Atlanta Metro Area Accessibility

Office Parking Lot: Wednesday 1/12/11

We who live and work in the Atlanta metropolitan region had an object lesson in what happens when a major snowstorm hits a southern city: shutdown. You might assume that this has implications for accessibility. You would be right.

The Storm

The snow that hit us on Sunday night put five inches on the ground at my house in the northern suburbs and I’ve seen reports ranging between two and nine, depending on the area. However, the snow wasn’t the big problem. It was the sleet and freezing rain followed by a cold snap in the 20′s that froze everything hard that transformed what might have been a significant winter event into snowpocalypse. Following that with a Monday where temperatures edged into melting territory only to have them plunge overnight—then a Tuesday and Wednesday (so far) where the sun played its important role in slightly melting everything only to have it refreeze after ye olde solar orbe disappeared—we have been presented with a region-wide problem.

The Results

It hasn’t been possible to move about in anything like a normal fashion. MARTA, Cobb County Transit, and Gwinnett County Transit, to cite only a few, didn’t run at all on Monday or Tuesday and with only limited service on Wednesday (MARTA Trains ran a reduced schedule those three days).

Major roads were “passable” on Wednesday but were horrible on Tuesday and death-defying on Monday. Minor roads were in some respects better but in others much, much worse. Suburban subdivisions were almost impassable depending on the terrain and how much sun the roads had received. In fact, many were actually impassable, keeping their residents at home even if they desired to leave. City streets were in similar conditions as crews worked to keep main arteries open with limited equipment and resources.

The Underlying Problem

The whole situation has illustrated something about Altanta and its surrounds that is not as true in other eastern United States metropolitan areas: We are mostly dependent on the automobile as a central driver (no pun intended) of our economy. For example, I live in northeast Cobb County. I work in southwest Gwinnett County. I have a 35 mile one-way commute and I am by no means alone in that distance. On Monday I didn’t think even once that it was possible to make it to work. Tuesday I briefly considered it, but one look at Georgia Navigator convinced me otherwise.

Atlanta, Noon, Snowpocalypse. This was Monday's map but it's representative of Tuesday

If you can’t get to work, or to school, or to the store, then some of the basic transactions that power our economy do not function.

My personal problem was that there were no options for getting to my office outside my car or my bike or my own two legs. This particular storm put the kabosh on any transit option that might have existed, but for the sake of argument let’s postulate a scenario where the snowy/icy conditions were keeping me stuck in my own house1 but that MARTA, Cobb County Transit and Gwinnett County Transit were still operating. There would still be no method for me to get to work unless I caught a ride by car2. It isn’t possible for me to walk a reasonable distance and then catch another tranportation method.

Beyond the Ice Event

This has other not-unreasonable implications for transportation blockage: A year and a half ago we had serious flooding in the region that shut down a lot of the major river crossings of the Chattahoochee. That pinched the options that remained by shoving all the traffic through those chokepoints. There wasn’t any option but to suck it up and sit in traffic for twice as long as normal. Rideshare would have been effective, but my schedule is such that I can’t commit to a particular commutting time. Buses would have been an option, but again see 2 below.

Atlanta is heavily dependent on the single-passenger vehicle. This is obvious yet regarded as inevitable and unchangeable. I agree that there are huge obstacles to making this region more accessible by alternative means of transportation however it’s not impossible to move things in the right direction. We just need to be aware of the challenges and work to overcome them.

We have the privilege of living in one of the least dense metropolitan areas in the United States (census 2000). We’re ranked 18th in population but 64th in population density. This means it’s more expensive to serve the same population with traditional transit options than it would be in New York or San Francisco. And while we’re making efforts to provide better options for cyclists to coexist safely with automobiles, the distances involved for those people (like me) who live in the suburbs preclude a total cycle commute. Also, there are choke points such as river crossings which are auto-centric and cycle-unfriendly. We also have a politcal arrangement in the area which makes it difficult to have central policy making for the metropolitan area as a whole and this is compounded by state politics which, for better or for worse, are focusing more and more on the disparities between the Atlanta region and the rest of the state.

I personally regard one of the bigger problems at the moment as people’s inability to relocate. It’s a down economy with a down housing market; a great time to buy (if you can get a loan) but a bad time to sell. I am planning to practice some of what I preach, assuming we can sell the house for a reasonable amount. We will move ourselves, our cat and our stuff to a place where I will have transit options and I might get to work in Norcoss by 9:00 rather than 11:00. If people voluntarily start placing themselves where the facilities already exist, there will be incentive for policy makers and others to support that activity. On the flip side, if no efforts are made to provide alternative means of transportation, there will be no incentive for people to move. It’s a vicious chicken/egg proposition.

This problem has developed over the long term and will only be solved over the long term. However, long journeys are completed through short steps. Let’s make this region a more accessible place for our kids.

1: With my driveway that is not an impossible occurrence. Jenn’s car won’t leave the garage at least until Saturday, if not Sunday.
2: Not wholly true, but true for all practical purposes. I once did the math to see what it would take for me to get to work by transit. First step: bike or walk 6 miles to catch a bus. Two trains, two buses, and two system transfers later, ending with a one-mile walk/bike, I’d be at work. Time of departure: 6:00 AM. Time of arrival: 11:00 AM. I don’t consider that useful.

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