On Wednesday, Atlanta and its suburbs were brought to their knees by a minor ice storm. Thousands of people were stuck, sitting in vehicles, for as long as 20 hours. The lucky ones found refuge in schools, offices and Home Depots. CNN (based in Atlanta) has been going berserk devoting half their front page to the story with large font headlines asking “How did this happen? Who’s to blame?” … well, fundamentally, those are very easy questions to answer, and it’s not about a lack of snow plows…
The Atlanta area (the central city and many dozens of independent suburbs) has been allowed to sprawl to as much as 100 miles in diameter (almost the size of Los Angeles with a third of the population). Almost none of this sprawl is navigable without a car. Even if you wanted to walk, sidewalks are missing. Transit may technically exist but is far flung and inconvenient. One hour commutes to work are not considered all that unusual. Mix this reality with a little snow and lack of coordination and you get unspeakable gridlock. So that’s how it happened, and that’s why sprawl is to blame.
The coordination problem (explained beautifully by Politico here) is a classic example of what happens when stakeholder management and coordination are lacking. If the city and suburbs had an action plan for communicating coming gridlock they could have at least been able to advise people not to attempt to drive. People would still have been stuck in one place but that would have been preferable to being stuck in their cars. Lesson one is therefore very simple: improve coordination across a disparate organization to ensure your stakeholders get a consistent message in time to avoid disaster.
The second problem is far more complicated and deep seated. Sixty years of cheap oil and cars-only development have given most people only one transportation choice. Any disruption to that single choice, be it snow, or a flood, or a fire, a surge in gasoline prices or an attack by Godzilla can instantly bring the entire metropolitan area to a standstill.
What’s more, the sprawl that Atlanta is infamous for is not a problem unique to Atlanta. It’s a fundamentally unsustainable development pattern that’s been affecting every city in the U.S. for 60 years – though it’s generally more pronounced in the South because most Southern cities’ population booms have happened since the advent of the car. Even without ice storms the result is ever longer commute times, greater fuel consumption, woefully inefficient land use, segregation, real estate bubbles, swaths of abandoned land and just about every other urban ill you can think of. Lesson two is that sprawl is incredibly costly on a good day, a disaster on an ice storm day.
So what can we do with the sprawl we’ve got? Transit options are part of the solution. Case in point – a couple years ago I was in Seattle when a snow and ice storm hit. Seattle ground to a halt just like Atlanta and traffic backed up for miles in all directions. Despite being in a more suburban part of the area, I was able to simply walk to a nearby light rail station and make my way, more or less as scheduled, to the airport, unscathed. Granted, it was a mess, but I don’t recall anyone spending the night in their car.
However, really solving the problem is not as simple as running a bunch of (very expensive) transit lines out to the suburban fringe. We’ve got to begin retrofitting suburbia. In a nutshell this means incentivizing or requiring new development to adhere to basic rules of walkability and transit accessibility. It also means loosening zoning requirements in some areas to allow commercial and residential uses to mix. It means creating bike cooridors and spreading out traffic to more grid-style streets so that all traffic is not funneled to a small number of massive arteries that can clog. It means replacing parking lots with greenspace and usable development. It doesn’t have to cost billions either. Such changes can be slowly phased in over generations and most ultimately result in cost savings to both the private and public sector – not to mention insurance against ice storms.
If you’ve got 20 minutes, Ellen Dunham-Jones’ TED talk sums up the opportunity nicely below:
Meanwhile, in Atlanta and elsewhere, Americans are already rediscovering urban life. However, if the real estate prices in San Francisco and New York make you cringe, you quickly realize that existing urban cores can only take so many more people before most of us are priced back to the ‘burbs. If the suburbs have been nicely retrofitted then this won’t be much of a problem at all. If we fail to act, then we might as well start living in our cars.