In the era of metro Atlanta’s population boom, it’s a magic number behind virtually every transportation plan and housing policy: another 2.9 million people packing into the region by 2050. But the pandemic could slow that growth and change many plans, says the head of the agency that made the estimate.

“It’ll take about three or four years to know whether pre-pandemic migration patterns are going to pick up… or have slowed permanently,” said Doug Hooker, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission, at a March 8 Rotary Club of Buckhead luncheon. Historically, pandemics have halted or reduced such large-scale relocations, he said.

Doug Hooker, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission.

“For now,” Hooker said, the regional planning agency and its member governments are still planning major transportation projects based partly on the population-boom projection, such as the state’s controversial plan to add toll lanes on Ga. 400 and I-285. More certain, he said, are the ways the pandemic has worsened some existing metro problems, from housing affordability to racial and geographic disparities in health and education.

“The pandemic has added an accelerator effect or an exacerbating effect” to those existing problems, Hooker said.

Health and education disparities

Life expectancies already had a dramatic disparity in metro Atlanta, Hooker said. He pointed to the 24-year difference in life expectancy between residents of Vinings in Cobb County and of English Avenue near Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Apparently due to the pandemic, the U.S. life expectancy dropped in 2020 for the first time in over 50 years by an average of 1.13 years, Hooker said. “We don’t know if this is a permanent thing or something that’s just a bubble because of the pandemic,” he said, but noting the possibility of lingering COVID-19 effects could continue to affect lifespan statistics for years.

Education is another area where the pandemic’s effects will be seen for years, Hooker said. “I don’t need to tell you how miserable a situation it has been” for parents, he said, while pointing to ARC statistics showing some disparities for students of color: 10% less likely to have access to Wi-Fi for online learning and 20% less likely to have in-person instruction. 

While he did not have comprehensive attendance numbers, Hooker said that every public school district in the metro area has some schools where 30% to 40% of students are not attending in-person, which he called a critical problem. (One of the largest metro districts, in DeKalb County, was scheduled to offer optional in-person classes starting March 9.) And, he said, “significantly” fewer students in the region are applying for college for economic reasons and other pandemic impacts.

Housing affordability is another challenge that, Hooker said, the ARC thought might be one of the few to benefit from the pandemic’s economic effects, but has not. While that population boom brought about 500,000 more residents to the metro area since 2010, he said, housing construction was a third of the rate built before the Great Recession, and subsidized or otherwise more affordable apartment complexes were being lost to more expensive housing at the rate of 8,000 to 9,000 units a year. Meanwhile, rents and mortgage payments increased at a rate outpacing growth in wages, putting more and more households in financial jeopardy as they are overburdened by housing costs. Regional rents have softened in recent months, Hooker said, but home prices have not.

“This is a problem we were having before the pandemic. It has not stopped at all during the pandemic, which was surprising,” Hooker said. “… We’re not in a crisis point yet, but we’re rapidly heading there.”

Economic impacts

Amid the pandemic’s economic devastation, there were some relatively bright spots, Hooker siad. “The good news is that Atlanta, because of the variety and diversity in our economy, was hit not as hard as many of our other [national] metro regions,” he said, referring to a total decline in metro jobs of 2.3% between October 2019 and October 2020. 

The hard-hit hotel industry saw job losses of over 11% of the workforce in metro Atlanta, he said, but the transportation and logistics sector saw some small growth due to the boom in online shopping. Nationally, e-commerce business has more than tripled during the pandemic, he said.

The travel and hospitality sectors that are such a big part of Atlanta’s economy “are not going to rebound for about three or four years,” Hooker predicted, as customers may remain skittish. And, he said, the long-term impact may include less business travel and conventions “because what they discovered due to the pandemic was, they don’t necessarily lose productivity” by holding virtual gatherings.

Teleworking and commuting

Teleworking is, of course, one of the biggest culture shifts of the pandemic, and one that could affect transportation planning as well. The ARC already long provided telework advice through Georgia Commute Options, an alternative commuting program it operates with funding from the Georgia Department of Transportation and in partnership with such organizations as Livable Buckhead and the Perimeter Community Improvement Districts. Teleworking is also something the ARC now understands firsthand, as Hooker says its staff last year “dispersed March 12, 2 p.m., and we have not been back in the office together since.” 

Prior to the pandemic, Hooker said, telework was probably less than 5% of the “mobility strategy” of metro companies. Now ARC surveys show that 56% of commuters have teleworked in the pandemic, and most of those for at least four days a week. To get a sense of telework trends, Hooker said, the ARC has conducted four surveys in the past 12 months. 

“Easily more than a third [of respondents] have said they want to continue to telecommute at least three days a week. If, in fact, that holds, our mobility patterns are going to change dramatically after the pandemic…,” said Hooker.

In a question-and-answer session, Hooker was asked about the increase in violent crime over the past year, which has been a major community and political concern in Buckhead. Hooker said he is not an expert on the subject, but that the ARC’s research staff has heard findings that higher stress caused by times of economic troubles can lead to violent crime. He noted that violent crime has increased regionally and nationally as well, so that “Buckhead is no different than anybody else in that regard.” 

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.