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Atlanta’s population density: are ‘we full’?

Traffic may fool you into thinking Atlanta is more packed with people than it is, but car congestion does not equal high population density.

If you think Los Angeles County is on the same level of car-centric sprawl as Atlanta, think again. According to the Equal Population Mapper, LA County has put 9.8 million people in 4.7k square miles, whereas — as you can see in the above image —  the multi-county Atlanta region doesn’t house nearly that many people. You have to capture an area well beyond the region and stretching into Tennessee and Alabama, over 43k square miles total, to accumulate that many people within a boundary around Atlanta given its level of population density.

Slate posted in 2014 about this cool mapping tool, created in-house for comparing density in urban areas. According to the post: “The population data come from the 2010 census, and the square mileage was calculated by summing each highlighted county’s total area.” The tool and its data are both several years old at this point, but nonetheless still valuable since we’re just looking at big-picture populations and not minutiae.

As you may expect, the difference in the amount of space New York City takes to house over 8 million people and the space to do so in the region around Atlanta is even more stark.

Suburban-level density in the city

Using a different mapping tool that allows you to type in ZIP Codes to see demographic and lifestyle information, I was able to produce this map of Atlanta’s population density (see a larger version). Not a single zip code in Atlanta qualifies as Urban or Metropolis by this tool’s measure. Most of the city — and I’m talking about intown, City of Atlanta — ranks as Suburban.

How did this happen here? The truth is that our low-ish density was very much designed. To learn details on the way that government policies shaped the suburban nature of Atlanta, read this great post on the Atlanta Studies site called “Atlanta’s War on Density.” It does an excellent job at detailing the intentional land-use changes that formed our suburban-style city density.

Are we full? Car-centric design makes it look that way

There’s a popular, funny meme in Atlanta that shows traffic on I-75/85 through Midtown, with the caption: “stop moving to Atlanta / we full.”

Even though it’s based on a false assumption about our population, it’s still a pretty hilarious meme to me, because I understand that it’s coming from a very genuine place of frustration over some significant planning problems. It’s just that those problems are really more about roads and urban fabric than the number of people living intown.

Traffic congestion on the interstate doesn’t prove that the city is filled to capacity with residents. In light of our relatively low density, it only proves that the interstate is full of cars driven by people who lack alternatives. An analysis of data from 371 transit providers in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas reveals that the Atlanta region has one of the lowest levels of public-transit connectivity to jobs in the US.

And that lack of alternatives is due not just to transit service but also to a car-centric built environment that makes transit harder to design and use than it should be. Being spread out to in a car-centric way means that transit systems in the region have a hard time serving the population. In Stranded by Sprawl, Paul Krugman of the NY Times wrote:

“In Atlanta poor and rich neighborhoods are far apart because, basically, everything is far apart; Atlanta is the Sultan of Sprawl, even more spread out than other major Sun Belt cities. This would make an effective public transportation system nearly impossible to operate even if politicians were willing to pay for it, which they aren’t.”

The design problem and its solution

In 2016, Atlanta Magazine published an excerpt from Ryan Gravel’s book (Gravel is the mastermind of the Atlanta Beltline). This passage speaks to the way our personal transportation options — or lack thereof — shape our shared spaces:

Locally and nationally, as the private market began providing people with the auto-oriented communities they wanted, and as governments supported that development with subsidized home loans and publicly funded roadways, we began an astounding new chapter of city building in this country that has resulted in, among other things, the majority of Americans being dependent exclusively on automobiles not only for their jobs but for their very existence.

Atlanta’s war on density is a well documented part of our past, but it doesn’t have to be our future. The City of Atlanta is in the middle of a zoning code rewrite that looks like it will make the city a much more urban place in form, with a focus on walkable density. And as has often happened, urban successes in the center city will likely spur some competitive spirit in the rest of the region, as they follow that lead.

The fact that Mayor Bottoms has apparently decided to keep Tim Keane in his role as the city’s planning chief, in itself, is cause for optimism about a more urban-appropriate level of design for the city’s future. Consider this quote from Keane about the city’s current zoning ordinance:

“The concepts in the 35-year-old ordinance were very, very suburban, in that a fundamental expectation was that people would drive to do everything and park directly in front of where they wanted to be. It bears very little resemblance to Atlanta today and the way we want to become more urban.”

Becoming more urban certainly sounds like a good goal for Atlanta.


On Twitter, a reader mentioned that it seems like we’ve been in the middle of a zoning ordinance rewrite for a few years now (as mentioned in the post).

It is indeed a long process, but it’s worth the wait. And luckily there are some tactical “quick fix” changes that can be implemented soon-ish after they’re OK’d. Here’s a list of those, within the current rewrite proposal.