on how dense and walkable the community is.)

    You can see a similar dynamic at work with Amtrak. The routes around the Northeast Corridor actually make money, because they’re very high-ridership and offer advantages over driving for commuters and other travelers. The other lines are mostly not profitable (one or two about break even, like the STL-KC route), but they only exist in the first place because of mandates to provide *some* bare-minimum rail alternative across sparsely populated areas of the country. You can agree or disagree with that decision, but it’s not evidence against the cost-effectiveness of all transit everywhere.

  20. That is seriously a traffic sewer I know. Sunset is slated to get a new lane with turn pockets too. I think San Ramon has the biggest turn pockets I have ever seen outside of South Bay expressways. Luckily there are plans for a pedestrian bridge at the Iron Horse Trail over Bollinger.

    I used to think that lane capacity could be useful later for reclaiming road space for HOV/BRT lanes but I now have accepted the truth that the city has no plans to ever have enough density for that level of transit infrastructure to make sense. If you really want to be bummed about about dumb growth, check out the “Faria Preserve” development on virgin land above Crow Canyon. Sadly that was zoned for much more density and multi-family.


  21. The amount of land given over to highway 680 is pretty gross, plus, it fouls the air in the entire valley.

  22. My two cents: developers may utilize the terminology–walkability, transit-oriented, density, etc.–but they don’t care one whit for the ideas in practice. They will build what they will build, wherever they may build it.

  23. Woodstock and Canton, GA are prime examples of this drive-to urbanism. Was once staying near Holly Springs and was nearly left stranded due to sparse transit access. All I can say is, Lyft was my lifeline in Georgia.

  24. True, but that is a much better investment that doesn’t bring the externalities of highways with traffic and foul air. That light rail station can carry more people per hour that its requisite lane width for a freeway and can do all sorts of aerials and tunneling that would be much more expensive than a similar freeway alignment. Highways in urban areas cost much more than average. Ever heard of the Big Dig? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Dig

    If that project was today, maybe someone would be wise enough to just remove the freeway, replace it with a modern boulevard, and build a 4 track tunnel under it at least for the downtown 93 portion.

  25. How did you factor the ‘cost of driving’? I have been trying to nail down the periferal but direct costs in the form of policing, medical emergencies and subsequent hospitalization (not even trying to delve deeper into health issues and loss of wages)…

    I suspect the often cited ‘around half’ is not including any of these direct costs.

  26. when the primary market for ‘urbanism’ is affluent renters and wealthier shoppers then they don’t have an insenstve to build near transit because most of the customers can afford a car, especially if retail customers are mainly suburbanites who don’t live near transit. They want to be able to get from their house to a walkable place and the only way they can do that is by car. They have decided that they like visiting urban places but not living there.

    I’d a least say that drive to urbanism is better than drive to strip malls. At least people can drive to one location park and walk between stores instead of having to drive between ever location.

  27. Cities don’t want to build sidewalks and pay for transit without the accompanying density.
    sometimes drive to urbanism is the first step to true walkable urbanism. the issue is that there is no regional vision with enforcement that considers land use and transportation together. Developers build wherever they can and then its up to the transportaiton agencies to build the roads and provide the transit later.

  28. You’re right, those costs I mentioned are purely infrastructure. Don’t take into account any of the health, emergency response, environmental, etc costs that are harder to measure. I’d be interested to know, if you ever come up with some Numbers

  29. Light rail is more expensive that long distance because of right of ways. But anyway, your point is the same for highways. An utterly ridiculous, useless, and wasteful widening of the van wyck expy in suburbia, NY, is expected to cost roughly $150 million per mile when all is said and done. For just widening, not even new construction. This short and idiotic project, if axed, could nearly halfway pay for implementing higher speed rail on the entire NYS rail corridor

  30. I couldn’t disagree due to ignorance (lack of knowledge). I understand little about NYC. Only thing I’m familiar with is the DC Silver Line Phase 2 project which will cost a little less that $600 million per mile. If you were to start that project today I’m told you could add easily 20% to that cost.

    I live west of the Mississippi (Denver) so my $200 cost per mile is relevant to that area and places like Charlotte. The NE corridor is within its own crazy world. 🙂

  31. Personally I would open the transportation market to any and all alternatives and let the private sector sort it out for starters.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Moving Beyond “Drive-to Urbanism”

What do you call a place where you can walk once you get there, but most people arrive in a car? Atlanta has plenty of these places, which Darin Givens at ATL Urbanist calls “drive-to urbanism.” Givens interviewed Atlanta planning commissioner Tim Keane on the subject. Here’s what Keane had to say about how Atlanta can get beyond “drive-to urbanism.” […]
The Garnett MARTA station in downtown Atlanta, surrounded by parking

A Fixation on Parking Threatens Transit Progress in Atlanta

Darin Givens is frustrated with how Atlanta is planning for the future. “We don’t feel like the city is building transit that fits needs, or places that fit transit,” says the founder of local advocacy site Thread ATL. “You see nodes of density nowhere near transit, located nowhere near a MARTA station or a regular MARTA bus. We’re not matching development and transit.”

Leinberger: Walkable Urbanism Is the Future, and DC Is the Model

Chris Leinberger wears too many hats to count – real estate developer, George Washington University professor, Brookings fellow – but he has one message: “Walkable urbanism is the future.” For years now, Leinberger has been preaching the gospel that the postwar era of automobile-oriented “drivable suburbanism” is over – and urbanism is the new wave. […]

The Regions With the Most Potential to Build New Walkable Development

To get the economy humming again, America’s metro regions need to build more walkable places, according to a new report from a coalition of real estate developers. The report from LOCUS [PDF], a group of developers and real estate investors who specialize in building walkable projects, examines which regions are seeing the fastest growth in walkable urban […]

Livable Streets or Tall Buildings? Cities Can Have Both

Kaid Benfield’s new blog post on density is getting a lot of buzz over at NRDC’s Switchboard blog. Benfield, a planner/lawyer/professor/writer who co-founded both LEED’s Neighborhood Development rating system and the Smart Growth America coalition, has some serious street cred when it comes to these matters. And on this one, he’s with Danish architect Jan Gehl, […]