Do Atlanta Residents Value Transit More than Houstonians?

Ryan Holeywell | @RyanHoleywell | October 28, 2016

Image via flickr/Steve Harwood.

Image via flickr/Steve Harwood.

Atlanta and Houston are nearly 700 miles apart, and they have a lot of major differences.

Houston is a much bigger city — almost four times the size of Atlanta.

Their demographics are different too. Atlanta’s African-American population is almost twice as large as Houston’s, while Houston’s Hispanic population is almost three times as large as Atlanta’s.

But they have a lot in common, too: They’re both blue cities in the middle of red states. They both have thriving medical industries. And they’re both big, sprawling regions that boomed in the age of the automobile — and are now increasingly pursuing alternative forms of transportation.

And it turns out — unsurprisingly — residents of both cities are sick and tired of traffic. But they have different visions about how to address it.

In the latest “Metro Atlanta Speaks” survey, published Friday afternoon, 25 percent of metro Atlanta residents said the biggest problem facing their region is transportation. It just eked out crime (23 percent) as the top concern, followed by the economy (12 percent).

If those survey questions sound familiar, we noticed the similarity too. The study asks residents of the Atlanta area many of the same questions as the Kinder Houston Area Survey, which was released this spring. In Houston, perhaps unsurprisingly, traffic was is also the top concern of residents in this year’s survey. Thirty percent of Houstonians labeled it the area’s biggest problem. It beat out the economy (21 percent) an crime (20 percent).

The Atlanta survey is conducted for the Atlanta Regional Commission by the A.L. Burruss Institute of Public Service and Research at Kennesaw State University. It includes responses from more than 5,400 people across 13 counties in the Atlanta region.

Both Atlanta and Houston are taking steps to address that challenge through transit. In Houston, for example, two new light-rail lines debuted last year, as did an overhaul of the area’s bus network. Meanwhile, in Atlanta, voters will decide on Election Day whether to approve sales tax hikes that would support an expansion of the city’s bike-share program, new light-rail lines, and expanded heavy rail, among other transit upgrades.

But the results of the two surveys may suggest Atlantans are a bit more enthusiastic about transit than Houstonians.

About 73.5 percent of Atlantans called transit “very important” in the new survey.  That’s compared to 59 percent of Houston-area respondents, who said in a 2014 survey that an improved mass-transit systems is “very important” to the success of the city.

We can view the issue through the lens of spending, too. The Atlanta survey asked respondents about the best way to fix traffic. About 43 percent of Atlanta-area respondents said transit expansion would be the best way to fix traffic, compared to 32 percent of Atlantans who favored improved roads and highways.

In Houston, residents were asked a similar question in 2014: “Which of these would be better for the Houston area: spending more taxpayer money to improve rail and buses, or spending more taxpayer money to expand existing highways?” Support was split almost evenly, with 49 percent of Houstonians favoring the transit improvements, compared to 46 percent favoring highway work.

In other words, nearly half of Houstonians want to focus on highways, compared to less than a third of Atlantans. (The comparison between questions isn’t perfect, however, because Atlantans were offered two additional options — building communities closer to jobs, and doing nothing).

One reason for the discrepancy between cities may be the extent to which Atlantans rely on transit. In Atlanta, almost 30 percent of respondents said they frequently lack transportation to get to places they need to go. That’s important, because Atlanta has been called the most sprawling region in the country. In an area designed for cars, many residents don’t have reliable access to one.

The Houston survey doesn’t ask a similar question. But Census data can shed light on the situation. Few residents of either region rely on transit to get to work, but Atlantans use it more. About 3.1 percent of Atlanta-area residents commute via transit, compared to 2.4 percent of Houstonians.

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