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For Immediate Release
April 19, 2001

America's Auto-Dependent Urban Form: Researchers in Atlanta studying land use and transportation alternatives to decrease traffic congestion and improve quality of life.

Workers and residents of Midtown Atlanta often walking to lunch and work to get exercise and avoid traffic jams. A Georgia Tech-based transportation study called SMARTRAQ will track such travel behavior.

Photo by Gary Meek (300-dpi JPEG version)

Out of Atlanta's challenge to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution is emerging a comprehensive new study to determine what types of land use and transportation investment policies have the best chance to reduce auto dependence.

With that goal in mind, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are also hoping to find solutions that promote economic, environmental and individual health in the study region of metropolitan Atlanta.

"We want to have a better understanding of the implications of how land use and transportation investment practices converge to ultimately affect our mobility, our time use patterns, quality of life, our health and our air quality," says Larry Frank, an assistant professor of city planning in the Georgia Tech College of Architecture.

Palm Pilots and handheld Global Positioning System units will help researchers track travel patterns of some participants in Georgia Tech's SMARTRAQ transportation study..

Photo by Gary Meek (300-dpi JPEG version)

Frank is leading a detailed survey project that for the first time integrates travel and health information into one study. He says the study is creating a model and methodology that researchers can apply to other cities.

In this study, called SMARTRAQ -- which stands for Strategies for Metropolitan Atlanta's Regional Transportation and Air Quality -- residents of 8,000 metro Atlanta households are voicing their opinions in several activity-based surveys. "That means we are capturing over a two-day period a snapshot of how people use their time," Frank explains.

The surveys began earlier this spring and will continue through the end of the year. Data analysis will take most of next year. Then policymakers plan to use the study results to plan transportation initiatives that may reduce traffic congestion in the region.

The $4 million project is sponsored by the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA), which also granted $1.3 million to the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) to hire a survey firm. Other organizations have also supported parts of the project; they include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Environmental Protection Agency, the Turner Foundation and the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.

This spring, the Texas-based survey firm NuStats began recruiting survey participants at random from five residential density categories -- ranging from up to two residences per acre to more than eight per acre -- in the 13-county metro area. Researchers are collecting demographic information and asking survey participants to complete a two-day travel and activity diary, a household and vehicle survey, and a personal survey. The diary will chart activities that require travel. The surveys will gather information and opinions on issues such as residential choice and public transportation.

Larry Frank, an assistant professor of city planning in the Georgia Tech College of Architecture, is heading the SMARTRAQ study.

Photo by Stanley Leary (300-dpi JPEG version)

Researchers believe many residents will gladly cooperate because it could affect their future. "The real benefit gained from participating is having your voice heard," says Heather Contrino, research director for NuStats. "This data will be used directly by ARC, GRTA and GDOT to support informed planning and decision-making."

Researchers are making a concerted effort to recruit participants that are traditionally under-served and hard to reach; these include low-income households, African Americans, Hispanics and Asians, explains SMARTRAQ researcher Jim Chapman. Members of Atlanta's environmental justice community have assisted researchers by evaluating survey materials and protocols for recruiting participants.

Some of the study participants will also be recruited into one of three sub-surveys. A group of 1,500 will complete more detailed surveys about their attitudes and preferences for residential location. "Basically, that will define the market for less auto-dependent development patterns," Frank explains.

The other two sub-surveys are technologically supported with Global Positioning System (GPS) equipment. A group of 1,100 participants will have GPS devices installed in their vehicles so researchers can accurately track miles traveled. They will compare the GPS data with travel diary information to create "error correction factors or ways that help overcome any bias in the way data is collected," Frank explains.

The third sub-survey tracks physical activity. A group of 1,000 households will complete a health survey and physical activity diary. The survey will ask, for example, how active they are, how they feel, what their attitudes are about walking and bicycling, what factors they perceive as impairing them from physical activity and the level of social interaction within their communities.

Atlanta's rush-hour traffic often snarls on the downtown connector highway. Results from Georgia Tech's SMARTRAQ study will shed insight on transportation investment policies that have the best chance to reduce auto dependence.

Photo by Stanley Leary (300-dpi JPEG version)

"This information will be an umbrella for two sub-surveys," Frank explains. "Five hundred households will be equipped with Palm Pilots and handheld GPS devices. The Palm Pilots will serve as electronic diaries, so we will be testing the ability to collect this data electronically…. The Palm Pilot will be hooked to the GPS device, so if a participant reports going to the store, we'll know exactly how far they walked, how fast they walked, etc."

Another 500 participants will be equipped with accelerometers, which measure rate of motion, and researchers can convert that measure to caloric consumption. These devices are widely used by the CDC throughout the world. Participants will wear the devices during the two-day survey period while they are completing a travel diary.

Results of the SMARTRAQ study may shed insight on Frank's earlier finding from research in Seattle and Atlanta suggesting that the more interconnected, compact and inter-mixed development is, the less auto-dependent and more physically active its residents are.

"We need places that have proximity to complementary uses -- where we live, work and play, or at least two of those," Frank explains. "But it's not just closeness, you also have to have connectivity…. Often, people live at the end of the cul-de-sac, while just over there through the woods and the ravine is commercial development, but you can't get there without driving…. We've created an irrational approach to using our land that requires us to use our cars. That means there is usually 'a cold start' of the car, which is highly polluting travel, to go just a short distance. Yet that distance is walkable."

Frank suggests that one option might be for neighborhoods to work with local governments to build sidewalks through the end of cul-de-sacs to adjacent commercial developments. In return, local governments could buy a parcel of land in or adjacent to the neighborhood and give residents a park where they can become more physically active.

Perhaps even before this strategy is implemented, the issue of connectivity between where people work and shop or eat lunch should be addressed, Frank says.

"It really is an added burden and expense when people have to leave work in the middle of the day to drive to lunch or the Post Office," Frank says. "I believe we can get people comfortable with this concept of connectivity by first making our employment centers more walkable. We have to ease into this change. So you go to a place like Perimeter Center (near I-285 on the north side of Atlanta) and invest money to retrofit it to make it more walkable. Then people become more comfortable with it. Then more high-density residential can be attracted into those areas."

Frank believes the SMARTRAQ surveys will show that many people are interested in living in a high-density residential area. They want to be near good schools, parks, shops and services, Frank says.

"But people in metro Atlanta have traditionally traded off living closer to their jobs for having reasonable schools, a comfortable home and spending a lot of time in their cars," Frank says. "So my hypothesis is that there is a latent demand for a less auto-dependant urban form. There is a potentially big market out there."

Ideas such as these are part of a SMARTRAQ effort to educate policymakers, developers and individuals about the consequences of their decisions, says researcher Peter Engelke. Among SMARTRAQ's efforts are staff presentations to interested groups, a newsletter, Web site ( and a "lessons learned" guidebook related to smart growth.

Innovative land use and transportation investment practices could stem from SMARTRAQ as policymakers begin to use the study results. For example, the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) will use SMARTRAQ data to update its travel models and create a new, multi-year Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) for the Atlanta area. The RTP is the principal tool used in revising the region's annual Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), explains Charles Fleming, technology information director for GRTA. The TIP is a list of transportation projects that must be approved by state and federal officials.

In addition, the ARC will match SMARTRAQ survey data with land use data to develop models for its Livable Centers Initiative (LCI). The LCI is a multi-year, $350 million effort to develop "livable centers" in the region. SMARTRAQ data will help planners understand how various land uses and transportation investments will affect travel in and around livable centers, Engelke explains.

"This is a new way of doing things," Fleming says of SMARTRAQ. "We are borrowing from the best practices across the nation and taking it to the next level to meet regional needs."

Thomas Galloway, dean of Georgia Tech's College of Architecture, also believes SMARTRAQ is breaking new ground. "Certainly, no metropolitan area of the U.S. today is as advanced in its thinking regarding the dynamics of mobility, land use, air quality and health as is revealed in the SMARTRAQ study," Galloway says. "This project holds great potential significance for Atlanta and areas like it that are facing similar problems."

With models built from the more accurate data that SMARTRAQ will yield, policymakers can make their decisions based upon a better informed balance of social, economic and environmental factors, says George Boulineau, a former GDOT director of planning and programming who now works part time for GDOT overseeing SMARTRAQ.

"Ultimately, we hope to reduce vehicle miles traveled and, in turn, reduce pollution in the form of ground-level ozone," Boulineau says.

Georgia Institute of Technology
177 North Avenue NW
Atlanta, Georgia 30332 USA


Larry Frank
College of Architecture, City Planning Department, Georgia Tech
Atlanta, GA, 30332-0155.
(404-894-6488 or 404-385-2279); E-mail:

WRITER: Jane Sanders