Atlanta study pinpoints benefits of compact growth

Report suggests policies that would make it more expensive for households to add extra vehicles.

Many people in metropolitan Atlanta would like to live in walkable neighborhoods, but not enough such neighborhoods are being built, says a comprehensive study produced by researchers led by Dr. Larry Frank. “In all, about a third of metro Atlantans living in conventional development would have preferred a more walkable environment, but apparently traded it off for other reasons such as affordability, school quality, or perception of crime,” says the report,

“New Data for a New Era: A Summary of the SMARTRAQ Findings.” The latest findings, released in January, are the culmination of a study that Frank, now a professor at the University of British Columbia, began in 1997 when he was at Georgia Tech. The $4.5 million multidisciplinary study is described by Frank as the most comprehensive and integrated regional exploration ever undertaken of the connections among residential preferences, development patterns, traffic congestion, mobility, air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, and health problems, such as obesity.

Residents of greater Atlanta drive more miles per day than people in most other regions of the US. About 60 percent of those surveyed said they are unable to walk to nearby shops and services. Only about one in 20 homes is considered to be in a compact, walkable neighborhood. This pattern encourages obesity. “A typical white male living in a compact community with nearby shops and services is expected to weigh ten pounds less than a similar white male living in a low-density, residential-only cul-de-sac subdivision,” the report states.

Residents of the most walkable areas in greater Atlanta were about 2.4 times more likely to achieve recommended physical activity levels than were residents of the region’s least walkable areas. The study linked neighborhood walkability to lower air pollution, lower carbon dioxide emissions, reduced household gasoline expenditures, and better health. Findings showed that youths who had open space and commercial services within half a mile of home were much more likely to walk. Youths from households with two rather than three vehicles were also more likely to walk; the researchers cited that finding to suggest the potential benefit of instituting policies that increase the incremental cost of additional household vehicles.

David Goldberg of Smart Growth America, who helped write the report, told New Urban News that Atlantans are beginning to take arguments about development patterns and their effects seriously — a change that could lead to public policies encouraging compact, walkable communities. The Atlanta region “doesn’t have real extremes of density,” Goldberg noted, “but even within the limited spectrum of density and mixed-use and urbanity, the study showed a pretty dramatic difference — 30 percent less driving on weekdays and 40 percent less driving on weekends.” The study showed that on average, residents of the more walkable areas saved at least $650 a year on fuel costs.

For more on the study, how it came about, and possible policy implications, see Seattle study A three-year study published in the March issue of American Journal of Public Health found that walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods are key to getting the elderly to walk. Walkability depended on the distance to stores, length of blocks, and perceived safety. The study tracked 936 members of the Seattle-based health plan Group Health Cooperative, who ranged in age from 65 to 97. Data about their walking habits was combined geographic information on where they live.