A tale of two cities: Transportation and corporate recruitment

As long as local and state leaders in Georgia fail to grasp that Atlanta can’t pave its way out of traffic congestion, Atlanta could be in danger of becoming a case study in what may happen to a city’s business climate when an economic model based largely on growth and continual outward expansion hits the wall.

A top corporate recruiter made a presentation to the city’s Chamber of Commerce this week, letting them know that Atlanta’s mounting traffic congestion could potentially keep major companies from bringing their offices and jobs there. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution covered the meeting:

“Up until seven or eight years ago when we had Atlanta on a recommended short list” for places to relocate or expand a business, “we rarely heard grumbling,” he [Dennis Donovan, the recruiter] said. That has changed. Now, he said, when Atlanta shows up on a short list, “every one of our companies, every one of them, says, ‘Boy, isn’t there a lot of traffic down there?'”… A region’s talent pool is the top factor for executives deciding where to go. But when traffic gets so bad that people are no longer willing to take certain commutes, Donovan said, that means traffic is effectively cutting off part of the metro area’s labor pool, Atlanta’s greatest attracting asset.

Consider another story this week from a place that walked down a very different path from Atlanta over the last 30 years.

Arlington County, the small county on the other side of the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., pushed to bury the Metro underneath their “built-out” suburban commercial corridor, resulting in 30 years of mixed, compact, transit-oriented development — without the typical traffic. (Because residents of more compact neighborhoods with access to transit and other options drive 20-40 percent less, according to “Growing Cooler.”)

Go to Arlington today, get out at a Metro stop, and you can walk 10 minutes in any direction and see a wide variety of housing types within close proximity to thousands of square feet of office and retail space. You can bike, you can walk, you can take transit, or you can drive.

As other growing areas in the region have struggled with traffic, Arlington has grown sizably — adding housing, jobs, schools, and shopping — without being choked to death by traffic. And that’s resulted in favorable environment for business, according to a new three-year study commissioned by the Arlington County Commuter Services. It finds that the past investments in transportation are “paying big dividends in our quality of life and business climate.” From the study:

CEOs in Arlington cite Arlington’s transportation system and services as the NUMBER ONE reason for locating a business in the county. Arlington employers say commuting services (Such as provided by ACCS) result in significant benefits to their business, including improved employee morale, easier recruitment and retention, increased productivity, and less parking demand.  Twice the percentage of Arlington residents take mass transit to work as compared to the Washington regional average.

Attracting a talented labor pool is important to a city and region’s economic growth. But if the talent can’t get to the jobs they want from the region’s neighborhoods they choose, they’ll go elsewhere.

Like Arlington.

Arlington before Metro Arlington After Metro
This is the Rosslyn, Va. area looking east across the Potomac River towards Georgetown and Washington, D.C. before the Metro was built. This aerial photo [from EPA and Arlington County] demonstrates the effectiveness of Arlington’s approach around the Rosslyn and Court House stations.