Political Insider

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A second opinion on Kasim Reed’s vision of Atlanta’s future

One of our most clicked-on posts of the last month featured Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s view of his city in the year 2050, which first appeared in the Wall Street Journal. A taste:

...Cities, in short, are ascendant. National governments—in the U.S. and overseas—are all but broken and hold little promise for mending themselves in the future. As such, people and businesses will turn to cities for leadership, bold thinking, effective services and, yes, hope.

What will these cities look like and how will they work? Public safety is the most fundamental responsibility of city government; thus, cities in the future will have a focused, well-managed approach to lowering crime rates.

Atlanta, for instance, is already using PredPol, predictive technology that helps forecast criminal activity. The result: crime rates that, in many instances, are falling below the 40-year lows we have already seen. In the future, police will perfect the use of predictive analytics to thwart crimes before they occur. We will also see expanded use of video technology, giving public-safety officials a view of every street corner, 24 hours a day....

But the mayor’s vision of the future didn’t excite everyone. Here’s a response from Trevor Williams, editor of Global Atlanta, which specializes in international news. To wit:

As a city of Atlanta resident, I’m proud to have a mayor like Kasim Reed. I like that he’s a self-proclaimed “boring” mayor known for shoring up the city’s balance sheet instead of escapades involving crack pipes and corruption like some other city leaders.

Reed is well-spoken, passionate and worthy to be called a thought leader when it comes to how cities are taking on the burdens of global leadership today.

Just don’t ask him to predict the future.

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, the mayor tried his hand at reading the tea leaves for Atlanta in 2050. The vision was underwhelming, especially for someone who spoke so dynamically on almost the same topic just a month earlier.

Normally bordering on brash in person, Reed's written effort errs on the side of caution. He ends up describing so-called “innovations" that have a slight existential problem: they already exist

Take his vision for city services, for instance:

Residents will be able to access services from municipalities at the touch of a button, or even the wave of a hand through the air. From the convenience of a laptop or smartphone, I believe that residents will be able to receive a visual route of where they want to go—whether driving, biking or walking—to any destination in a city and how long it will take them to get there.

While the first sentence is too vague to really address, the second part sounds oddly familiar. Oh wait, it’s called Google Maps and Google Street View, which I used just yesterday on my phone while walking across Singapore.

Inadvertently, the mayor seems to be describing a world in which the pace of technological innovation has slowed significantly, which would be a problem for cities like Atlanta aiming to attract the creative and intellectual types for whom walkable urban spaces and transit access are so attractive.

(And really - the iPhone is only 7 years old. Who’s going to be using something so archaic as a smart phone in 2050? Won’t someone have figured out how to make Google Glass cool by then?)

Reed also misses an opportunity to highlight his own efforts when describing how Atlantans will interact with their transit infrastructure:

We will see a greater focus on personal mobility—involving walking, biking, light rail, autonomous vehicle and car-sharing programs—along with healthier lifestyles and improved mortality rates among our residents.

This describes as eventual things that he should be touting as coming soon. The city is already scoring high on indices for walkable urban spaces. What about the Atlanta Streetcar, the Atlanta BeltLine, the expansion of Marta into new territories, his new bike-sharing program? Will all these things take until 2050 to pan out?

Maybe the mayor’s unwittingly conservative vision betrays a more realistic view of what supposedly “ascendant” cities can accomplish without the backing of a “declining” federal government.

The delayed Atlanta Streetcar project, which itself will contribute little to alleviating the city’s traffic problems without investment in further connective infrastructure, received half of its start-up funding from the same federal government Mr. Reed is now lambasting.

And the Beltline project, which seems to have widespread public support, is already running aground on the realities of its own funding challenges, challenging the mayor's efforts to set up cities as a contrast to a polarized Congress.

The Beltline's plan to (in effect) borrow tax revenues from the city schools has so far backfired, with the outgoing superintendent threatening to sue if the Beltline doesn’t make good on $19 million in promised payments. Beltline officials, while waxing optimistic about a more interconnected city, openly admit that they’ll need federal grants in the future.

In his Aspen Ideas talk, the mayor said the “retreat” of the federal government gives cities space to find innovative ways of addressing problems. This assertion has gone unchallenged for too long, especially in light of the shellacking the mayor's favored T-SPLOST bill took when it was put before metro area residents in 2012.

When the opinion piece does get down to some bona fide futurism, it rings hollow, like entries from a cliched menu of idealistic options that might whet the appetites of today’s urban planners but have little chance of materializing in the tomorrow that comes after he leaves office:

High-speed rail will allow over 6 million residents in the Atlanta region to travel to the coast of Savannah in less than an hour. In those rare instances when we must travel by car, we will climb into an electric, self-driven vehicle—one that will travel along a networked traffic system. In all, our roads will be safer and less congested.

As exciting as a whirring train to Savannah would be, that route makes no economic sense if not part of a larger regional network. This is not China, where governments can wave a wand and make things happen. Even after years of study and pledged backing by the Obama administration, plans for high-speed rail have so far been stuck in neutral.  And if the $700 million Savannah port deepening has taken 15 years of studies before dirt even begins to fly, imagine the opposition and bureaucracy that would engulf a multibillion-dollar train track passing through people's backyards.

As for a networked traffic system for driverless cars, it's a nice nod to Google, but how are we going to pay for it, and who will drive its adoption? Mr. Reed, of course, was the one who during this year’s “Snow Jam” incident was quick to point out that the city has no control over the federal interstate system that hundreds of thousands of commuters use each day. Who is going to force the integration among city, state and federal agencies that would be necessary for these driverless cars to go more than a few miles before facing a gap in the infrastructure?

My final criticism isn’t really a criticism -- it’s more a sense of bewilderment about the political corner Reed seems to be painting himself into.

Sure, politicians tend to waffle and rarely stick to one course, and the mayor has always said this is his "dream job," but his antagonism toward the federal government and his outspoken support of cities seem to be at odds with what should presumably be his next rungs up the political ladder: the state and national stages.

When his term ends in 2017, will he move elsewhere and run for mayor so that he can once again be in a city, “where hope meets the street?" Or will he bite the bullet and join one of the “dysfunctional” bodies he now so vehemently criticizes?

It will be hard to expect a coherent answer.

It is the future, after all.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.