Beginning on Tuesday (January 28), Atlanta commuters faced a real problem with snow and cold temperatures. A predicted snow storm rapidly descended on the metro area as a quiet but obnoxious vagabond. Longer term residents can only recall a handful of these snow storms, however as recently as 2011, we’ve seen this before. I wasn’t caught up in that one, but this time my work required me to be away from home and like many others, didn’t get home the first night.
The man I was working for stayed in communication and realized just as I after 4 hours of driving less than half a mile, I wasn’t going to get home. The kind generosity of himself and family invited me to stay overnight with them. Driving to their house wasn’t easy even though it was already past midnight. Arriving into the neighborhood at 1:30 am, I witnessed several cars strewn along the curbs and in some cases into each other. Road ice schools drivers how little contact their car has with terra-firma. Front or four-wheel drive may give drivers an increase in confidence, but it doesn’t register with many that a 1.5 to 2 ton car only has contact with patches resembling the size of 4 mis-shaped coffee cans.
A press conference was held with the mayor of Atlanta and the Governor of Georgia. Along with them were various agency heads including GEMA. The mayor and governor ate a little crow but also tried the blame game, not with each other but they did try hanging one on the “weather man” and “mother nature”. Let’s all be honest with ourselves, the mayor and governor can take some ownership of key elements; announcing an emergency earlier or having enough equipment on the roads, etc.
Additional emergency measures might seem draconian, but the past couple of days indicate more is required. I might suggest, based on weather forecast and prior experience, GEMA should recommend to key city – county – state administrators to enact agreed on emergency procedures. Schools should not have been open on Tuesday. State, county and city non-essential personnel should not go to the office.
The Atlanta metro area had several missed opportunities to reduce congestion before expansive and poorly planned growth in the suburban areas overwhelmed city central. Major roads all come to choke points near or within the city of Atlanta. It’s as if the idea was to create a highway system similar to a child’s active model railroad where all tracks come together at the most obvious choke point. Even on a good day this system can’t handle the flow. When severe weather is part of the mix the results are always unsatisfactory.
I have several ideas which implemented, may help. What can city & state planners do different to prevent and even enhance the economy? First thing I suggest is to examine the obstacles which prevent inter-city cooperation. On a grand scale I know that a mass transit system which effectively reaches into the suburbs could help tremendously. Jobs and our daily activities revolve around the need for personal transportation, Blaming Atlanta for the problem isn’t realistic. I’ve seen mayor Kasim Reed make attempts to work with metropolitan leaders and like his predecessors, no positive gains. I hear those who say, mass transit doesn’t work. OK, tell me a car with one or two people, coordinating the commute with thousands of others at the same time, is a workable alternative. Believe me, I like my car and motorcycle (when I have one) but there are limits to everything including the desire to live in sprawling communities with millions of people all traveling more than 10 miles on average to work. Lets examine Portland Oregon and see if they don’t have some workable mass transit solutions before we express the shared car with more lanes are the answer.
Since Atlanta can’t manage or persuade the entire area to work out the transportation and commuting problems, the challenge falls to the state. State and county emergency personnel including but not limited to law enforcement, need to go to defined zones. For emergencies it may be necessary to prevent all vehicles with 8 or more wheels from entering the city. They should be required to pull over into designated areas outside the surrounding county areas. If they must enter the city only emergency personnel can grant them access. This is only in effect during the declared emergency period. All arterial entrances to I75 – I85 – 400 & the ring road I285 need to have law enforcement or GEMA officials prevent entry until DOT trucks have salted/sanded the road surfaces. Temporary speed limit signs should be posted for max of 35 or 40 mph. These DOT trucks need to run 4 to 5 abreast dispersing the road treatment and after they pass highway entrance ramps, their location information should signal the respective entrance gate keepers to allow vehicles on the highway. If law enforcement are required to relocate because of a call, GEMA personnel should also be used to temporarily allow the first pass of salt trucks.
Drivers should receive heavy fines for driving in emergency lanes. The emergency response and DOT vehicles couldn’t get to where they were needed because of all the people who thought they could make themselves an exception. Towing vehicles need to be on standby as soon as a weather emergency like this is declared. I’m quite sure private enterprise would accept the opportunity to tow designated vehicles which prevent emergency services getting through.
Drivers who block intersections because the light is about to turn red need to be fined on the spot as well. If the intersection can’t be cleared, don’t enter it. Worse yet are the drivers who see you’re not going to enter the intersection so they switch over to your lane knowing the lane won’t be clear once the light turns red.
Drivers need to operate their vehicles within the parameters of its performance. Front wheel drive vehicles work better than rear wheel vehicles with engines in the front but they still have limits. Ice limits all vehicles. You can’t rush up an icy hill because you think it’s the only way you’re going to take it. What if there’s a stalled vehicle or pedestrian on the other side? Will you be able to stop on ice? Corners & curves need to be taken with extreme care because if you wipe out, you’re likely going to block other vehicles. Combine this recklessness with emergency lanes blocked and you have a recipe for disaster.
I’m suggesting there are 3 main problems. If we don’t want to experience this all over again, changes are required. Consider what might happen during a man-made emergency.
- Congestion on roadways is normally too high. Toll lanes don’t help enough. Better mass transit with trains reaching into the suburbs is a good, albeit expensive solution. Right now we hemorrhage millions of dollars each month in lost time and personal transportation costs. Buses are a poor solution but better than nothing. I think light rail and commuter rail solutions are far better.
- Better State, County & Municipality disaster planning. Once the plan is in place, we must have our leadership executing that plan. An effective plan can’t work while we dither at meetings or discussion groups. Present the plan to the community, let them examine it, pass it and execute going forward.
- Better driver behavior. Really people, you can’t blame government for your own responsibilities and you can’t sit in your car yelling at how badly other people are driving. If you don’t think you know how to handle a vehicle well on snow and ice isn’t that the equivalent of an under performing pilot. Who wants to fly with someone with inadequate training and low skills? You say, that’s different because many lives could be at stake! Wake up people, you affect other people when you enter the public thorough-fare. Once you leave your house, apartment, job or recreational site, you have a responsibility to be sure you know how to read traffic, road signs and changing weather. If you don’t know how, get professional training.
All of these ideas typically don’t get followed because they require mature, rational and responsible choices. Problems of this magnitude aren’t a simple blame-game exercise or easy sugar-coated answer.
- Atlanta’s Snowjam Disaster: How Much Was Sprawl to Blame? (DC Streets Blog)
- Atlanta’s snowy traffic nightmare (Hot Air)
- Mayor Kasim Reed Testifies – House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (press release)
- Time for Georgia to fund transit (AJC)
- Governor Deal: I take the blame for slow winter storm response (11 Alive Atlanta)
- 10 Best Cities for Public Transportation (US News & World Report)
- America’s Days Of Dreaming Big Are Over? (Governing E-zine)
- Why Portland’s Mass Transit Rocks (Wired.com E-zine)