Buckhead Traffic Is Bad And Getting Worse. Can Anything Fix It?
Horns blaring. Stop and go crawling through the next light. Commutes that take more than an hour, even for drivers going only five miles.
It is another morning rush in Buckhead, a neighborhood where traffic has worsened as it has become one of Atlanta's hottest areas for development.
While community leaders and politicians are pursuing a slate of fixes — from new turning lanes, pedestrian paths and parking restrictions to synchronized traffic lights, reduced parking spaces in new developments and even a roundabout — some have concerns that those fixes may not be enough, especially as Buckhead could eventually see more than 100M SF in new commercial development.
“I think it's going to be part of the condition of Buckhead,” Highwoods Properties Vice President Jim Bacchetta said. Highwoods is one of the largest office landlords in Buckhead, including One and Two Alliance Center, Monarch Tower and Monarch Plaza. "There's not a panacea. There are just little fixes and things that can be done around the edges that can help."
A 2016 traffic study for the city, conducted by Arcadis, found traffic volumes in Buckhead have jumped since the Great Recession in 2009, partly due to a 75% increase in renter-occupied housing units from 2000 to 2010 in the area immediately surrounding Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza malls.
Buckhead's employment base is also growing. In 2010, companies in Buckhead employed more than 87,300 people. By 2016, that number blossomed to nearly 125,000, according to the Buckhead Coalition. And within the Buckhead Community Improvement District confines — the 2.5-mile radius that covers most of Buckhead's prime office market — 98% of workers do not live in Buckhead, Buckhead CID Executive Director Jim Durrett said.
“Most traffic congestion is caused by employment,” Atlanta City Councilman Howard Shook said.
With increasing numbers of employees in Buckhead comes an increasing number of cars. According to the Georgia Department of Transportation, traffic counts along Peachtree Road rose from 40,400 vehicles a day in 2006 to 44,100 vehicles a day in 2016. For Piedmont Road, those numbers rose from 37,300 to 41,300 vehicles a day during the same time period.
There is new development both planned and underway for Buckhead that will potentially add more vehicles to the roadways, including more than 2,600 apartment units in nine projects, and another 2,200 apartment units proposed, according to Haddow & Co.
“It's like so much of Atlanta,” GDOT Director of Operations John Hibbard said. "There's plenty of traffic, so we do the things that we can do such as the Peachtree Road project, trying to make the best of it, knowing that we're just trying to keep up with what's happening."
Buckhead is faced with having to bleed as much capacity as possible out of the arteries it has, experts said, because expanding lanes on Peachtree Road is not an option.
“The business of adding lanes is a massive undertaking. And so our perspective is, why not make the best use of what we have?” Hibbard said. “Really, the cost to build a road these days, you spend as much to acquire the land as you spend to build the road.”
There are a number of plans in the works that are targeting Buckhead's traffic, from GDOT, the Buckhead Community Improvement District and Livable Buckhead.
The latest proposal, fronted by two Atlanta City Council members, seeks to wrangle the various parking ratio requirements throughout Buckhead along the Peachtree Road spine into a single requirement that mirrors the parking ratio requirements in Downtown Atlanta. The net result will mean fewer parking spaces in many future development projects throughout Buckhead, especially apartments and hotels.
- Networks of pedestrian paths, and ultimately a park spanning over the Interstate 85/75 interchange in Buckhead.
- A roundabout at the intersection of Wieuca Road and Phipps Boulevard to ease bottlenecks.
- Widening Piedmont Road by one additional lane from Peachtree to Lenox roads.
- Proposed intersection improvements at Piedmont, Habersham and Roswell roads.
- Conduct a study to see the effectiveness of redesigning the interchange at Georgia 400 and Lenox Road, as well as building a possible new interchange with the highway that would exit onto East Paces Ferry Road behind Lenox Square mall.
Buckhead officials are also pursuing funds from the city to sync various traffic lights, Shook said.
GDOT's biggest project is adding a center turn lane along Peachtree Road from Interstate 85 north to Pharr Road. That project aims to not only improve the flow of traffic, but also greatly reduce the number of fender benders caused when a vehicle prepares to make a left, Hibbard said.
“Peachtree's crash experience is higher than it should be statewide,” Hibbard said.
Shook also said there need to be limits on when utility companies should be able to close lanes in Buckhead to install equipment.
“That will be a huge help. Don't hand out permits to close lanes because some utility company finds it convenient to close a lane during rush hour,” he said. “Those are all things that will measurably help.”
THE MARTA GAMBIT
The biggest solution may well be MARTA. There appears to be some adoption of mass transit use in Buckhead. After a spike in ridership on MARTA systemwide as a result of the Interstate 85 overpass collapse earlier this year, overall ridership numbers have returned back to levels before that disruption.
But in Buckhead, the story is slightly different.
According to MARTA, traffic through station gates at two of the three Buckhead stations have seen a rise in passenger traffic. From January 2014 to August 2017, the Buckhead MARTA station saw average daily gate entries jump from 2,468 to 3,614. Lindbergh station also saw fluctuating increase in the same time period from 7,458 to 8,392.
Over the same time frame, Lenox station saw a slight decrease, from 3,219 to 2,791 daily customers through the station's gates. MARTA officials said ridership can sometimes spike due to special events, but generally, ridership at Buckhead has had a steady increase over the past few years.
“Since the opening of the pedestrian bridge over Georgia 400 about four years ago, the ridership at Buckhead station has increased significantly,” MARTA analyst Olusina Akingbade wrote in an email.
Andy Fish is one of those newer MARTA commuters. Fish, 31, works with AT&T's entertainment marketing group at its Buckhead campus and normally takes MARTA from his home in Decatur.
Even with having to transfer at Five Points station and hop on a shuttle bus to the AT&T campus, his one-way commute time is 45 minutes. When he drives, on the other hand, Fish sees his travel times go up to an hour and 15 minutes.
“I only live 5.3 miles away, and it takes me an hour and fifteen minutes. That's ridiculous,” he said. “And going back [home] is a little worse than going into Buckhead.”
Cousins Properties see MARTA as a major value-add component to office buildings, and the Atlanta-based company has made buying local office buildings connected to or very near MARTA stations a core strategy, Cousins Managing Director Thad Ellis said.
“A lot of our younger customers are not married to the car,” Ellis said.
Still, Ellis said a small percentage of his office tenants' employees use the transit system. At Northpark Town Center, which is next to the Sandy Springs MARTA station, up to 20% of the tenant employees use MARTA. At Terminus, which is a short walk from the Buckhead station, that ridership rate is about half that number, he said.
Whether someone uses MARTA or not also depends on whether she needs a car for work.
“It varies from location to location,” Ellis said. “Is there really a successful community where there's not a lot of car usage? I guess I struggle differentiating Atlanta from most metropolitan areas.”
Bacchetta said access to MARTA for office owners will increasingly become critical.
“If traffic gets worse — and it will over time — it makes it a little harder for the [Class] B locations to compete,” he said, adding that up to 15% of tenant employees at Highwoods' Alliance Center complex use MARTA.
“As congestion increases, the safety valve is MARTA,” Bacchetta said.
Traffic itself may be the thing that encourages more people to use transit, especially when it gets to the point that people feel using MARTA will get them from point A to point B faster than driving.
“Despite all of the complaining, despite the increasing commercial problems associated with all of this … we have yet to reach the pain point where people fundamentally change their habits,” Shook said.
Durrett said there is no real conclusion on how much the fixes that are underway will ultimately alleviate congestion in Buckhead.
"It's getting as many options out there as possible so people have choices,” he said. "We know that the more options you give people, the better off we are."
But doing nothing is not a possibility, even if Buckhead's main artery cannot be widened.
“Given the fact that there's 122M SF in this target area where property owners have a vested right to increase density in, it is not too late,” Shook said. “You can smoke cigarettes for 40 years. You're still going to be better off if you quit than if you keep smoking.”
CORRECTION OCT. 9, 10:15 A.M.E.T A quote in a previous version of the story was not clearly attributed to Atlanta City Councilman Howard Shook. The story has been updated.