Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Snow in Altanta: Live by the car - die by the car

Dusk falls - roads freeze

You may have seen it in the news.  Or, you may have lived it.  "Two inches of midday snow destroys Atlanta!  Film at 11, and 6 and 7 and 8 and 9..." You'd think General Sherman had come back!  Thousands of people trapped in traffic in their cars for over 18 hours - not moving an inch.  Six mile commutes taking six hours.

The morning after - still not moving

Two inches of snow.  That's all.

How does this even happen? It's really pretty simple. 1-2-3.

1. City not built with robust transportation infrastructure.
2. State not equipped for bad weather.
3. Hidebound bureaucracies - creative solutions not explored

Let's take'em one at a time.

1. City not built with robust transportation infrastructure.

Atlanta grew up and arranged itself around automobiles.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, it's generally how things worked in the second half of the 20th century.  Cars are remarkably flexible.  They go where and when needed.  No schedules to worry about.  No limit to origins and destinations.  No worries about first and last mile of the trip.

The flip side of this is it creates sprawl where there are very few people ever travelling from the same A to the same B at the same time.  Further, while there are lots of common links in all the trips being taken, it's hard to build highway capacity to keep up with growth.  Another way of saying this is, the easier you make it for someone to get from A to B, the more people will show up to make trips that use this link.  Highway planners call this "induced traffic".  Nearly all highway traffic in Atlanta is induced.

Consequently, on a good day, Atlanta has lots off traffic moving between a very diverse set of As and Bs and the common links, like I-285 on the north side, get jammed very easily.

Older cities that grew up along transit lines tend to have high density population clusters arranged linearly along the transit line.  Highways were added to the already-developed corridors and things sprawled out in between, but by-and-large, transport along the corridors is strong and many people use transit regularly - often with short first/last mile trip by car or foot.  Sure, there are lots of people who drive instead of using transit, usually because the transit trip is too complicated, but a nice chunk of them can make their trip using transit if they want to.

Think of the commuter rail lines radiating from Chicago, or the heavy rail transit lines into South Philadelphia and Northeast Philadelphia.  Lots of folk there can make their daily commute by rail, should they desire - and lots do regularly, as well.

So, what happens when snow is predicted?  In transit oriented cities, most earnest workers will go to work, but some will hedge their bet and ride rail transit that day.  They are known as "snowbirds" to regular transit riders (and often scorned for not being "regulars").  It lightens the load on the highways so that when the bad weather hits, the salt trucks can get out and things still move -even if quite slowly.  The trains are packed - they aren't carrying everyone, just enough to ease the burden on the highway.

In Atlanta, most earnest workers drive to work and figure they will be able "bug out" if things get bad.  When things do get bad, they all "bug out" at the same time, creating rush hour, just earlier in the day.  The already heavy highway links bog down and jam up.  Highway planners can tell you that a jammed highway carries less traffic than a free flowing one.  All it takes is an accident here or an overly cautious driver there to create a jam.

That's what happened in Atlanta on Tuesday.  Every major highway jammed up by early afternoon.  Normal flow was down to a trickle. Then it got cold and the roads iced over.  The trickle of flow became zero several places as traffic couldn't negotiate even slight grades.  No flow means no salt trucks.

Game over.

Could Atlanta become more robust?  Maybe.  It would mean developing rail transit into the sprawl and this would serve only a very small number of existing trips.  Remember, Atlanta developed around cars, not trains in the past 50 years.  The transit lines would eventually attract higher density development, but it would be an expensive proposition at the start.

Can it be done?  Yes.  Two recent examples are Washington DC where the Metro was built out into city and suburban sprawl to the point that there are definite corridors with high density business and residential areas along the line.  Los Angeles is, surprisingly, another.  They have developed commuter rail operations along existing rail lines and built heavy and light rail lines to support them.  LA survives and grows even though there is little highway expansion of late. An interesting development in LA is that there are commuters who keep cars at each station they use to do their first/last mile - doing a car - train - car commute each day.

But, you have to want to do it.

2. State not equipped for bad weather.

Georgia has a pretty mild climate.  It's part of what attracts people to the region.  Another attraction is fairly low taxes.  Consequently, Georgia has little snow fighting equipment.  You don't "built the church for Easter Sunday" so, you don't gear up for "once a decade" snow calamities, do you?  Atlanta has just enough salt trucks that, in a day, they can salt all the overpasses on the city streets.  It's about a half dozen trucks.  They can't salt or sand all the roads - they just don't have that kind of capacity - and they don't have the money to go get it.  Is it really a good  idea to buy trucks you'll only use once every other year when your sewers are leaking an water mains are sprouting every day?

The state has more equipment - about 100 trucks - for the largest state this side of the Mississippi.  You'd probably need that amount alone to service just the interstates in Metro Atlanta.  Once again, who pays?  The gas tax can't keep state highway department funded as it is.  If you raised it a couple cents a gallon, you might raise $50-100M a year.  That would buy a few trucks and drivers.  But the voters just nixed one cent sales tax to improve transportation - mostly highways - in the region.  Think they'll do it for snow-fighting equipment?

3. Hidebound bureaucracies - creative solutions not explored

So, the state and city aren't up to the task for these rare snow events.  They just don't have the equipment and manpower.  But, there are thousands of trucks and millions of people in Metro Atlanta.  Maybe they can help.  For starters, the state gov't has rather cozy relationship with highway construction companies - they've done A LOT of business over the years.  These folk have lots of vehicles that could be used for snow fighting.  They have dump trucks that could be fitted with salt spreaders.  They have water trucks for dust control that could be fitted as brine sprayers.  Why not use them?  They can't be out building roads when it's snowing, after all.  All the state would have to do is stockpile enough salt, sand and brine.  That stuff doesn't spoil, so a big stockpile would have little ongoing cost to maintain.

But, there would be contracts to write, performance to measure and logistics to figure out.  None of this is what the state DOT is good at - except signing contracts - to build roads. And, once the snow melts, so does the political will to force something new to happen.

All the politicians have appeared on TV and been forced to "eat a bug" in public - but that can't and won't change much of anything.

So, the next time we have a daytime snow event, guess what's going to happen?

Deja Vu.  All over again.

Live by the car - die by the car.  We wouldn't have it any other way.

P.S. to give an idea of the numbers:

A highway lane can move 2000 vehicles and hour when it's flowing.  So, 5 lane I-85 can do 10,000 commuters an hour.  The METRA commuter rail line parallel to I-55 west of Chicago carries about 30,000 commuter round trips a day (1.3 M riders per month).  The much-talked-about, but never-close-to-funding "Brain Train" from Atlanta to Lawrenceville (and Athens) would have carried 7000 commuter round trips a day.  MARTA carries about 150,000 riders a day (individual fares)

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