Atlanta’s Snowjam Disaster: How Much Was Sprawl to Blame?

More disturbing reports from Atlanta’s epic frozen traffic jam disaster are coming to light today. It’s hard to believe how quickly the situation got out of hand when the region’s freeways got hit with a few inches of snow.

What's the answer Atlanta's traffic nightmare this week? Image: The Casa Curtis

What can prevent the traffic nightmare that occurred in Atlanta this week from happening again? Image: The Casa Curtis

A woman who was trapped in her car for 12 hours on a freeway trying to pick up her kids from school described it this way to the New York Times: “It was like something you would see if they told you the plague broke out and you had to run for your life.”

Historian and journalist Rebecca Burns wrote in Politico Magazine today, “More than 2,000 school children were separated from their parents, and spent the night in buses, police stations, or classrooms.”

With so many lives endangered, or at least disrupted, people are looking for someone — or something — to blame.

But the problem wasn’t just a matter of insufficient snowplows or poorly timed school dismissals. It lay, in part, with a transportation system overly dependent on highways to connect a sprawling region, where jobs and schools are spread thinly around an enormous area, and most people have no choice but to get in a car if they want to get anywhere.

While some point the finger at Georgia Governor Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed for lack of preparedness, Atlanta transit blog MARTA Rocks! says they don’t deserve the blame. After all, Reed and Deal were both major proponents of a transportation ballot issue last summer called T-SPLOST that would have provided the region’s residents with more alternatives to highway travel. Unfortunately, the measure was rejected by 67 percent of the region’s voters in 2012.

MARTA Rocks! writes:

Now we know a rail line to Cumberland [Mall] wouldn’t have been built by yesterday if we passed [T-SPLOST], but we might at least have the reassurance that what happened yesterday may be less and less likely to happen over the years as our transit network and walkability could have expanded.

In her Politico Magazine story, Burns makes the case that a lack of political cohesion and decades of car-based development are at fault. She goes back to the construction of the “Downtown Connector” that now bisects the city, which bulldozed tens of thousands of people out of the heart of Atlanta beginning in the 1950s, “further decreasing the density of the city’s population and triggering more sprawl to the suburbs.”

Burns also laments the failure of the transportation tax measure, saying it illustrates a wider regional problem: the inability to act cooperatively to solve problems. ”This snowstorm underscores the horrible history of suburban sprawl in the United States and the bad political decisions that drive it,” she wrote.

T-SPLOST was supported by a majority of people who live inside Atlanta’s city limits. But these folks, Burns points out, make up only about 500,000 residents in a region of 6 million. Political power — and sheer numbers — lies in the suburbs.

And Atlanta suburbanites have never been big transit supporters. The region’s suburban counties declined to extend MARTA into their backyards when the system was built in the 1970s. As a result, only a small fraction of the regional population is served by rail. And yesterday, the buses that provide patchy service to the suburbs were halted in traffic along with cars.

Burns writes:

If Atlanta, the region, wants to get serious about public safety, its mayors, county officials, and state officials will need to start practicing regionalism instead of paying lip service to it. And whether threatened by a dangerous pandemic, a major catastrophe, or just two inches of snow, we need to have ways to get around—and out of—the city other than by car.

Stranded people slept on the floor of stores throughout Atlanta. Image: Atlanta Journal Constitution

Stranded people slept on the floor of stores throughout Atlanta. Image: Atlanta Journal Constitution

Meanwhile, Columbia University planning professor David King doubts that, going forward, smart growth policies can do much to prevent the next enormous snowjam in Atlanta. He says it would take decades of investment for the Atlanta region to develop a transit system that could make an appreciable change in the way most people move around. He says increased investment in snow plows might perform better in a cost-benefit analysis.

And transit isn’t immune to weather emergencies either, adds Brandon Forby at the Dallas Morning News’ Transportation Blog. He says the Big D experienced some major snow-related backups in 2011, and then again a few months ago, when cold weather idled DART trains.

But the folks at MARTA Rocks! say the status-quo-plus-more-snow-plows solution has been tried before — and it hasn’t made a difference. The writer, like Burns, however, isn’t optimistic that things will change:

Will we learn from this? Not at all. We had a minor version of this in 2011. What did we learn? Increase the number of plows and spreaders from 4 to over 30. This time around we will probably up that number from 30 to 100. And the results will be the same.

Snow is rare in Atlanta, and winter storms aren’t the main reason the region should rethink its transportation and land use patterns. But a disruptive event like this should be a wake-up call. Maybe next time it won’t be a snow problem at all, but some other event that plunges the freeways into chaos. The lesson of the snowjam is that too much reliance on freeways can produce some unexpected and scary outcomes, if suddenly those freeways aren’t performing the way they should.