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Open Thread: Census shows explosive growth, but is Atlanta really full?

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Spoiler alert: It’s not!

A picture of atlanta traffic, with cars in the foreground and buildings behind.
Atlanta’s traffic congestion might not be the best metric for measuring population density.
Barry Williams/Getty Images

People who measure Atlanta’s density based on the severity of its traffic problem—and no doubt, it’s a chronic problem—might think, as the saying goes, “We full.”

The same could be said for anyone daunted by recently released U.S. Census numbers chronicling the metro’s swelling population.

The Census Bureau’s tally from July 2018 clocks the metro Atlanta population at just under 6 million now, following the addition of another 75,000 people, making it the nation’s fourth highest growth in that timespan. (The metro’s 663,000 new residents since 2000 is also fourth highest.)

But some might conflate that number with the actual headcount of Atlanta proper. WSB-TV even asserted that “the city is getting even more full.”

How exactly people calculate fullness, of course, is subjective, but there’s no question that Atlanta has plenty of room for growth.

So are “We full?”

Consider that the City of Atlanta’s population, according to Census estimates from 2017, is 486,290. That’s 1,165 less than in 1960 and 8,749 less than in 1970.

Relative to major cities like New York and Los Angeles, as urbanist blog ThreadATL has pointed out, Atlanta’s population density leaves much to be desired, and the “truth is that our low-ish density was very much designed.”

“Traffic congestion on the interstate doesn’t prove that the city is filled to capacity with residents,” wrote ThreadATL’s Darin Givens. “In light of our relatively low density, it only proves that the interstate is full of cars driven by people who lack alternatives.”

It’s not just a matter of having a limited transit network; Atlanta has long been developed to be “spread out in a car-centric way,” he said.

Perhaps, rather than gawking at the city’s car-choked roadways (ditto for the many suburbs surrounding the city) when measuring its capacity to hold people, would-be statisticians and city planning experts should analyze how much space Atlanta is misusing or underutilizing.

Take, for example, the abundant parking decks and lots peppered about places like downtown, many of which don’t fill up unless the city’s hosting massive public events like the Super Bowl.

Sure, metro Atlanta’s population is swelling at breakneck speeds, and the city’s headcount is expected to double over the next two decades.

But is there really any merit to Atlantans saying, “We full?” Or could that mindset ultimately do more harm than good?

What say you?