Sustainable Southern Systems: Developing Mass-Transit Solutions for the American Southeast

By John Clayton

The Southeastern US continues to see significant population growth, clustered not just in large cities such as Dallas, Atlanta, or Houston, but increasingly in mid-scale cities such as Charlotte, Austin, and the Research Triangle region. Migrants to the region are pulled by a relatively high quality of life at a low price tag, fueled by large inventories of cheap housing. When coupled with a lack of natural land barriers, denser development is inherently discouraged in favor of massive urban sprawl. As the attached graphic shows, Atlanta is home to a population roughly equivalent to Barcelona’s, yet has a 20x larger geographical footprint. Raleigh has an average density of 4 people per square hectare compared to Barcelona’s 176 people. Given such sprawl, what type of transit solution could possibly work?

As we discussed in the Bogota TransMilenio case, large metros work well and can be sustainably financed in a handful of mega-cities (Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore), particularly when strong government can derive additional funding sources from rising land values around metro stations. BRT systems offer less capital-intensive solutions, but may be less palatable to a population with high car ownership rates. Light rail is a lower-cost alternative to heavy-rail systems in major urban areas, both less expensive than traditional metro systems yet differentiated enough from existing transit options to convert drivers.

Applying light rail transit systems to less dense cities, however, is tricky: it requires connecting existing higher-density nodes (universities, shopping complexes, downtowns) with green- or brownfield spaces that can channel future high-density development. Charlotte’s new Lynx light rail system offers an excellent example of the ideal mix of transit stations: it connects highly-trafficked areas such as Uptown, the convention center, and Southpark Mall, with previously undeveloped tracts of land; it then worked with developers to incentivize the construction of residential, commercial, and retail units around each station.

Assuming a city finds a suitable transit system, the most significant obstacle still remains: the financing hurdle. Faced with a populace generally skeptical of increased taxes and local government largesse, cities should turn to innovative financing schemes to help offset the infrastructure and operating costs. As our discussion of Hong Kong’s system highlighted, planned urban infill offers three key benefits: 1) it builds city density, thereby reducing sprawl; 2) it clusters residents around the transit stations, diverting more traffic and increasing ridership rates; and 3) it causes land values in surrounding areas to appreciate.

To harness this financing opportunity, cities should design transit systems that both connect high-traffic areas and traverse undeveloped land tracts, then enter into public-private partnerships with developers to build high-density mixed-use neighborhoods. Such collaboration would not only allow governments to capture a slice of increased land values, but also directly influence features such as below-market housing units and city infrastructure such as schools.

Of course, such a partnership would have its share of skeptics. Many Southerners are skeptical in general of government involvement in projects and unfamiliar with PPP schemes, and could perceive a government conflict of interest in development promotion. These concerns could be assuaged by a public relations campaign and consultations with PPP experts. Coupled with long-term development plans that continue to prioritize smarter, higher-density development, Southern cities from low-density sprawling giants to sustainable transit meccas.

Clayton Atlanta Barcelona


Comparison of the geographic footprint of Atlanta and Barcelona (source: Alain Bertaud,