Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Transportation disaster in Atlanta: how the region's car-centric urbanism is at fault

As a winter storm moves across the South (including here in normally sunny North Carolina) the worst-case-scenario gridlock event that is unfolding in Atlanta this evening shows off a major problem of Atlanta's sprawly urban form. Reports are pouring in of commuters stuck on the icy highways without a place to go, many of them miles upon miles from home. Some have resorted to walking for many hours just to get off the highway.

(Note: Although car-centric cities always have difficulty with adjusting to major winter events, the fact that this is taking place in the deep South adds to the craziness: Atlanta just isn't used to these types of events.)

Now, would Atlanta be having this same level of commuter chaos if the metro area was designed in a more organic, people-focused way? Would this amount of gridlock even take place if the Atlanta region had an effective rail and transit system? (MARTA ain't enough, folks).

I mean, really. Should a couple of inches of snow really be enough to shut down a metropolitan area of 6 million people, and even place some poor souls into life-threatening situations? No, it shouldn't. And yes, I definitely believe that the DOT down there has done a particularly awful job at handling this storm... but I think it's stupid to deny that Atlanta's sprawltacular "urban" form plays a key role in all of this.

Hundreds of thousands of people commute to and from work by the Atlanta highway system. Most of these commutes are at least 30 minutes without traffic. Of course this isn't breaking news; people across the country live far from work (at distances that would be unimaginable before the advent of the automobile). This isn't inherently wrong, either. But the Atlanta area is so car-centric that people are literally stranded without it. Tonight is just more proof of that.

1 comment:

  1. There's more to the story. It wasn't a couple of inches of snow, the problem happened because the roads turned to ice very quickly about half a day earlier than people expected.

    Normally, any hint of snow leads the various school systems to close for the day, which means that students and many parents stay home. So, even with some snow and ice forming on the roads, the chance of gridlock is low.

    The major school systems did not shut down, so parents went to work as usual, expecting to be home before the bad weather hit. When everyone realized that the storm was coming earlier and with a vengeance, everyone left work at once. Not a good set of circumstances.

    All the urban planning in the world cannot help in a region where snow and ice are rare and weather models are fuzzy.