How Does Charlotte Compare to Atlanta?

Ari Meier

I’m not a fan of online ‘city vs city’ threads. They can be brutal exchanges where the reader won’t get much hard information about the cities in the comparison battle. They’d get a bunch of opinions about quality of life, how many amenities this city have over that city. I’d have to admit that I find it fascinating how the data of the compared cities can be skewed by overzealous residents/supporters.

I wrote an article comparing Atlanta with New York City earlier this year, and although NYC is the obvious winner in size and population, Atlanta compared favorably in other areas. The idea to compare Charlotte and Atlanta was born out of driving through Charlotte on the way back from a sci-fi, fantasy and comics convention held in High Point, NC. I was impressed with Charlotte’s skyline, the bustling central business district (they call it uptown) and all the new construction. Many in Atlanta refer to Charlotte as ‘baby Atlanta’, I secretly wondered just how close our baby sister city had come to Atlanta.

Data from U.S. Census Bureau

Charlotte is similar to atlanta, right?

Growing up, I visited Charlotte a lot and looked at the city as the North Carolina version of Atlanta. Afterall, it had a Six Flags-like amusement park, only smaller (Carowinds). It had a relatively impressive skyline and interstate 85. This comparison was shattered when I moved to Atlanta to attend college. I found Atlanta much larger, more cosmopolitan, it has a freaking subway and generally a faster bustle.

For years, supporters, residents and visitors of both cities have thrown verbal punches highlighting why they think each city is best. When Atlanta lost the NASCAR Hall of Fame to Charlotte in early 2006, Charlotte residents gleamed with pride how they one-upped Atlanta. Many in Atlanta said that Charlotte couldn’t support the NASCAR Hall of Fame. An April 2011 article seems to support this:

“But the museum, which celebrates its first birthday next month, didn’t welcome anywhere near the 800,000 visitors projected for its first year of operation. It didn’t break even either, losing instead an estimated $1.3 million. And it didn’t dispel notions that Atlanta, a hard-charging competitor for the car-racing cathedral, would’ve been a better spot for NASCAR to park.”

“I’m not going to say I told you so, but my guess is that the number of visitors would’ve been higher in Atlanta than in Charlotte,” said A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, which lost the hall to North Carolina. “And in Atlanta they would’ve been exposing their brand to a wider, more diverse audience.”

Ouch. But where Atlanta scored a point with ‘proving’ a point with Charlotte’s unsuccessful NASCAR Hall of Fame, Charlotte dominates in banking. Atlanta-based SunTrust is consolidating with BBT and the new headquarters will be in Charlotte. The new bank, now named Truist, will be the 6th largest bank in the nation when the ink dries. This is just one of several Atlanta-based banks that were bought or merged that went packing for Charlotte over the past 20 years. Score one for Charlotte.

These wins (and losses) are not hard indicators in determining how cities compare to each other. The fact that Atlanta area is the second most popular area in the world for film making, doesn’t take anything away from NYC or Chicago. Charlotte being the second biggest banking center doesn’t take away from Atlanta or San Francisco.

This is not a complete city comparison. You won’t find quality of life metrics such as ‘best neighborhoods based on these amenities’ rankings, the number of museums, entertainment facilities or how the parks compare. The scope of this article is to compare population, density, size in square mileage, public transit size and ridership, the number of tall buildings, median household income and poverty. These are the base attributes that most would agree define a city.

Population & Income

Atlanta Charlotte How Charlotte compares to Atlanta
Population (City) 498,044 872,498 1.75 times larger in population
Population Density (City) 3,717 2,827 1.31 times less dense
Population (Metro) 5,949,951 2,569,213 2.31 times smaller in population
Population Density (Metro) 710 803 1.13 times denser
Size in Square Mileage (City) 134 308.6 2.30 times bigger in size
Size in Square Mileage (Metro) 8,376 3,198 2.62 times smaller in size
Median Household Income $51,701 $58,202 11% higher median household income
Persons in Poverty 22.40% 14.90% 67% of Atlanta’s poverty rate
Data from U.S. Census Bureau

Data from U.S. Census Bureau

Data from U.S. Census Bureau

Charlotte boosters can technically say Charlotte is BIGGER than Atlanta in population and size. In fact, the city of Charlotte is 1.75 times larger than the city of Atlanta in population and more than double the size of Atlanta as measured in square miles. There are asterisks though. The first one, Charlotte’s city population is the result of it gobbling up land through annexations over the past two decades. Charlotte’s footprint is almost 175 square miles larger than city of Atlanta’s footprint. If the city of Atlanta were to annex all of unincorporated Dekalb County, which is roughly 150+ square miles. The city of Charlotte would still have about 25 square miles more than Atlanta.

The other asterisk is Atlanta’s metro area is more than twice as large as Charlotte’s metro area. The census defines a metropolitan area as counties of a region where the majority of the working population commutes into the center city. This is a more reliable indicator of dominance than city population alone.

The cities couldn’t be more different in density. The city of Atlanta has almost 1,000 more people per square mile than Charlotte, or 1.3 times more densely populated. I was struck by the Charlotte City Limits sign when we were driving on U.S. 29. The landscape didn’t change it was very rural looking. Metro Atlanta is less dense than metro Charlotte, a respective 710 persons per square mile compared to 803 persons per square mile. With metro Atlanta gobbling much of northern Georgia, consisting of 30 counties, covering an area roughly the size of Massachusetts, it’s not hard to see why Atlanta remains a sprawling monster.

Map of Charlotte Sprawl

Charlotte Urban Density – U.S. Census Bureau

Map of Atlanta Sprawl

Atlanta Urban Density – U.S. Census Bureau (Maps to scale)

So, how does Charlotte compare with Atlanta on transit? Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS), the rebranded Charlotte Transit, became official in 1999. The system has seen growth since then, especially with the recent introduction of light rail and streetcars. Today, CATS carry over 83,000 riders each day (buses, light rail and streetcar), in a system with 32 stations, on 20.4 miles of rail.

In 1979, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) opened heavy rail transit service in Atlanta, giving Atlanta the distinction of being the first city in the deep south to get such service. In 2017, MARTA was the 11th largest transit system (counting all modes of transportation) in North America, based on the number of unlinked trips. Its heavy rail system was the 8th largest in North America based on the number of unlinked trips. Today, MARTA carry 433,000 riders every day (bus, heavy rail and streetcar combined), on 48 miles of rail, with 50 stations.

Data source – American Public Transportation Association

Data source – American Public Transportation Association

Data source – American Public Transportation Association

How Does Charlotte’s Skyline Compare to atlanta’s?

Skyscrapers and city skylines have been a fascination of mine since my first trip to New York City as a small child. Seeing stacks of buildings on Manhattan made an indelible impression and set up my love affair for architecture and city planning. In comparing Charlotte and Atlanta, the number of skyscrapers, skyscraper density and top five tallest will be compared.

The Charlotte skyline has really expanded over the past decade, with gleaming high-rise condos and office buildings sprouting out of the ground like trees. Charlotte’s skyline, while greatly expanded, is still pretty much limited to staying within the uptown area. It makes a great showing when driving on I-277.

Atlanta’s skyline has greatly expanded (and it’s still going) in the last few decades. Growing up, I’d been to Charlotte many more times than Atlanta. I remember thinking as a teenager that Charlotte’s and Atlanta’s skylines were roughly the same in size. Truth set in when I came to Atlanta to attend college. I felt not only Atlanta had way more tall buildings, but it just felt much bigger. The vibe, the pace was electric. I remember feeling like I wasn’t in Georgia, even after nearly a year of living in Atlanta. Let’s see how Charlotte and Atlanta compare in the skyline department.

According to Skyscraperpage.com, Atlanta ranked 51 globally in the number of high-rises, with 357 (considered as buildings 12 floors and higher or 115 feet and higher). Charlotte ranked at 150, with 100 high-rises. These numbers include the high-rises in all sub-markets in each city.

Rank Top 10 Charlotte Buildings Height (Feet) Floors
1 Bank of America Corporate Center 871 60
2 Duke Energy Center 786 54
3 Hearst Tower 659 47
4 One Wells Fargo Center 588 42
5 The Vue 560 51
6 Bank of America Plaza 503 40
7 300 South Tryon 485 25
8 1 Bank of America Center 484 32
9 121 West Trade 462 32
10 Museum Tower Apartments 455 43
Average Height/Floors 585 43

Data source – Skyscraperpage.com

Rank Top 10 Atlanta Buildings Height (Feet) Floors
1 Bank of America Plaza 1,023 55
2 SunTrust Plaza 871 60
3 One Atlantic Center 820 50
4 191 Peachtree Tower 770 50
5 Westin Peachtree Plaza 723 70
6 Georgia-Pacific Tower 697 52
7 Promenade II 691 38
8 AT&T Midtown Center 677 47
9 3344 Peachtree 665 47
10 1180 Peachtree 657 41
Average Height/Floors 759 51

Data source – Skyscraperpage.com

I wondered about high-rise density, or how many high-rises are in a square mile. In order to determine this, I added together business district square mileage in Charlotte (Uptown and South Park) and Atlanta (Downtown, Midtown, and Buckhead). Charlotte’s business districts totaled 7.915 square miles, while Atlanta’s added up to 9.678 square miles. I divided the number of high-rises in each city by the size of the business districts. 

Charlotte – 13 high-rises/square mile

Atlanta – 30 high-rises/square mile

can charlotte catch up or pass atlanta?

Although Charlotte is a rapidly growing city (mainly through annexations) and metro area, it can be aptly called ‘baby Atlanta’. Will it ever catch up to or pass Atlanta in all of these attributes? The only way I see that happening is something catastrophic happening in Atlanta to put the big brakes on growth (a devastating earthquake, war, superstorm, economic collapse of the region, etc.).

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