Birmingham ready to pounce on Atlanta’s vulnerability

Atlanta Graffiti
Photo of Atlanta graffiti by Stacy Sher

By David Sher

My wife and I just got back from a trip to Atlanta to visit our son and family.

Oh! The traffic.

Just shoot me!

Not even rush hour traffic—this was the weekend.

Where is the quality of life in that?

And Atlanta’s about to get worse…much worse.

Atlanta’s current metropolitan population is about 5.7 million and is projected to grow by 2.9 million in the next 27 years–that’s another 50%.

That would give metro Atlanta 8.6 million people by 2050.

To put this in perspective, metropolitan Birmingham’s population is 1.1 million.

If Atlanta’s population estimates are close to accurate that would be the equivalent to the entire Birmingham metro moving to Atlanta not once, but two and half times.

Metropolitan Atlanta would then be almost eight times larger than the current population of metropolitan Birmingham.

Atlanta’s exponential growth might have been okay if Atlanta had given any thought to public transportation. But public transportation is severely limited in greater Atlanta. Of the five Metropolitan counties (Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton, Cobb, and Gwinnett), only two, Fulton and DeKalb, voted in favor of MARTA

According to the 2021 Global Traffic Scorecard, Atlanta traffic is the 10th worst in the United States. It’s estimated that the average Atlanta driver loses 53 hours to congestion each year, with a cost per driver of $820.

These numbers are down from previous years due to the COVID-19 pandemic—but those of you who have driven in Atlanta recently know the traffic count is back up and growing.

And, of course, these traffic numbers don’t include the additional 2.9 million people predicted to swell Atlanta’s population.

This unbridled growth creates the perfect opportunity for Birmingham.

Birmingham is still known as the ’20 minute city.’ because you can get to just about anywhere in about 20 minutes or less.

What a great opportunity for Birmingham to take advantage of Atlanta’s Achilles Heel.

Jennifer Greer, an advocate for high speed rail, wrote for ComebackTown, “Birmingham’s high speed rail hopes were raised in 2020 by a pitch to the city about a privately-led proposal, I-20X High Speed Rail, which describes intercity passenger rail service connecting Atlanta, GA, Birmingham, AL, Jackson, MS, Shreveport LA, and Dallas, TX…High-tech trains would run on elevated tracks at speeds of 200 miles per hour.

“Such a service would cut car travel times between… Birmingham and Atlanta from 2.5 hours to a little over 1 hour.” Amtrak service between Birmingham and Atlanta currently takes 4 ½ hours.”

A high speed rail commute to Atlanta would be shorter from Birmingham than from many parts of suburban Atlanta.

In 2019, over 20% of Atlanta commuters traveled 90 minutes or more to get to work each day and that number is rising.

Now’s the time for Birmingham area to prepare for Atlanta’s gridlock.

We could provide high speed rail or some other form of transportation to transport people from one city to the other.

We could offer the best of both worlds: the advantages of living in a stable, beautiful, and welcoming community while taking advantage of the opportunities of working in a large neighboring city.

When I was a child, Atlanta and Birmingham were about the same size.

I stayed in Birmingham and I feel like I won the lottery.

It was pure joy raising my family in Birmingham.

Sometimes you just get lucky.

David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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19 thoughts on “Birmingham ready to pounce on Atlanta’s vulnerability”

  1. David, you nailed it, again. I also wonder why some smart airlines don’t consider putting a hub at BHM as an alternative to the unbearable traffic at ATL? HEARTSFIELD INTERNATIONAL is reputed to be the WORLD’S busiest airport. They say 63,000 people work there. BHM would offer some RELIEF! Birmingham’s “pitch people” need to sell this idea …again and again!

  2. I just took a train from Newark, NJ to New Haven, CT and back. I love traveling on trains — they are comfortable, you can move around, and it’s so wonderful not hassling with airline or car travel. A high speed rail in Birmingham would be terrific.

  3. Why the focus on east-west high speed rail across Alabama? I think a very compelling case can be made that, if the State of Alabama and the federal government were to spend billions of dollars on such a system, a NORTH-SOUTH line might be the better choice. Such a line could connect Birmingham, through fast growing Shelby County, with the state capital of Montgomery and from there south to Mobile and the Gulf Coast. And north to fast growing Huntsville and from there on to Nashville and the Midwest. There’s a temptation for folks in Birmingham to think about going TO Atlanta without asking how many travelers go the opposite direction. With a north-south line – which links the state major cities – there might be far more travelers going TO Birmingham from other parts of Alabama. Wouldn’t that be a more desirable outcome from Birmingham’s perspective?

  4. Really interesting. I have found the only day to travel thru Atlanta on I-20 is early Sunday morning before the 90 mph five-lane crossers wake up…or sober up. If I want to get to north Georgia, I drive on 411 out of Gadsden thru Rome just to avoid Atlanta.

    When I left Atlanta in 1972, the MSA had only recently crossed 1,000,000 and I-285 was just four lanes. I have never looked back.

  5. Ahh… Atlanta’s “achilles heel.”

    If that is what you have to rely on, you’re in real trouble. I’d encourage you to think of better Birmingham-centric material over the long traditional Atlanta, Am I right? yawns.

    That has long been a discussion point for many of the nation’s largest cities and yet they keep on growing. Atlanta might not be as ‘downtown-centric’ as it use to be, but the region keeps prevailing. Atlanta has 5 or 6 outlying office markets larger than central Birmingham’s, and that’s being generous. The importance of this note is that it has multiple sub-markets that have easy commuting access to a population that exceeds all of greater Birmingham, but also sub-markets that are highly educated.

    It highlights an important reality. Atlanta moved on from the everyone needs to drive downtown model long ago. Keep crying about Atlanta’s traffic if you must, but the region keeps growing and adjusts to its current reality in multiple ways. It does have upgraded transit, while it might not be the best form of long-range commuter transit for further-flung suburbanites, it connects 4 of the top 6 office markets in the region and the airport and is fostering tangible urban residential neighborhoods to develop where it matters.

    All the while, suburban office markets continue to grow where they can compete for the same labor pool and offering shorter commutes within the region.

    That is what the relationship between people and businesses are really after, to be around each other and feed off each other.

    That is something you can only develop internally and thinking about Birmingham with an internal focus. If you look too much to Atlanta or putting down other perceived competition as if this is a zero-sum game, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

    Believe me, you’re cousin to the East would prefer Birmingham be another Charlotte, although more preferably in a more unique character. Being the center of a successful region, would only make Atlanta stronger.

    But in the modern economy, you need to attract companies with a purpose beyond locating in an industrial base in the South. You have to have to have targeted assets to attract niche growth and part of that is to think internally about Birmingham about what you have and realistically what have now you can grow now to be a better competitor in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, etc.. You need to leverage small things now, to have better leverage for larger things in 10 years.

    A far better conversation is; What will that be?

    1. I agree. This is just a culmination of old arguments to poke at Atlanta. I love Atlanta. I have built two wildly successful businesses here. I choose intentionally to live here. I accept legitimate criticism for the betterment of the city and Georgia in general. But Sher is the only one who doesn’t realize he lives vicariously through Atlanta’s maturity while masks it with cheap potshots.

      FYI…All economically vibrant cities in this country have horrific traffic. Some of the busiest are bumper to bumper all weekend long. THAT is a signal of prosperity of a city in 2022. Atlanta’s CSA, at 6.97 million spans 39 counties and two states. Every day planes of people from all over the world touch down and many are coming home. Atlanta is not a result of poor planning. Atlanta is the result of massive growth that continues to this second.

  6. High-speed rail would be great for Birmingham. But at the same time, we don’t have any public transportation here so I’m not sure we’re ready for an influx of people.

    We would need to get our act together – for example, a regional governing body – if we want to become a relief valve for Atlanta’s population overflow.

    I lived in Atlanta for 10 years and I would never go back. It was a mess. We should learn from their mistakes.

  7. Once again you post incorrect information by saying that MARTA rail doesn’t extend outside of Fulton County. I wasn’t aware that Fulton County had annexed DeKalb County taking the Brookhaven, Chamblee, Doraville, Indian Creek, Kensington, Avondale, Decatur, East Lake and Edgewood MARTA stations. You have an unhealthy envy of Atlanta.

    1. Hey Chris, I’ll respond to you as well as Scotty & Michael with this reply. Let me thank all three of you for your comments. Sure, I would like Birmingham to do better, but Atlanta is not for everyone. I have family in Atlanta and they love it there–so do millions of others. The article was not written for Atlantan’s. It was written to encourage the folks in our Birmingham region to think bigger. With easy access to Atlanta, it would create great opportunities for our region…and there would be folks who might enjoy living in a more laid-back Birmingham, but have the opportunities and advantages of a large progressive city. I apologize if my information on MARTA was incorrect. Thanks for making me aware. I welcome your feedback.

      1. As has been mentioned, I know Atlantans would welcome a nice escape for the weekend to nice place to rest or play. It certainly would spruce up the ride West on I20. Birmingham needs to decide if it wants to stay stuck in the past or be a player in the New South economy. It’s not just competing with Atlanta anymore. Nashville, Charlotte, even Charleston are all fighting for top spot in the South for population growth. If Birmingham doesn’t figure it out aoon, it may get left behind another generational cycle. Period.

      2. fyi i just went thru Birmingham for the thanksgiving holiday still the skyline in Birmingham looks the same and the city looks dead..headed into L.A.(Lovely Atlanta)on I20 the traffic gets heavier the signs of a bustling city and right on I20 their is a section in douglas county where you can see the gorgous ever changing Atlanta skyline and you feel like your in a big metropolis The 8th LARGEST METRO IN THE COUNTRY!!!!there is no place like Atlanta to me i have done very,very,very well here which i dont think itss possible in Birmingham Atlanta,s opportunities are unlimited.I LOVE ATLANTA!!!!!!my only hope is the Falcons become very unbeatable and win the super bowl on our ugly rundown rivals ( saints)homefield in new orleans!!!

  8. I LOVE ATLANTA!!!i moved to Atlanta some 40 yrs ago from stagnant dont want change mississippi and havent look back.the city is vibrant and is non typical of the south.gleaming skyline,wonderful sport facilities,the energy is unbelievable for a southern city.sounds like mr sher is envious of this booming metro of 6.2 million its a reason the traffic is the way is its called prosperity .every year i head back to mississippi for thanksgiving and go thru birmingham its skyline looks the same for the past 20 yrs .but scorching hot Atlanta ,s is constantly changing.birmingham could learn from its big brother to the east or remain stagnant and behind in a stagnant behind state.

  9. I am from Birmingham and have lived in the Atlanta Metro area since 1983. The traffic is bad, but unlike Birmingham the opportunities are endless! Do not forget that the segregation of Birmingham helped Atlanta soar while Birmingham died. There are no major sports, limited jobs, and a second -class airport in addition to many other advantages in Atlanta. All these things could have been Birmingham’s. I hope Birmingham has learned from their mistakes and the rail idea is an excellent beginning.

    1. I’m pleased to see people commenting on why Atlanta is booming as Birmingham grows more and more dusty. Atlanta had visionary leadership during the time when Birmingham’s leaders were spending their energy trying to keep black and white children from going to school together.

      Birmingham’s leaders in the 1950s and 60s deliberately chose the wrong side of history and The Magic City has become less and less desirable and relevant ever since.

  10. I think we can agree something needs to change. The past is gone. Looking backwards can only tell us what we may do differently in the present.

    I don’t have the answer. I don’t think there is any one amswer. While neighbors, my experience in the South has been primarily urban and suburban Atlanta. I have been to Birmingham to check out a club in college. That’s the extent. What I know of Birmingham comes from U.S. history classes from middle school on. The people who live in Birmingham know a bigger picture but those outside of it don’t know it as any different than it was in the 50’s. Alabama and Birmingham have a PR problem.

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